The Adventures of Jane’s Sixteen

China – September 2002

Sixteen different people, all with their own tales to tell, merge upon Hong Kong one hot humid September evening to embark on an epic adventure around Mid-Western China. Upon their travels they will come across curious people, different food, the odd dead body, fall in and out of love, and discover the answer to some long-discussed questions, such as : How many DVDs can two Swedes buy in an afternoon? How do you stack shelves in a disco? What do Tibetan Monks do in their spare time? Where exactly is Tibet anyway? What does Chinese home-brew taste like? And just who is Lloyd and why is he a gimp?

Come with us now as we join these Imaginative Travellers in their voyage into the unknown, on the Sichuan Explorer!

Some pictures in this journal were taken by Tom and Mona Ahren, Andrew Heskins, and Kathrin Lüthi.

Stage One Stage Two Stage Three
Day -01: The Way Back
Day 06: Things to do in Chengdu
When you’re Dead (Tired)
Day 16: Tarmac all the Way, She Said
Day 00: It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum!
Day 07: Road to Nowhere
Day 17: The Great Inter-Continental Arm-
Wrestling Championship Cheating Scandal
Day 01: On the Up
Day 08: But I was never a boy scout!
Day 18: The Mighty Qin
Day 02: If it’s Tuesday,
it must be Guangzhou
Day 09: Poor Old Horse
Day 19: Forbidden, not Forgotten
Day 03: I want to ride my bicycle!
Day 10: Halfway to Scotland
Day 20: Anticlimax (Der Anfang Vom Ende)
Day 04: Snip! Snip! Snip!
Day 11: The Road to Hell
Day 20+1: Superman Must Die
Day 05: I flew China SW Airlines
(And lived to tell the tale!)
Day 12: Am I the tourist
or the tourist attraction?
Day 20+2: Return from Civilisation
Day 13: No Swiss Roll for Me
Day 14: Next Stop, Beijing Sheraton!
Day 15: The Secret Life of Monks

Day -01: Saturday 7th September –
The Way Back

Got up c.7am. When forced, it’s amazing how easy I find this if I force myself!! Hee hee!!

Finished packing. Have probably taken too much stuff; even though I’ve hardly brought anything. There’s a lot of bottles and stuff that though small don’t actually pack too well. Plus my walking boots take up a bit too much room. Cleared up my webmails and made sure that everyone knew I was going away.

Went to Birmingham City Centre. Had to buy a few things – got four disposable cameras for the price of two, some shaving gel cos I forgot to bring it I think, a second pair of trousers, and picked up my Chinese currency. Was almost as uninspiring as I thought!

Took the train to International Station; checked in and stuff. My rucksack was oddly defined as being “oversized” so had to be taken to a separate luggage entry place; was asked if there was anything electric in it and buggered if I could remember!!

At the airport, lol something made me laugh; a lady in her 40s/50s came back to her family, smiling, and shouted in a posh kind of voice “oh bugger!”. Her plane was delayed apparently. Then she saw someone she hadn’t seen for a few years and they had a kind of reunion. Cute!

Can’t really remember my flight from Birmingham to Munich, was a bit non-descript. Small aeroplane, nothing too exciting. Had some food on the plane, can’t remember what but I know it wasn’t chicken … !! I didn’t feel at all strange flying out, it didn’t really bother me; I like to travel and in any case I had been looking forward to this for some time. In any case I knew I would be taking the way back before too long.

Spent about three hours in Munich airport. Didn’t do too much; wrote a bit of my story “Louise”, and read a bit. Lots of Yugoslavians were around in the airport, don’t know if they were coming or going or what they were doing there in the first place! They seemed to be a couple of sports teams, I’d guess basketball or volleyball or some such sport like that. Must ask Jelena.

The aeroplane to Hong Kong was much larger, an A340 Airbus. Everything seemed to be in little sections on the plane, rather than it being one whole compartment like on the earlier flight. It was a long flight, some ten hours, so I managed to grab a few snatches of sleep.

The food came relatively late really, just after midnight CET. We had a kind of choice between salmon, and chicken/noodles in chilli. Had the chicken. Chilli it wasn’t lol. We had a starter and a dessert too, although even less memorable than the main course!

There was some “entertainment”; sort of like in-flight radio. Mainly repeated – each “segment” on each channel was repeated every two hours. I flicked between the pop, rock, and oldies channels!

They had a few news and entertainment programs on the TV screens; nothing terribly interesting but they were available in English and German soundtracks. Not Chinese, surprisingly. Made a note of a couple of songs to download when I got back home, that were shown on one of the programs.

They also showed a couple of movies en route; after the food so very late! First up was Spiderman – and I have to say I pretty much slept through it; managed to watch the first twenty minutes but that was about all. The second movie, on much later, was, er, “High Hopes” or something, which I’d never heard of and didn’t look interesting anyway so I listened to the radio!

I did stand up and move about a bit on the flight, I had an aisle seat so I was pretty much OK on that score.

Day 00: Sunday 8th September –
It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum!

“Breakfast” was a sort of omelette, sort of tomato, sort of mushrooms, sort of food really. Was eating it and wondering whether it was better or worse (or closer to real food than) McDonalds. I *think* I decided that McDonalds was better but it was a close-run thing.

I was actually kind of reminded of a “Not the Nine O’Clock News” sketch, a skit of the aeroplane that crashed into the jungle and people had to eat each other to stay alive; the sketch actually had the two survivors confessing that they had to break into the airline food as they’d already eaten the passengers!

We landed in Hong Kong in bright sunshine, pretty much on time at 2.15pm local time, some seven hours ahead of UK time. Getting through immigration and customs was pretty much a breeze! After checking where my rucksack would arrive, I went to the correct carousel, and picked it up fine, no problems.

The only trouble I had was making my way through the airport – I couldn’t find a flippin’ cashpoint at first!! Ended up going into the departures lounge where I found a branch of HSBC bank. I got lost *again* when I tried to make my way out! I had bought a bus ticket from the relevant stall in the airport and I got simple directions to the bus stop, which were also repeated on the back of the bus ticket. Course, silly me, forgot to look at the ticket!! Spent fifteen minutes wandering around the airport before I finally read it!! Anyway I quickly made my way in the correct direction and caught the bus, which came pretty soon after I reached the stop.

It was very hot and humid, so I was glad the bus was air-conditioned. It was a pretty clear ride into Hong Kong centre from the airport, took about maybe 40 minutes, nice scenery, mountains, water, roads and railways, well designed bridges etc. From the edges of Hong Kong there were more tower-block structures, some looked quite poorly maintained and even a bit ‘slummish’.

We glided onto Nathan Street and hit some traffic. The bus guide listed bus stops by number but it seemed that the numbers were one out from the truth, but both the rolling electronic signpost indicator inside the bus and the in-bus announcements gave local hotels as well as the bus stop name and number so there was no danger of missing the stop. After slowly inching our way down the road we finally arrived at Kimberly Road, where I got off, and walked the short distance to the hotel.

It was quite a plush place, air-conditioning (of course), well-dressed doormen, and the like. It was down a street full of restaurants, in fact the smell in the road was kind of odd, a sort of mixture between Chinese food and smog! Anyway I checked in, went to the room, and flaked out! I needed it, I was hot and quite tired from the journey, but at least I’d arrived!

My room was quite nice, double bed, nice bathroom, TV with two Chinese channels, one English channel, and one part-English channel which were all local to Hong Kong, and, for whatever reason, the one and only satellite channel they had was the French channel TV5 Asie!

Nathan Street, Kowloon

After a bit of a rest, and a wander round the local streets, smelling the atmosphere (and buying lots of water!), I went to the hotel bar for a drink, and to wait for this bloke called Andy. He’d posted a message on the forum board of the Imaginative Traveller website, to which I responded. I wasn’t sure he’d turn up; the last message I’d posted agreeing to meet him was on the morning of my departure! Anyway I’d almost finished my beer (San Miguel, for some reason) when he turned up. Have to say he wasn’t at all how I expected him to be; I had imagined him to be a short, half-Chinese bloke but what I got was a big bloke from Barnet, England!!

We had another beer then set out into town to try to find somewhere to eat. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded; back-street places with English menus tended to be more expensive and rather unimaginative, to the extent that you started to believe that the Chinese tended to eat Spaghetti Bolognaise rather than native Chinese food!!! We did eventually find a place though, “Wing Wah” just down the road from the hotel. The set menu of soup and main course was HK$43, cold drink an extra HK$7, which wasn’t too expensive. And it was pretty nice food too!

We then had a wander through the town centre, ended up by the water’s edge overlooking Hong Kong central. All along the waterfront the night sky was lit with bright neon lights on the buildings. Looked kinda cool! The only odd thing was that all the office buildings had the name of the firms on them in big neon letters; only one of them was Chinese! The other signs were all in the English alphabet (even if they weren’t English firms).

Andy’s hotel was on the opposite side of the water so he took the Star Ferry back and I walked back to my hotel.

I noticed something about the TV broadcasts. On the English channels, there were an exceptionally large number of public service information adverts; warnings of legislation, and regulations at workplaces, etc etc. There weren’t so many true adverts.

Day 01: Monday 9th September –
On the Up

Andy had recommended I see the ‘peak’ of Hong Kong, so that’s what I did!

Set off c.10am, and headed down Nathan Road straight to the Star Ferry. Went on the upper deck (HK$2.20), a short ride over the waterway to the centre of Hong Kong but a little bit wild. The journey time was about seven minutes but it was quite a rough journey even so!

Strode quickly through the streets of Hong Kong Central, passing a few surprised tourists, especially since I was walking quite steeply uphill. I was in fact tempted to walk all the way up to the peak but I found the train station and decided against it; taking the train up there seemed a much sensible idea!

One of the tourists I passed along the way caught back up with me again as I reached the station and tried to find the way in. A middle-aged lady, seemingly on her own, friendly, and we started to chat. Her name was Margaret, she was a district nurse working with HIV patients somewhere in Oldham, and she was also doing a tour of China – not the same one though. She was headed up towards Shanghai, and was due to arrive in Beijing about two days after me.

We went up the peak train. The inside reminded me somewhat of an old wooden tram, like Blackpool or Lisbon; and it shuddered a bit, but it made it up. The hill was very steep in places, looking up the track straight ahead the hill seemed almost vertical!

Anyway. The peak tower. Four or five levels high (although we couldn’t find a way to get to the very top, so we stayed on level four). We took a few pictures, although the city was covered in a sort of misty haze. This may well have been as a result of pollution. Then we had a look round the rest of the tower, although to be honest there wasn’t a lot else there. There were a couple of touristy spots (Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe it or Not) but we didn’t do those. Instead we had a drink at a coffee bar and checked e-mails.

View of Hong Kong from the Peak

Eventually we wandered back down the peak train and walked into Central. Maggie and I departed from each other; she had to go in search of a bank. I tried to find the markets area, and after a little walking did eventually (accidentally) find it. Bought lunch in the vicinity; chocolate croissant and a chocolate muffin.

I then came across the “mid-levels escalator”, the longest escalator system in the world – although it’s not one continuous escalator, but broken into many small segments, the whole distance from the bottom to the very top makes it the longest in the world. Of course I went the whole way to the top (stopping to eat lunch near the top), no views or anything as it ends on a built-up residential road, but hey I was only doing it for the ride …

Looked at the map and made my plans for the journey down. It took me along a road called Peel Street, a long but narrow street with a very steep incline. All along either side were food stalls and the smell was pretty strong. It was also pretty busy, there were people everywhere, especially near the bottom as I entered the markets area and the Soho district. I had a quick look around again before I headed for the Star Ferry for the journey back (lower deck, HK$1.70).

Typical city street in Hong Kong market area

My walk back to the hotel took me through Kowloon Park, where I spent half an hour or so looking round at some sculptures. Each one was kind of strange, modern-art-esque representations made from iron or marble. The most interesting was a sculpture of a large iron spider.

And then the tour started. Kinda. Upon entering the hotel I discovered a faxed message waiting for me telling me to meet up at 7pm in the lobby. I had a couple of hours to kill so I just went back into the room and flaked out a bit!

Went down at 7pm, met Jane (tour leader) who directed me to the bar (and what a better place to be?!). A few people had arrived already, including Andy, but everyone. So we all just casually chatted among ourselves as the others slowly trickled in. Not everyone had arrived by the time Jane started her spiel about the tour (which lasted approximately an hour, or two bottles of San Miguel), but they soon caught up once they did – well on the beer, at least!!

So on the tour there’ll be 16 of us, including Jane, our tour leader from Australia. We’ve got three other Englishmen (Andy, Daniel, and Alan), an Irishman (James), two Odettes and a Louise from New Zealand, a middle-aged Swedish couple (Mona & Tom), Radka (an American Czech) Vivian (an American Malaysian), and three Swiss ladies (Kathrin and Valerie who came together, and Mirella, who came on her own and was very surprised to find two other Swiss!! Indeed they all even come from the German part of Switzerland!).

After the beers and the introductions, a few of us went to a sort of Mongolian Barbecue place right near the hotel. The Swedes chose not to eat there so I directed them to the place where me and Andy had eaten yesterday. Anyway this Mongolian restaurant was quite an interesting place; I’ve been to them before in Belfast and Birmingham and this was quite similar (you choose your food, give it to the chefs, and they cook it). The difference between here and the others I’d been to is that here, the chefs don’t cook it in front of you, they do it in the kitchen then someone brings it out to you. A selection of foods were available, including sushi.

The night went on a while, eventually there were only five of us left (Jane, Daniel, Andy, Alan, and myself). Dan and Jane got progressively more drunk as the night went on. We left long after closing time (obviously, being a Tour Leader, Jane would know a few people in restaurants and bars etc, so they’ll be more lenient towards her), and they went off to another bar. I was still a bit tired so I decided to head to bed instead —> it was about 12:30am by this time!

Day 02: Tuesday 10th September –
If it’s Tuesday, it must be Guangzhou

Got up 10am.

We all met up in the lobby of the hotel, to await taxis to take us to the train station. James was waiting for his luggage to arrive; apparently KLM had ‘mislaid’ it somewhere en route. Fortunately for him, just as the taxis were due to leave, his backpack turned up. We knew you were supposed to travel light, but I think that would have been stretching the concept a little too far!

The station was quite big but “cold” – like a modern mainline station in Europe, functional yet bland. We went through customs and immigration at the station without any problems; the train we were on was a non-stop train to Guangzhou East station, in mainland China. We waited in the open-plan waiting area for just under an hour before we boarded the train. There weren’t as many people around as I thought there would have been; it was quite quiet in fact!

It was quite a nice train, a usual Western-style inter-city, plush, comfy, with severe air-conditioning! We even left on time! It seemed to take a while to leave the Hong Kong environs; for maybe an hour we were still going through the tower blocks and road systems of the New Territories. All of a sudden, we slowed to a crawl for a bit, we saw some military personnel, crossed a river, and the whole scene seemed to change. We passed through a grotty station full of Chinese people and lettering; we’d arrived!

The train reached Guangzhou East station after about 1h45mins; I think it was a minute late in fact! After leaving the station, we all piled into two minibuses. It was still very humid. We were driven to a part of the town called “Shamian Island”, a part of the city surrounded by waterways but also what used to be an autonomous colonial sector; a concession. Until the fall of the Emperors, the colonial powers had their embassies here and effectively ruled themselves rather than be ruled from Beijing. Part of this is still in evidence; the US Embassy is located in this area and it’s now the central point for American citizens to adopt Chinese babies. Apart from this small bit of history, there’s not a lot else to the area nowadays; we were just using it as a stopover point.

The minibus ride to the ‘island’ was … interesting; road rules appear to be somewhat similar to those in Paris and Naples – viz. made up on the spot. Minibuses weave between cars, which weave between motorbikes; all three take a liberal view of road markings and traffic signals, vehicles pull out into roads regardless of traffic, great fun is had by all … and I was sitting in the front passenger seat and got a great view of everything!!

We reached Shamian Island after about 20-25 minutes through the centre of Guangzhou. We didn’t have a lot of time there, some people went to look at the markets (where you could see and/or buy animals; cats, dogs, even scorpions! And none of them would probably end up as a pet … !). I, and a few of the others, went to the Bank of China; I had a few HK$ to change (very similar exchange rate but completely different currency!), then we went to a local café to have a bite to eat.

The café wasn’t great, not particularly memorable food and it took a while to reach us. In between ordering and receiving our food it started to rain, quite heavily. It was the first time we’d seen any rain thus far, though while in Hong Kong I did see a news report that a cyclone had hit a part of Eastern China. There had also been floods recently in the centre of the country.

We were to have a long overnight train journey so a few people went to a local 7-11 (popular in the USA; we don’t have them in the UK, I suppose our nearest equivalent would be the “Spar”). I asked them to get me a pot noodle or equivalent. They brought me one back with the instructions and everything in English and Cantonese … except the flavour!! At the time of writing the entry in my book, I still have no idea what it is!!

We had another “interesting” minibus drive to the other station, on the northern side of Guangzhou city centre. This station was much more of a hectic affair; people crowded everywhere and only one small entrance, or so it seemed anyway! In general, upon entry, security are supposed to x-ray your luggage but Jane thought if we just marched through as a group and ignored them (pretend to look like lost tourists !!) then we’d be able to make it through without. She was right!

The inside of the station was just as hectic as the outside; people everywhere, clutter, all very lively. We lurked around for a while in the mess before joining our train.

My ticket was for a bottom bunk. Our part of the train (we were riding “hard sleeper”) was one long train carriage, a walkway along one side and a series of alcoves each with six bunk beds in two storeys of three. There was no doorway or divider between the beds and the walkway, so privacy was non-existent. This led to a social atmosphere. The walkway had seats along it at intervals, so it was easy to sit and chat to people. Every so often (approx. every 10 minutes?) a lady or gentleman would come up the aisle with a trolley of foodstuffs and/or cleaning products. On one of these intervals, Dan bought … something; meat with rice. What the meat was, was never discovered!

Andy surrounded by the Swiss army, but only Kathrin seems happy about it!

Alan had brought these things that only I seemed to like. I’d describe them as being like oxo cubes wrapped in grass; they were small long stick-like things; again not sure exactly what they were.

We set off at 18:30 and surprisingly it got dark very quickly. The lights on the train were due to be switched off at 22:00; this is a feature of Chinese trains and you can’t over-ride it. What you can do, however, is switch off the loud Chinese broadcasts that also accompany the ride. It was like an in-house radio; at times music, at times speech, at times comedy (oh how we laughed !!). The speakers operate in segments on the carriage, so you can switch off in just your little area and everyone else will still be able to hear it.

Each alcove also had a hot water urn, from where people could make tea or fill their pot noodles. I didn’t feel hungry so I didn’t solve my mystery.

Toilets at either end of the carriage were of the squat variety and somewhat precarious to use when the train’s moving wildly on the tracks!!

We chatted for a while until lights out, when the music cut too (and for that we were grateful!). I went to bed, fully clothed, and didn’t feel tired. To be honest I didn’t even try to get to sleep until long after midnight. Too many people, you never know …

Day 03: Wednesday 11th September –
I want to ride my bicycle!

I think we must have hit a cow en route or something!! The lights went on at 4am after we juddered to a sudden halt in the middle of nowhere, and there was a bit of frantic activity amongst the train staff. We stayed stationary for some time – maybe half an hour or so – before starting up very slowly.

You can tell from this that I didn’t get a lot of sleep!! I think I managed to get a total of maybe two hours sleep on a journey of nearly fourteen!! I have to admit that much of my thoughts last night were punctuated by the same image. On Monday night I’d had a really vivid dream about the end of the world in nuclear holocaust (as normal); the British were bombing a Danish town (Brondby – dunno if it’s a real town, I know it’s a real Danish football team!), and I had to get there to rescue the girl literally of my dreams. Of course when I got to where she was working (in a video shop above a burnt-out cafe), I found out that the girl in question was none other than my penpal Kylie! So, while lying in bed on the train, I ended up thinking lots about her again. Oh well.

We reached the city of Guilin around 8am; the station there was just as crowded and hectic as in Guangzhou! We very quickly got into a large minibus that took us all the way to Yangshuo, which took about an hour and a half. The journey was pretty uneventful, and some of the party slept on the bus. I spent most of it chatting to Alan from Liverpool about stuff, whilst going at first through the almost shanty-town suburbs of Guilin, then through the countryside. The scenery was quite weird, full of “karsts” – tall limestone pillars/pinnacles – they looked kinda lunar maybe, and there were lots of them lining the Li River.

We reached Yangshuo mid-morning, checked into the hotel and then had breakfast at one of the many nearby cafe/bars that lined the street. Having said which, chicken fried rice is a most unusual breakfast LOL! The plan for the next few hours was to do a bike ride around the area – ‘an hour’s drive’, which is apparently only a couple of kilometres (I am maybe a tad obsessed with distances rather than times!). I was told however that I shouldn’t walk it!! Meh.

I’d never cycled before; I’ve still never cycled!! I was kinda worried about this sector of the trip! They got their bikes and James had a brief, aborted effort to show me how to ride one! I think that if I’d had half an hour or so then I’d probably have been able to manage reasonably badly. But I didn’t, so I couldn’t! So Jane arranged for me to ride on a motorbike with sidecar seat attachment instead, more expensive (at 50 Yuan as opposed to 10 Yuan) but it was comfortable, easy, and it would get me around!

My driver didn’t speak English (or French!) and I didn’t speak any dialect of Chinese; this caused us no end of amusement on route! Laughter is universal! Anyway, she took me round on back roads through paddy fields (we stopped by one and I saw a small grass snake slither away from me into the grasslands) and let me see the local scenery. It was all very picturesque and quiet, I did feel away from it all.

A fine example of a Karst.

But not for very long. No sooner had I stepped out to admire the view or to take a picture, than hordes of the local population descended on my location desperate to sell me postcards! A stony-faced ignorant and dismissive attitude didn’t work 100% (persistent little buggers) but I managed to refrain from hitting any of them (which wouldn’t have done much for Anglo-Chinese relations!) but I did manage to escape without actually buying anything!

We were headed for “Moon Hill” – a climbable hill whose top was shaped like a crater (apparently). I was first to arrive and had to wait around for the others, next to a tribe of youngsters (maybe children, maybe older) all trying to take money off me! They were however happy enough when I told them the rest of my group were on their way!

After maybe ten minutes they arrived; not all of them though as some had decided they weren’t actually that healthy after all and had gone to a bar en route instead (!). So maybe eight or nine of us ascended Moon Hill – complete with Sherpa-like youngsters selling us water. This however, was seen as a necessary act; it was freakin’ hot and a freakin’ long way!!

We climbed to near the top of Moon Hill up a flight of seemingly never-ending stone stairs worn into the rock! We passed a couple of rock-climbers near the top, not my scene at all though a couple of the others were interested. At this point the hill sort of levelled out, we rested for a while and took pictures. This wasn’t the *very* top, but most of the group decided this was high enough (they were too hot and too tired!). So only me, Alan, and Dan chose to ascend to the very top, up a trail path rather than steps.

The view from the top was pretty good, satellite dishes and distant mist notwithstanding. We could see the whole of the river valley stretching out for miles, and we could see the entrance to the Moon Hill site far below. Down an almost vertical rock cliff, that we decided not to look down too often! There were several different kinds of creature up there, very ornate butterflies for instance (and I profess to not being any good at Natural History), and we kept hearing some grasshopper-like insect all the way up the trail – Dan swore that it was following him!!

After spending some time up there, we descended and made our separate ways to a meeting point on the way back to Yangshuo town; a riverside bar! Almost everyone was there, including those who hadn’t climbed Moon Hill. I couldn’t stay for that long as apparently my motorbike/sidecar had to be returned by 3pm (and it was now 2:40pm). No problem; I didn’t mind anyway as I was far too exhausted to even contemplate a beer!

Went back to the hotel, was intending to go to my room for a shave and freshen up, but as I was collecting my key from reception, Louise appeared at the doorway and said she was in the bar next door having a drink. I hadn’t noticed her at the meeting point; but then I hadn’t not noticed her either! Careless of me!

Seems a lot had happened to the cyclists. I left them behind not long after we’d seen the snake in the grass; apparently not long after that, Vivian had become unwell with heat exhaustion/heatstroke and the rest of the party had become as split as the Fellowship of the Ring!!

Eventually, however, we’d all made it back to the bar in Yangshuo, except Vivian and Radka. Louise was the most worried of the party about them, since she felt she was supposed to have gone back to stay with them (she’d been the last of us to see them); Jane just figured that they’d gone off with a local – Vivian could speak a bit of Chinese.

We chatted a bit about, uhm, stuff; it was suggested that I needed my hair cut. Having already had my hair cut some two to three weeks previously at my regular haunt in Old Hill (although I did figure that, at the time, it wasn’t as short as normal!) I took the view that I didn’t need it cutting, but the group were insistent. Hints were dropped for the rest of the night, mainly by Andy, the Odettes, Jane, and Louise, but eventually I caved in and agreed to it. The clinching argument I suppose was Louise offering to take me ….

We spent the evening having a lovely Chinese banquet on the top of a cafe at the far end of Yangshuo’s street of bars (West Street – also colloquially known as “Foreigner’s Street” owing to the numbers of [western!] tourists who go there). It was nice and warm up there, peaceful, under a starless night (mist or cloud, couldn’t really tell). To one side was a forest with lights that illuminated, giving a kind of eerie effect. We had all kinds of proper Chinese food dishes, washed down with probably too much alcohol. Kathrin brought along a bottle of genuine Rice Wine, 37% and not to everyone’s taste but I quite liked it.

And Vivian and Radka arrived back! Seems they’d done nothing more than sensibly waiting around, resting under shade, and slowly making their way back as best they could. No harm done in the end.

While at the banquet, I made a specifically timed call to my workplace (although it turns out I was actually an hour late!), to see how they were getting on without me. They seemed to be fine but I think they might have thought I was drunk??

We finished the night at what was fast becoming a regular bar for us – “7th Heaven”, about four buildings away from the hotel. One of the waitresses, Betty, was becoming friendly with us in a sort of humorous way; lol we were sure that her and Dan were flirting!

James looks at a girl walking past, and someone squeezes Andy’s balls, while Betty lurks in the background.

Day 04: Thursday 12th September –
Snip! Snip Snip!

Got up c.10am.

I had kinda arranged to meet Louise sometime between 9:30am and 10:30am; she wasn’t around so I planted myself in the bar next door (Jimmy’s), and sat and had breakfast. Louise turned up just after 10:30am and we went to the hairdressers, in a small square at the near end of West Street, in the direction of Moon Hill, and about 30 seconds walk from the Hotel.

Louise herself was going to have something done in the hairdressers but she decided against it in the end. I had my hair cut quite quickly actually by one of the guys in the barbers, but Louise wasn’t satisfied. “Shorter” she insisted! Seems that the first guy wasn’t up to the job in question so his manager took over. Man was he *quick*; he certainly knew what he was doing! I must have only been in there about ten minutes in total! He offered to give me a shave, I declined, but maybe I ought to have taken him up on that offer too! It wouldn’t have been too expensive, the haircut was only 20 Yuan – In Old Hill I’d be paying just over £5 and that’s kinda cheap!

For the next couple of hours me and Louise went shopping down West Street, browsing in many of the stalls that lined either side of the road. Contrary to popular belief we were not holding hands; rumours had already started from the point yesterday that she offered to take me haircutting! She haggled for a couple of friendship-bracelet type things (cotton or wool, with little beads on them), and she bought a few CDs as well. I bought a little Chinese box, initially for Laure as she likes little boxes. Both Louise and Jane said that not all girls liked little boxes and they thus imagined Laure to be a girly-girl!! It does have to be said that it appears that most of the ladies on this trip do seem to be a bit tomboy-ish!!

Yangshuo, West Street.

After going on the Internet for a bit (3 Yuan for 30 minutes), we went our separate ways. I ended up back at a bar, where I stayed for a couple of hours before heading off to have my shave.

While I was walking down the street, something obscure happened. Someone asked me if I was from Yugoslavia! At the time I was wearing my “Target?” t-shirt that I’d bought in Belgrade; it’s the first time anyone had ever recognised it! The guy was also from Belgrade, needless to say (and I assume his girlfriend was too, but she never spoke).

Attempted to have a shave. This was easier said than done; hot water appeared to be at a premium so I had to hang around for a few kettles to boil up. I only went through this rigmarole because my electric razor (which I don’t like and never use) was currently acting on the not working side of temperamental. Oh well. Anyway, my haircut got a generally well-received reception, which was good. Not sure if I like it yet; not even sure if I care! LOL!

After shaving I did a bit of shopping. While out with Louise I’d passed by a stall selling a furry Chinese army hat with flaps and a red star, so I went back and bought it (haggled down from 55 Yuan to 35). I also bought two CDs for uhm 12 Yuan each – “This Mortal Coil” and Donna Lewis’ second album. Not that I knew she had a second album ….

That evening we had a brief introductory lesson to the Mandarin language. Quite interesting but hard to remember everything! Plus it was quite noisy outside at the time and it was very hot inside, making concentration difficult. But we got hand-outs and so we could refer back whenever we needed to. In any case, for the simple things, it wouldn’t be that hard to make ourselves be understood.

We had another Chinese banquet after the lesson, in another of the cafes on the street. The excuse for this one was Kathrin’s birthday; far be it from me to advertise how old she is but she’s the same age as me! :p. We celebrated by having a more unusual dish amongst the menu, freshly cooked snake! And we knew it was freshly cooked as we saw it being killed! The chef let us see the snake beforehand, then chopped its head off with a pair of scissors right before our eyes! As if he was giving a haircut! Cool! Not many of us sampled the snake dishes at the meal, it was mainly me and Andy who devoured it!!

A few of us stayed on for a bit and had a few beers in a cafe, then a few *more* in another one! We got slightly drunk and had strange discussions about future travel, pop music, and the English Royal Family (and yes, I *still* stick by what I said about Princess Diana!!!!). Had a good chat to Louise about holidays, she thinks that if I want to travel, I should; with my house up for rent it shouldn’t be hard.

Got back to the hotel at 3am; we were the last to leave the bar and as we walked back, we say no-one else on the whole of West Street at all! It seems bars and shops only open when there are people there to open for, and close when people stop coming or leave! We found ourselves locked out of the hotel and we had to knock on the door to be let in! Whoops!!

Day 05: Friday 13th September –
I flew China SouthWestern Airways
and survived to tell the tale!!

Got up c.10am. Notice a pattern emerging here?!

Actually, I should have got up at 8am for an optional Tai Chi lesson but meh. I should also have had a Chinese art lesson at 10am but meh to that as well!

Had a slightly off stomach so had a chocolate milk shake and chocolate pancake for breakfast. Chocolate. The cure-all drug of the new century! Then I had a bit of a wander around, didn’t do much else in the morning.

Anyhow. One thing I *did* do was a sort of overview of Chinese cuisine! Five of us (me, Louise, Tom, Mona, and Radka), plus about eight or nine more from a different tour party, basically watched over a Chinese chef cook up some food! And then we ate it! It was actually very useful to see how the meals and a couple of the sauces are made up; mostly with pretty simple ingredients and many different kinds of oils (peanut oil being the preferred one it seems). We also saw a “flavour enhancer”, presumably the notorious MSG (which makes it sound like a Chinese rapper!); it’s like a white powder. A couple of the group had a go at cooking for themselves, under the chef’s watchful eyes. Radka wanted to try cooking the eggplant dish because whenever she tries, she fails. Her conclusion was that in the USA she’s using the wrong kind of eggplant …

Had a wander through Yangshuo main town, it’s like a whole different world! Yangshuo West Street is simply quite fake! Beyond the small waterway, over the bridge, there are no tourists, no bars, it’s real people living real lives, and you don’t get hassled everywhere you turn. I also reached the river and had a walk up and down it, looking out over to the countryside beyond. Yangshuo seems to literally stop at the river, there are no bridges over it that I could see and no real buildings on the other side. You can go on river cruises down it as far as Guilin if you really wanted to, but I suppose the scenery is the same as that we saw on the trip to Moon Hill.

Boating on the River Li.

We left Yangshuo around 7:30pm after Jane gave us a brief overview of Chengdu. The idea is that we really only have a day to see it and it would be a very full day too so we’d better have good plans! We took the minibus to Guilin airport, via Guilin town centre and its Vegas-like neon lights, all very tacky! It was a two-hour bus ride, and along the way we all chatted; maybe I kinda opened out a bit too much to Jane, James, and Dette …

We were talking about love and stuff like that; I was fending off rumours (again) about me and Louise! They thought I had to love myself more and that I was maybe too much of an old-fashioned romantic. I am coming to the conclusion that there’s only one woman in my heart, that deeply, and I’ve never met her …

We reached the airport with only a few moments to spare before check-in closed. Valerie taught me some Tai Chi moves as we looked after the bags while everyone else relieved themselves, and then we checked in. Kathrin had trouble checking-in with her Tai Chi sword, but that was all sorted out in the end I am glad to say.

The one thing that stood out to me about the airport was that all the signs and announcements were in both Chinese and English (bad English sometimes though!); this kind of surprised me as I wouldn’t have expected English to be quite as widespread as that; I’d have imagined that Guilin airport was used primarily by Chinese rather than foreign tourists. It’s not a town you think of when you think China.

The plane was due to leave at 22:45 but, as was generally expected, it was delayed. Whether it’s a feature of all Chinese airports, or just of Guilin we don’t know, but next to the gate waiting zone there was a room whose primary function was to provide entertainment for those with delayed flights. It had two table-tennis tables, several tables for mah-jongg, newspapers, reclining chairs etc. The other interesting thing is that, although there was nothing stopping anyone going in beforehand, no-one was even remotely interested in the area until it was announced that our flight was delayed. Trustworthy lot, the Chinese!! We headed for the table-tennis and, in several turns, we had fun playing doubles. Overall winners seemed to be the partnership of Tom and Mirella (experience and youth LOL). A couple of the others just sat and read, including Louise who kept herself to herself by sitting over in the seats by the gate!

Eventually we boarded the flight, about an hour late. Tom made some knowing comments about it being Friday 13th, and about China’s internal safety record for flights. James called me a cynic for saying similar things!

It was quite a rocky flight, just over an hour and ten minutes. We were given some food en route – just a basic roll, salami-type stuff, bit of cake – not a lot really. I was right at the back of the flight, sitting between Andy and James. In front of us the two Odettes were busy comforting a Chinese girl on her first ever flight, and teaching her to do crosswords, which is apparently more than her boyfriend was doing, and he was only sitting across the aisle from her! It was probably the second roughest landing I’ve had, there once was a flight into Birmingham (KLM I think) that I was certain was going to crash …

Had a half-hour minibus to the hotel, went past a statue of Chairman Mao, looked kinda nice all lit up! Reached the hotel at around 2am; we had to be up around 7am!!

As a side-note, it is interesting that by the time the plane actually took to the air, it had passed midnight; and hence we didn’t actually *fly* until Saturday 14th!! Also, on the plane, the flight announcements were all in English; this was an *internal* flight across China. Maybe it was for our benefit (we were pretty much the only foreigners on board), but the pilot *did* speak good English.

Day 06: Saturday 14th September –
Things to do in Chengdu when you’re dead (tired)

Got up freakin’ early.

Pandas are strange creatures, I’m having difficulty coming to terms with this concept. They’re fully alert from about 6am to maybe 10-11am, then they sleep for most of the rest of the day. I mean, what’s that all about? I am not, and never have been, a morning person.

The bus ride to the Chengdu Panda Research Centre took about thirty minutes, it’s actually a pretty large place but much of it seems to be pretty empty enclosures, and a bird lake.

Anyway. We had a wander around the park for a couple of hours. First up were the red pandas, not really pandas at all but more a kind of racoon – I’ll be the first to admit I’m no biologist so the family hierarchy of the many panda species leaves me a bit cold!

Unfortunately they didn’t seem to be terribly active as we walked past, so we quickly moved on to the true pandas. The first one we really saw was quite happily lying around on his own, eating a bit, playing to the cameras a bit. They are naturally shy creatures but I suppose being looked at by so many tourists makes them come out of their bamboo forest a bit!

Then we went through a kind of maternity ward. Pandas don’t breed with any great voracity; indeed the female panda is only on heat for maybe one or two weeks a year! Early autumn tends to be the time that pandas are born, so we got to see some really young pandas in incubators and being tended to by the research staff! Pandas only tend to raise one child; the maternity ward not only has mother/baby units, but also small units where second babies, rejected by the mother, are raised by human hands.

So, pandas are solitary animals, mate once a year if they can find a mate, and only have one kid. And you wonder why pandas are an endangered species??!?!?!

Finally, we saw pandas at play, a mother and unusually two child pandas, rolling around on a sort of climbing frame, and climbing up and down the trench that lay just beyond the fence below where we were standing. Pandas born and bred in the research centre can sometimes be encouraged to keep more than one cub, though even here it is rare.

Yes, it’s a panda. Go on, say “aaaaaaaaaaahhhh!” Everyone else did!

We looked around the museum/information centre too; although many of the information panels were about five years old, which was a bit of a shame. It was quite interesting nevertheless, as it showed the history of the panda, and told about a panda’s lifestyle and eating habits etc. There was also a bit about the history of the centre itself.

Upon returning to Chengdu City Centre, we stopped off at one of the local Buddhist monasteries (the Wenshu Temple). It wasn’t terribly big, but was quite ornate, with the obligatory Buddhas and the burning of incense. In this part of China there are a lot of monasteries and temples, indicating the influence (and indeed power) that religion has over the people. Although predominantly a Buddhist region, Islam does have some hold here too.

We had lunch there; initially we were going to eat in the slightly expensive tearoom area, but then we decided instead to eat in the cheaper outdoor area. It being Buddhist, the food was purely vegetarian, but, using tofu, the in-house monks create a rather strange food sensation by making it look, feel, and taste similar to whatever it is supposed to represent. Most of us went for the local “Spicy Sichuan Chicken” with rice. All I will say as a result is that maybe the Trades Descriptions Act ought to be enforced in Chinese restaurants up and down the length of the UK. This was real Sichuan food; most people in the group could only manage a few mouthfuls before their taste-buds waved a white flag!! I did manage to eat all mine but then I was noted for my lack of taste … !!

We finished up having tea in the nearby tea garden; 8 Yuan for ‘all you can drink’, they kept coming up and refilling your cup. Flower teas; jasmine and lavender tended to be the most common but also green tea and a few others. Still think it’s quite dull, mind! And I still haven’t got used to their lack of sugar. Oh for a cup of Moroccan mint tea!!

After milling around the hotel for an hour or so, three of us (me, James, and Alan) set off for the statue of Chairman Mao at the centre of Chengdu. James seems to have a socialist obsession – he does seem to have left-wing leanings and he did buy Chairman Mao’s little red book from a stall in Yangshuo … !

It was a reasonable walk, past sports shops (Inter Milan top for £8?!) and the sports stadium (I assume football as it’s pretty big in China), but we eventually made it. The statue overlooks a large grassy square at the intersection of two major thoroughfares. A few local Chinese youngsters came by and wanted to take our photographs!

What you lookin’ at, Mao? You tryin’ to start summat?! I could ‘ave you any day, mate!

Apparently the statue in Chengdu is one of the few remaining Mao statues in China. This is not because of a re-appraisal and dismissal of Mao’s work, it’s more simply and practically to do with advancement and progress. The statues were generally built in prime development land and were taken down to increase opportunities for buildings and commercial structures. Mao himself, being the pragmatist that he was, would probably have appreciated the irony, although one does wonder how he would react if he knew that his statue in Chengdu overlooks a large branch of McDonalds … !!!

A brief but strange point. All the taxis were Citroen AX’s, and were emblazoned in one of two colour schemes. Yellow/bright green, or yellow/sky blue. We never figured out why, nor what the difference was between the two.

We wandered back to the hotel via a branch of Carrefour, that French supermarket chain. One day I hope we have regular Carrefours in England; it is my supermarket of choice in France. (This may well be because Laure doesn’t shop elsewhere very often – we went to a Gèant in Poitiers once but I wasn’t impressed. Merely a Safeway compared to a Sainsbury’s – no contest!) Anyway. It was freakin’ crowded! We actually got lost a couple of times; it’s built on a number of levels and getting from one to another without a map is tricky. Getting *inside* took enough trouble as it was! There were* maps, actually, but they just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense …. ! We bought a few biscuits, long bus journey tomorrow, with the chickens!

We ate in a small but genuine restaurant just across the small side-road from the hotel. We had a variety of local dishes, including “Chicken with chilli and peanuts” (quite spicy), and “Twice-cooked pork”, which is boiled or roasted first, then fried. This is in fact what I often do at home anyway when I’ve cooked a big pork joint that takes me most of the rest of the week to eat! Reminds me, I have all kinds of things to eat in my freezer at home, must do something with them. The general consensus was that this food was the best we’d eaten en route thus far.

The rest of the evening was then spent in a large marquee tent, during a rainstorm, watching a selection of genuine and ethnic Sichuanese theatre!! We had all kinds of entertainments, from “the unique skills of puppets” (where puppets and marionettes danced very technically and expertly), to dancers with ever-changing masks (discussion raged afterwards as to how they’d changed their faces so quickly so often without appearing to do anything! We suspect it might have been through the sly use of pulling cords), to music performances (one person playing this local two-stringed instrument – whose technical name escapes me but hopefully someone will be able to tell me what it was – and making it sound at times ethereal – think Vangelis – and at other times rock – think early Andrew Lloyd Webber! We also got a bit of an ethnic tale of a wife punishing her unfaithful husband which, although performed in Chinese, could easily be watched by us foreigners. It was clear to see what was going on, and while we didn’t understand the words it was easy to get the context and content. Some forms of art traverse the barriers of language.

For 50 Yuan you could have a massage at the sides of the tent while watching the performance. I didn’t, but some of the others (including Radka) did; apparently it felt good but the masseurs pushed down hard on the skin.

As the night went on, I spent an hour or so back at the hotel with a couple of the others, in the “karaoke bar”. No-one sang; in fact we were the only people in there (except for the bartender and his friend). Behind us the videoke screen played the same few songs endlessly, including “This song will go on” by Celine Dion, “Without you” (the bastardised Mariah Carey version), and “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx. Middle of the Road or what?!?!?

Day 07: Sunday 15th September –
Road to Nowhere

Got up freakin’ early again!

Today was our epic nine-hour bus journey; public bus indeed so we’d be sharing with the locals. No chickens though!

There was actually a bit of confusion with regards to seating on the bus; apparently our tickets all had seat numbers on them but Jane pointed out that everyone generally ignored the seat numbers and sat wherever they liked. This in fact turned out not to be the case on this specific bus! We all managed to get a seat in the end approximating where we should have done, but not after a rather bizarre game of musical chairs being played by our group, a handful of rather put-out Chinese, and two Irish backpackers. I ended up with an aisle seat halfway down the bus, next to a rapidly-degenerating Daniel.

The journey passed through the wilds of central Sichuan. There wasn’t a lot to see except some lovely mountain scenery; it reminded me somewhat of the train journey between Ancona and Rome, in Italy. After about four hours, we stopped for lunch at a small village in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, by a nice bend in the Min River. I didn’t eat anything there, I just wandered around and avoided the … thing … that passed itself off as a public toilet!.

View from a Bridge. Toilet not shown.

Going through this countryside it certainly did feel like we were going to nowhere – villages were few and far between, and only some wild antics by other road users reminded us that yes, there would be some kind of civilisation at the end of it!

We arrived in the town of Songpan at around 5pm, surprisingly better than we’d expected to be. The journey hadn’t been as bad as we had imagined. The hotel room was pretty good, if a little cold. I was a bit concerned though at the sound of scampering rats or mice in the air vent ducts … !

Having dumped my electric razor in Chengdu as I found in tests it was only working 20% of the time, I now realised that wasn’t the only thing I’d left there. It suddenly occurred to me upon departure on the bus that I’d left my coat in the wardrobe in the hotel room!! Oh well, no loss, no-one liked my ‘flasher mac’ much anyway and the only thing I’d left in it of any note were three empty plastic bags and what remained from my plane ticket from Guilin to Chengdu! So there is now some Chinese bloke wandering round the streets of Chengdu wearing a grubby mac that reaches down to his feet!

Songpan is essentially one main street with a couple of interesting side-streets. The main street being full of shops and stuff selling Tibetan wares, sweets, etc. While having a wander round, I bumped into the Swiss contingent and went around shopping with them (for some snacks for tomorrow, amongst other things). And, with Kathrin’s help and advice, I bought a Tibetan-style yak’s wool coat for 73 Yuan to replace my mac. It’s not quite big enough but heck it’s warm! Not sure how long it’ll last though!

Day 08: Monday 16th September –
But I was never a boy scout!

Although we’re staying in Songpan for a few nights, we had to check out of the hotel this morning as we’re not staying overnight there tonight! In reality we shouldn’t have to do this since I would imagine that we’ll be in the same rooms when we come back as we’re in now, but just in case, we had to check out.

It wouldn’t be an adventure holiday without doing something adventurous, so …. at least I wasn’t the only one who had never ridden on a horse before!!!

We got saddled up and trotted our way through the town. It felt kinda weird at first, I almost felt like I was going to fall off at any given second! But after a little while, I did start to get more used to it. My main trouble was maintaining a nice balance – it was noted that going up the first hill my centre of balance was quite a bit off, and I did spend much of my time trying to correct that rather than maintaining any real degree of control over the horse. It was hard work but we eventually reached the top of quite a steep hill, where we stopped for a little rest. It was quite a nice view over the nearby countryside, and we did seem pretty high up (though I don’t recall how high).

One of the villages en route.

We walked down the slope on the other side of the hill. The guides we were trekking with suggested that going downhill on the horses was quite dangerous and it was easier if we let the horses ride down on their own.

At the bottom of the hill, over a little ford, we paused in a village for maybe twenty minutes. Village is probably too generous a term – one shop, one toilet, four houses. At the shop one or two people bought drinks; beer and water mainly, but Kathrin had a couple of glasses of barley spirit, which she offered around and yes, I had a glass or two!

Beyond the village we trekked along what appeared to be an endless road; just over an hour of riding down a flat, bendy, road, occasionally passing by a small house or other dwelling. It could be seen that the horses followed some kind of ‘pecking order’, whether this was to do with the horses themselves, of with the confidence of the riders, I couldn’t honestly tell. Jane and Andy were invariably at the front, mine seemed to usually hang towards the rear, which suited me fine. It was evident that my horse had others which it liked to ride near; its favourite place was behind Mirella’s horse! Incidentally, mine was black, hers was white; the other horse which mine preferred was the chestnut-coloured horse ridden by Kathrin. Note I ended up near the Swiss girls again!

Some of the horses were a tad wild; Mona’s and Daniel’s kept veering around and didn’t like to be overtaken that much (though I suspect that some of the eccentricity present in the latter was due to Daniel’s riding!!).

The rear end of Mirella’s horse. My view for two days.

We reached a gate in another small village (slightly more houses in this one, and a small primary school). I hoped we’d reached the end, but alas! no. My horse stopped anyway, refusing to budge for a minute or two before setting off again. After riding uphill slightly on a decent road we eventually reached home base, the place we would be camping for the night. Bags were unloaded and lunch (some filling vegetable stuff) quickly cooked up by the guides.

While the guides set up the tents and prepared for the evening, we rode on up the road to a small country park based around a series of waterfalls, which we could walk around at our leisure. And guess who I ended up walking round with?! LOL!

The park was nicely laid out. The water flowed down progressively larger rapids, and there was a wooden boardwalk alongside the water, which at every rapid branched out into the water so you could get a closer look at every waterfall, and take pictures if you liked. Each branch ended in a nice wooden hut-like structure with benches so you could sit for hours looking at the water. Quite romantic, in other circumstances, I think. The whole park was covered in nice forest; indeed the forest stretched down the hill back to the village by the second gate; our campsite was in a small clearing in the forest.

The walk round the park was good, if a little exhausting – especially the bit where we ventured up next to the main waterfall and were able to effectively stand on the top of it, looking down. Interesting viewpoint. By the time we reached the top, me and Kathrin were pretty tired; Mirella on the other hand was breezing up without a problem! “It’s the altitude.” we figured. “Or the alcohol!”. We didn’t dwell on the fact that we were both 27 years old, while Mirella was still 18. So maybe in reality it was old age!!

At one point on the way down, Kathrin slipped and fell over, nothing serious though (fortunately). Later on came one of those comedic moments where I noticed it was slippy ahead and so I told her to be careful, and she followed my advice perfectly. Unfortunately, I didn’t, so slipped and fell over myself! Embarrassment 1 Pride 0!

It had, by now, started to rain quite heavily, having been dry all day up to that point (indeed when we rested on the hillside with the horses, it was quite bright and even a bit sunny!). The three Swiss girls and I walked out of the park and back to camp, on the way passing a yak herder who wanted to charge us for riding the yak and/or taking a picture of it. Me and Mirella did neither, but Kathrin and Valerie did spend some time with the yak, doing what, we don’t know.

The rest of the evening we stayed round the camp fire, had a bit of food cooked for us by the guides (some kind of vegetable noodle stuff – filling and nice), then we all had a bit of a chat. As the night went on, and darkness fell, there were fewer of us and the chat became a little weirder and driven by alcohol. For the latter half of the evening it was mostly me, Andy, James, Alan, and Dee.

The beer eventually ran out so the guides firstly gave us some barley wine – quite a nice, grape-flavoured spirit – and then some rather potent home-brew stuff in a Sprite bottle that even Kathrin had refused a second sip of!! James, Andy, and Alan finished that off, grudgingly but willingly – “Hold your nose, drink a bit, hold the bottle at arm’s length and swallow quickly without tasting it.” was Andy’s method of handling it. It was excessively strong stuff though; Andy had basically collapsed on the floor by the end and Alan was telling us drunken university tales (“I wouldn’t be telling you this if I was sober”).

We went to bed around 11pm. It felt much later.

Day 09: Tuesday 17th September –
Poor Old Horse

I didn’t really get to sleep much; felt a trifle weird. The bed was made up of “bedding” and a full-length yak coat for a sleeping bag. I kind of wasn’t sleeping in it properly but I was warm enough. I had to use my jumper as a pillow and I kept my own coat on as I slept. My watch was showing that in the middle of the night, the temperature on the ground was 8-9°C. Oh, and one of my walking boots was full of water! (But for some reason, not the other one …)

I was actually one of the first to rise. I was sharing a tent with Jane and the two Odettes; they got up early themselves (though Dee didn’t wake up feeling too well). For maybe half an hour I was the only one of the lads to have emerged! Surprisingly, when the guys did get up, they were feeling pretty well. We began to think that Andy had some kind of bizarre body condition that meant he could drink whatever he liked and by morning his body had managed to find a way to get rid of it all, because he was always surprisingly perky in the mornings no matter what he’d done the night before! The only guy who was having problems was Daniel, but then he’d been feeling pretty bad for the last couple of days anyway. It was almost certainly some kind of exhaustion – he’d been travelling round SE Asia for the whole of the last two months.

Anyhow, after breakfast, we walked back the way we’d initially come the day before, a short way at least, until we arrived at a monastery. Not all of us made it this far; Odette, Mona, Daniel, and James went back by minivan/taxi to Songpan as they weren’t feeling too great.

We had a look around. It was in a fairly bleak location, but even so there were still some locals wandering around the prayer wheels etc. It all seemed fittingly quiet and remote.

One of the buildings in the monastery on the hill.

We had walked to the monastery so the guides could pack up the camping equipment and load the horses. However they met up with us there and we rode back down the hill. It was a loooong horse ride back to the first village we’d stopped at on the way yesterday, it seemed to take forever and I was getting kind of restless, annoyed and a trifle uncomfortable; this was caused in part because my horse had decided that yes, he did have a fifth gear, and having found it wanted to use it for no reason every now and again!!

I made up my mind to *walk* up the big hill instead of riding it; this took a lot of effort but I was a bit quicker than most of the horses, but by the time I reached the top I was pretty exhausted!! On the way up, Mirella overtook me and her horse nearly pushed me down the hill!! I was walking along side it and it sort of pulled out in front of me, leaving me no room so I ended up slipping off the path!! My horse liked her horse so maybe it had a good memory for faces … ?!?

After a bit of a pause to rest and relax, we walked down the hill towards Songpan; again the guides considered the route too dangerous for us to ride, and with good reason too – it was pretty steep and hard enough to walk down as it was! Once at the bottom we started to ride again; there were a couple of minor inclines and declines, including one short steep downhill section that was a little tricky. Then it was simply through the town, although my horse decided to speed up again near the very end and I got a little bit travelsick!!

In all, it was fun to ride, but I was glad to get off. My body ached for a little while every time I got off the horse!

Anyway. I went back into the hotel room (it was the same room as the day before, incidentally!!), and flaked out for a while. I got a couple of text messages on my mobile phone (from my penpals Michelle and Emma), but for some reason couldn’t send replies to them. I decided to seek out the local Internet café and send them e-mails instead!

An example of Songpan architecture. It’s a bridge!.

Didn’t do a lot for the rest of the day; had a wander around Songpan town centre and the backstreets, then flaked out in one of the local cafés – the “Pancake House” – and had a bit of food, but went to bed quite early. Another long day forthcoming!

On a side note, in the café, we met up with the two Irish backpackers we’d come to Songpan with. It turns out that they’re from the same small town as my penpal Val! They didn’t know her personally, but they knew of her. What a small world!

Day 10: Wednesday 18th September –
Halfway to Scotland.

So we were told : “We get our own coach and driver until we reach Lanzhou.” It just made me think of Blake’s 7 – going around in their own transport, independent, a couple of allies here and there but with everyone else out to get them! In our case it’s not Servalan and Travis, it’s a gang of postcard sellers! Or maybe I just think in an obscure way?!

Got up freakin’ early. Again. Jane had warned us previously about the distinct lack of lie-in opportunities in this part of the holiday. This time the destination was the national park of Jiuzhaigou, one of the pristine tourist spots in this part of China, and so popular and well-renowned that the government wants to build an airport there! As it is, there’s a reasonable road network linking it to the rest of the world – it’s only a two hour drive from Songpan. The trouble is, it’s such a big place that we needed to get there early to make the most of the opportunity!

Some of the group didn’t make it – James and Alan weren’t feeling too ill, and Mona and Tom decided that not only did they need a rest, but also that from living in Sweden, they could easily take trips into Norway, and what they’d seen about Jiuzhaigou let them to feel that Norway was very similar. Daniel came though, perhaps surprisingly.

The drive there was pretty uneventful. We stopped about ten minutes before the park entrance, to catch up with breakfast (we’d left too early for the cafés to open), and we had a large bowl of noodles at a roadside halt for only 4 Yuan. You can certainly fill yourself up with cheap food in China! We even got to see the chef making the noodles, a procedure that involves stretching the dough with the fingers, then occasionally banging it on the table.

Anyway. Jiuzhaigou is a pretty big place. We arrived at the front entrance, and bought tickets (total cost of around £24, which includes an all-day bus pass) and “insurance” (they think of everything do the Chinese). When we then came to start our journey round the park we were treated to a fine example of communist employment methodology. One man checked and ripped our park ticket at the start of a line of straight metal channels. At the end of the same channel, not more than five meters away, another guy checked and ripped the bus ticket! Two people doing essentially the same job in the same place!!

We hopped onto one of the many buses and rode it quite a distance. All the way we passed by pretty scenery; lakes, mountains, etc, much of it we were to walk through on our way back. There did seem to be a lot of tourists, or at least tour groups (mostly Chinese) walking along the roads, but we understood that most of them just took buses to certain of the lakes and beauty spots, stopped, took a few pictures, then got back on the buses again.

This proved indeed to be the case for the most part. Where we got off there were one or two tourists, but once we ambled onto the wooden walkways that provide an easy means to wander the park, we were pretty much on our own.

One of the watery parts of Jiuzhaigou.

It reminded me in all somewhat of Scotland, albeit with higher mountains (!). But there were clear blue lakes, lots of trees (the whole park was forested); it was all very scenic and picturesque. We started walking by a lake called “Arrow Bamboo Lake”; all the lakes and waterfalls had pretty scenic names – Panda Lake, Five Flower Lake, Pearl Waterfall, etc.

After a couple of hours we did hit pedestrian traffic. There was one short section between two lakes where we had to brave the road, but even when we went back onto the wooden walkway we were surrounded by what felt like the entire population of China! The walk from the (unfortunately dry) waterfall by Panda Lake up back onto the road was very crowded; this was obviously the most popular section of the park. The reason for the waterfall being dry, and looking somewhat dead, was because of a lack of rain over the previous couple of months. When the rains have come, the lakes are a lot deeper, and the waterfalls faster and more impressive. That’s not to say of course that we missed out on anything; what we saw was very beautiful and impressive enough!

At one part of this busy section, we had the option of dressing up in local costume and being photographed but we declined. Lots of Chinese didn’t! Also Daniel managed to work his charms on some of the tourists and managed to get himself in a few of their own personal photographs. Mostly young Chinese ladies. Hmmmmm …. !!

I appear to have this fetish for waterfalls … :p

We hopped back on the bus just beyond this point and rode down to the “Mill House”, changing buses along the way. We were to have lunch in a sort of touristy village but nothing really caught our fancy; a fixed-menu restaurant wasn’t convenient and surprisingly there were no cafés in the vicinity.

We walked on, on the opposite side of the road this time, past the Mill House itself (complete with prayer-water-wheels, which turned as the water flowed under them!) and alongside more, very clear blue lakes. I imagine they must have been pretty cold. The weather in general was quite mixed – when the sun was out it was pretty hot but when the sun went in it was cool and overcast. But it didn’t rain.

I ended up walking alone for the first half of this section of the journey; the New Zealanders marched on well ahead and everyone else was a distance behind me. I was free to my own thoughts and experiences. It was nice to be alone.

I did however overshoot; the girls ahead went into a toilet en route and re-joined the main party who had stopped for a rest. I only discovered this when I looked back! So I went back to join them. We rested for a little while, then we set off again in dribs and drabs. Vivian and Radka left first, they intended to walk all the way to the main entrance while the rest of us were just walking a couple of miles and picking up a bus again. Everyone else gradually departed, I stayed sitting on the edge of the path until almost everyone had disappeared out of sight, then set off wondering how long it would take before I’d overtaken the lot of them! Yes I *do* walk that quickly!

Then something unexpected and simply wondrous happened. Something I could never have expected, or dreamed of, in a million years. After walking only a very short way I saw someone ahead, waiting for me.


She said she was wondering where I was and wanted to walk with me. I felt honoured, really special, it felt I kind of belonged, in some strange way. We chatted the whole way to the bus stop, through the trees and past the lakes. At times I just wanted to hold her hand but never had the nerve. 🙁

We got the bus back to the entrance, and waited for Radka and Vivian to reappear (energetic sods!). While waiting, we had a bite to eat (a sausage on a stick – literally! Simple, but filling. I also had some local breadstuff), and then we took a very quick look around the park information centre, which was full of technical detail (eg maps of the rock formations in the park and their ages, the population dispersion in the area, things like that).

The journey back to Songpan was a bit more fraught; we seemed to be going constantly uphill for one thing, despite my memories of the journey there not being filled with downhill sections. I also seemed to be developing a cold, and made a mental note to sit by a window that could open for the long journey tomorrow.

Dinner was in the Pancake House again, and it was a traditional Sichuanese hotpot – nicely balanced in a yin/yang way, one side being spicy, the other not. A selection of meats, vegetables, and other obscure stuff was brought in and then we cooked it to taste – a bit like a fondue. All right in theory but Vivian and Radka kinda took control and were stood up virtually the whole meal, putting things into the hotpot at their own whim and with great rapidity, despite our encouragement to slow down! It was pretty filling and good anyway!

Afterwards, the lads did a bit of chopping; Daniel bought himself a snakeskin sword, of all things, this caused a bit of excitement and a desire amongst some others to get a sword for themselves. Kathrin started it all of course, having brought her Tai Chi sword on the train to Guilin! She’d actually left it on the bus to Songpan on Sunday, but she managed to retrieve it the next morning.

Day 11: Thursday 19th September –
The Road To Hell

Strictly speaking, *this* was even more of a “Road to Nowhere” than the journey to Songpan had been, but Jane’s description of this road, her vagueness on the length of journey time, and the relative size of our destination, all made this more than just a journey into the unknown. We were also not prepared for the type of destination we were headed for either.

Early start —> 7ish. No more lie-ins for me it seems. When asked how long the journey to Langmuzi would take, Jane merely shrugged – “Between eight hours and whenever” was her, slightly unhelpful, response. She told us that a previous journey had taken fifteen hours, as the roads had been hellish and very muddy, it had been raining severely and that had basically washed away some of the route! She also pointed out that accidents were common.

With that in mind we gritted our teeth and started the journey. The first couple of hours were pretty bumpy, but the lack of comfort was made up for by some spectacular remote scenery, with streams running alongside high mountains, and as the road rose we could see the whole valleys laid out before us. We hugged the mountains close, and passed by the very occasional farm. Once we reached the top of the East Tibetan Plateau however, things changed slightly.

We passed through a sort of village camp, presumably the meeting place for all the local nomadic people, but then for the rest of the journey the countryside took on a similar quality. High mountains to either side, but a reasonable distance from the road. In between lay flat, bleak, moorland. The road itself invariably disappeared into the distance, often pretty much straight ahead so the next bend was beyond the vanishing point. And no buildings to block the view, except for the very occasional off-road cottage. “Road” itself was probably a compliment; it was a wide line of gravel and stones between the moorland. And rode as such. Comfort was still drinking beer in Songpan, and would not be joining us for this journey.

This was the view for about five hours. The Chinese certainly know how to torture people!

We stopped for lunch in the obscure, Muslim-influenced, ragged, run-down town of Zoige. We found a nice-looking hotel that was serving food, however the toilets were enough to put anyone off eating!! Actually, owing to the nature of the journey thus far, only about half of the group felt well enough to eat anyway!

Just before we arrived in Zoige we passed through another native village. This one was unusual in that I swear it was a ringer for the village of Asterix the Gaul!! Thatched roofed cottages, wood, the style of the houses, there was a kind of rampart running round it – surreal! Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a picture of it. 🙁

The journey beyond Zoige was pretty much the same, except a little higher. I was starting to get a headache brought on by the altitude, and I got the feeling I wasn’t the only person suffering from mild altitude sickness.

We were going up one hill and Radka wanted to stop to take a picture of the view. The bus driver told her that we couldn’t stop while going uphill as there was no guarantee we’d be able to start again! However, approximately fifteen seconds later, we did indeed stop! We got told by a local that there had been some kind of accident on the road ahead and that traffic was tailing back all the way to this hill. We drove up the short distance to the top of the hill, stopped on the crest, and looked out over the scene. Far below us we could see what looked like a crashed lorry, but also a line of other lorries that had stopped off-road for some reason.

This is Daniel at the scene, reporting for Sichuan Radio!

We drove on down the hill, passing by a fair few lorries parked at the side of the road. As we got closer it became clearer as to what had actually happened. One lorry on the way to Zoige had obviously been going too fast round a corner, and had toppled onto its side. Another lorry, going towards Langmusi, had tried to pass the stricken vehicle and had itself then tipped over. Obviously, to right these lorries was going to take some time – they’d have to be unloaded first and no-one had even started doing that! There were plenty of people around, but as would have been the case in the UK, most of them were standing round looking rather than actually doing anything constructive. However, I believe they had to wait for the police to turn up first, and given that the accident was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, that could take some time. The other lorries we’d seen off-roading had been trying to cut off the corner where the crashes had taken place, but because they too were overloaded, they’d got themselves stuck in the boggy ground.

Our bus driver, the indomitable Mr Lee, decided to risk it and go off-road himself. To give himself a chance we all got out, hoping this wouldn’t involve with us pushing the thing! In the event things went pretty well; our bus made it over the grass, and in fact so did a couple of the lorries! We all got back on, and for the next few minutes of driving we passed a long queue of lorries coming the other way. Jane pointed out that these lorries were frequently overloaded, and given the mad way that the Chinese drive, accidents were fairly common, and we should be thankful that it wasn’t raining as then the road is virtually impassable and the lorries get stuck *on* the road never mind off it.

We reached Langmusi in pretty good time, the journey taking a rather acceptable nine hours. (Of course it was only acceptable given the alternatives that could have happened.) It was then that we saw what we had let ourselves in for.

I am sure that there is something quaint about spending three nights in a beautifully-situated, incredibly remote, friendly, mud-filled building site but I have yet to decide what it is. We had to walk the last couple of hundred metres to the hostel because the bus couldn’t drive through the mud. Besides, there was a cement mixer in the way ….

In the hostel we were to share four dorm rooms, four in a room. Originally we were to be in the same combinations as on the horse trek but I had swapped earlier in the day with Louise. I figured she’d rather be with the other antipodeans, and I seemed to get on better with the Swiss girls anyway.

We ate in a café called Leisha’s, virtually the only café in Langmusi and although small, seems to be the favourite haunt for backpackers. Its speciality is the Yak Burger, and it comes in two distinct sizes. I had the “Baby Yak Burger”, which was pretty huge and I just about finished it. Upon seeing the size of it, Alan and Andy were feeling a bit of trepidation. They’d both ordered the “McYak Attack”, a double-sized yak burger. They took its arrival in their stride, Andy with a “no, this is OK, I think I can do this”, and Alan with a more thoughtful, optimistic, naive “if you chew it slowly you can eat more”. On the wall of Leisha’s there is a list of all the people who have taken this so-called Yak Challenge and succeeded. Needless to say, neither Andy’s nor Alan’s name were added to that list!

Alan shows us a YakAttack burger with dread whilst Andy drinks to get over the shock of it!

Langmusi has no street lights. So we had to walk back to the hostel by torchlight, in the dark, through the mud, along some narrow, slippery, walkways (including, at one point, a water pipe!).

And then there were the toilets. Chinese-style, open-plan toilets I can just about stand. I think where some of the group had a problem was either with the primitive flush mechanism (a bucket of water, filled from the “bathroom” next door), the overall dodgy smell caused by a succession of people not wanting to fill the bucket and flushing, and the rather bizarre concept of being potentially overlooked by workmen behind the hostel while you were doing your stuff!

We went to bed around 10pm-ish. While she reading with torchlight, I was amused by the way it looked like the shadow of a snake in the light projected onto the wall from Kathrin’s torch. All four of us then had a bizarre half-hour of Kathrin doing shadow-puppetry just like we had seen in Chengdu. It was the best I’d laughed for a while!

Day 12: Friday 20th September –
Am I the tourist, or the tourist attraction?

Daniel’s foray into the toilet was apparently interrupted by first a workman’s equipment (no, not *that* sort of equipment!), then by the workman himself coming through the window. Whether this is true or not is open to question, but it is true that the toilet was used as an additional workspace, with wires and stuff going across the ceiling! There was a large body of opinion that we spend only two nights here and three in Xiahe, but Jane likes the place so we stayed. * shrugs. It’s a certainly a place to get away from it all, so why not?!

We went to Leisha’s for breakfast in the morning. I had apple pie – Dette had recommended this last night and she was right! Pastry well-cooked and actually tasted of apple, rather than just tasting of pastry.

We took a tour around one of the two monasteries in town. For such a small town to have *two* is interesting, it certainly shows what people consider to be important in this part of the world. These are genuine Tibetan monasteries, with genuine Tibetan monks. Who, like monks everywhere, lead a good, pure, religious life. Well, kind of. As our guide (Karsang) was showing us round, and explaining that the tenet of Tibetan Buddhism was to eliminate desire, and therefore the needs of worldly goods and pleasures, the distinctive sound of a mobile ring tone was heard, and a nearby monk looked somewhat sheepish and slunk off to answer his modern call of nature. I suppose it could have been worse. Karsang and Jane both pointed out that in many monasteries, the monks spend half their time on the Internet, downloading things that show they’ve lost none of their Earthly desires ho hum!

Langmusi looks better from this angle. Most of this is monastery!

The monastery was actually quite interesting. Although each building wasn’t that large, there were quite a number of them, and they were spread out over quite a large area. Most of the buildings had been demolished during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt several years afterwards, when policies had become more “liberal”. This is a common feature of this part of the world; many many ethnic things were destroyed during this time in the effort to Chineseify (and centralise, and control) all aspects of Chinese culture and lifestyle. In more recent times, this process has been reversed somewhat, with the many minorities being given a limited amount of freedom to practice their own beliefs and practices, hence the resurgence of Tibetan Buddhism in this part of China. Needless to say though, the Lama (the head monk and reincarnation of the founder of the monastery) is currently resident in India or Nepal …

Karsang has his finger in many pies – his family run the hostel we’re staying in and the workmen behind it are building a new hotel for him – and after lunch we went to another of his projects. On account of the rather poor schooling system in China, and the fact that state education isn’t free, he’s set up a small school some 30km outside Langmusi, funded purely by donation (and sponsored by our tour operator).

On this and related topics, while we were going round the monastery, I had a couple of chats with Jane and James, and also Karsang. Tai Chi is popular amongst the elderly because it’s free and keeps you fit. Both health and education are expensive, and there appears to be no benefit system; thus the elderly have to try all means possible to stay fit, active, and healthy. In terms of pure communist ideology therefore, we decided that the UK and Ireland were more “Communist” than China, and that the most “Communist” state we could think of was Sweden. Mona and Tom didn’t deny this point.

I also had a chat with Karsang about the nature of Tibet. In Sichuan there is a large minority Tibetan population, and it seems that historically Tibet itself was larger than I imagined. When the Chinese took control of Tibet they altered the boundaries. What is now the Xizang Autonomous Province (what we know as Tibet) is only a small part of what used to be a much larger country. The Tibetans who want independence don’t just claim their rights to Xizang, but also to the entire neighbouring region of Qinghai, and much of Sichuan. Langmusi and Songpan both lie in parts of Sichuan which are claimed by the Tibetans as their territory! Karsang thinks and hopes that Tibetan independence will come, one day, but it might take a while.

Anyway. The school was another rough drive but hey we’re getting used to it now. It lies next to some old, partly-demolished barracks that apparently had been a Chinese village located to house people in the Uranium-mining industry. It’s a very small school, maybe thirty children in total, two teachers and two classrooms, but its slowly expanding.

The kids seemed genuinely pleased to see us. Not in a “please help us, give us money” sort of way but simply in a “coo, foreigners, wa-hey!” sort of way. I had noticed this attitude a lot so far. While people might not necessarily approach you as you walked down the streets, they did look at you, maybe they said “hello”. I guess it was a case that they were surprised to see us, and I suppose they treated us like some kind of tourist attraction. We were admiring them, seeing the way they were, but they too were examining us, seeing how we were. It’s rather odd to think about really!

We spent some time in each of the classrooms. In the first, the kids were learning Chinese – both the characters and the associated pinyin form. In the second, the kids there were learning simple mathematics. A quick word with those standing nearest to me (Kathrin and Jane) confirmed that none of us could actually remember being taught at this basic level, though of course we had been. The children in this school were between six and nine years of age; I presume we learned our basics at a much earlier age.

Then we had playtime with them. Me, Mirella, and Tom (and at times Louise) played a bit of basketball, others played football and skipping. They were only too eager to play with us, they gave us the ball and we let them have it back. One or two of them seemed pretty good at it – as did Tom as a matter of fact! It was fun, but a tad tiring; they’re youngsters and also used to the altitude!!

Eventually we had to leave, but not before a few photos were taken.

And they actually *like* being at school!!

We didn’t go straight back to Langmusi, instead we went about half an hour further, to a series of hot springs – “Tibetan Stew” was Jane’s overview; “Half-naked Tibetans bathing in pools of hot water”. And that’s exactly what it was. Have to say I considered it to be a tad intrusive, but the others were pretty keen on having a look around and the Tibetans themselves were only too keen to encourage us to join in! We declined, despite one or two of us (yes, Vivian, we mean you!) having been initially keen! There were a number of different pools, some in buildings but most just in caves and alcoves in the rock face.

On our way back, some people decided to walk the last couple of miles; I felt lazy and fancied just flaking out in the hostel room. We passed by a broken-down minivan full of backpackers but we couldn’t give them a lift, which was a bit of a shame.

We relaxed in Leisha’s that evening, and Alan shared a Yak Burger with me (he’s learning fast!). Beer was 3Yuan per 640ml bottle but even so I was only having water, the altitude wasn’t doing me much good so beer would not have helped! I went to bed some time after the Swiss girls; this caused some comment when they left before me. Oh yes, the rumour mill had started!! :p

Day 13: Saturday 21st September –
No Swiss Roll for me

Got up after the Swiss girls. I was thus still in bed when they came back! It seems that Kathrin had slipped in the mud and fallen down one of the many trenches in the town. I guess I kind of failed in my responsibility here; I know what I should have done – that was to look after her, take care of her, make sure she was alright etc etc, be seen to be a loving, caring friend. But for whatever reason, I didn’t. I just let her be, I allowed her Swiss comrades to take over. I sat back. I failed her.

She was reasonably OK though; she wasn’t up to any hiking but a trip to Leisha’s for breakfast wasn’t beyond her. I had a reasonably good sliced and mixed egg/potato/onion combo (as recommended by Dette, again!), quite filling and heavy, good for breakfast I think.

I wasn’t sure what to do for the rest of the day, but spending it doing nothing but eating and drinking in Leisha’s didn’t appeal. I took along my bag and had a vague intention to clamber up a mountain, sit at the top, write a bit, and come down a few hours later. Thus I still had my bag in tow as I left the café, and I wandered straight into Radka and Vivian. It was 10:30am.

I spent the next seven and a half hours hiking through the wilds of the local Tibetan mountains, doing things that at times I thought were reasonably impossible. It was quite odd, our journey. We started off going through the monastery we’d visited yesterday, then bearing right towards the hills, rather than going straight on towards a cave and a canyon (Jane and several others were due to go that way in the afternoon). We attempted to follow a couple of trail paths up the mountains but they mostly petered out into the grass.

After an hour or so, we realised we needed to climb up the side of a hill. There was no path up, but we climbed it anyway! We knew people must go up to the top of the hill because we could see a prayer flag fluttering in the wind at the top. However, probably not by using plantlife as steps though! At the top, we met a local cowherd; he guided us across the ridge to a few hilltops beyond. After thanking him with a chocolate chip breadcake, we made our way onwards. We had seen a sort of hut a few mountains away and we decided to head towards it.

We stopped for lunch about 2pm in the shelter of a large rock. From all these mountains we’d gained a lovely, if hazy, view of the town of Langmusi – it’s quite a spread out town, sort of but not quite a five-pointed star, and the two monasteries probably account for half the space of the town!

We spotted an old riverbed to our right going down to town level and the actual river below; we figured if time was pressing then we should come back and take that escape route.

We never did reach the hut, lying just above the snowline; after lunch we climbed the ridge and, er, lost sight of it! No matter. We figured it was now time to drop down. We could either take the “escape route” or we could go down what appeared to be another river bed that dropped into the canyon below, making a nice circular route. We chose to follow the canyon.

It was quite steep in places but we seemed to be going rather well. We couldn’t actually see that far down the canyon because it curved away down and there were rocks in the way but all seemed fine. Then we hit a waterfall.

The thing was, there was a trail to here, and it seemed hard to believe that it would just stop! But we couldn’t walk any further, it was a sheer drop. We clambered up one side of the valley, without a path; it was very steep and quite slippery in places but after a lot of effort we made it to the top. From here we could see the other side of the hill; we could also see a trail alongside the hills on the far side. We clambered down the valley (again with only recourse to plantlife to keep us upright), walked along the ridge beside the canyon, and we knew this canyon joined the main canyon back to the monastery. However, there was no trail going down to this canyon, so once again we had to clamber down a steep gorge very carefully which took us just over 45 minutes. Once we hit the bottom it was easy!

We passed a small nomadic camp (complete with fierce, loud, and fortunately tethered dogs) where we just checked our directions, then wandered down the canyons, eventually arriving at a small pool by the cave in the monastery grounds. We arrived back at the hotel at 6.15pm.

Evening in Leisha’s; I struggled through a Yak burger before going to bed somewhat early. The Swiss girls had a similar idea and everyone in our room was lying in bed by 8.30pm!!

Day 14: Sunday 22nd September –
Next Stop, Beijing Sheraton

Was on the bus at 7am.

We were assured by Jane that this would be the last of the horror bus journeys; although it was 7 hours from Xiahe to Lanzhou she told us it was tarmac all the way. So we set off on the journey to Xiahe in good heart. Some of us were more pleased than others to be leaving “beautiful” Langmusi – “there’s nothing beautiful in Langmusi” said Kathrin.

For the whole of the rest of the day I wanted to tell her that she was wrong and that there was something beautiful in Langmusi, but … oh I don’t know, guess it just didn’t seem worth the hassle. It also didn’t feel comfortable to do so. I don’t know why.

The morning itself was one of those uneventful journeys. We left Sichuan province without so much of a wave goodbye (given the tour was the “Sichuan Explorer” I guess it wasn’t well named as we only actually spent a week in Sichuan!); about the only thing of note when arriving at Xiahe, (apart from noticing the sort of touristy caravan parks just outside the town) was the bizarre fact that it looked like they hadn’t finished building the road yet! It seemed as though the plans, stones and labour were all there, but no-one had really done much about combining them…

On arrival in Xiahe we checked into the hotel. And, for the first time, not all the group had the same type of room! Mona and Tom had what amounted to the honeymoon suite; the lads, and Kathrin/Valerie got the nice rooms with bathroom and western style en-suite toilets, the rest of us got rooms without bathrooms, and with communal toilets (Chinese style, but in cubicles with lockable doors and automated flush system) down the corridor.

This whole matter turned into a bit of light-hearted banter between the girls and the boys; the boys commenting on how bad their rooms were because hot and cold were reversed on the shower, and one of the rooms had a toilet you had to manually flush; the girls were saying that because of their sacrifice they were going to book into the Sheraton in Beijing and let the lads go in the Youth Hostel! This continued all day!

Lunch we had in the restaurant, was reasonably good but nothing special (chicken biryani). The afternoon was pretty much up to our leisure; I had a wander up and down the city street, and I confess to spending over an hour online emailing and catching up with news!!

Xiahe is actually in a quite scenic location, the weather was bright and clear. It is predominantly one main street – shops either side – stretching out for quite some distance. On either side of the town are some quite pretty mountains fairly close by. Going down the main street to the left of the hotel brings you past the Labrang monastery, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries and the most important outside the autonomous Tibet region. Beyond the monastery is the Tibetan quarter of town; the hotel is more in the Muslim/Chinese part of town.

Xiahe from the top of the hotel, shimmering in the sunlight.

We had our evening meal in the “monastery restaurant”. Contrary to what it sounds like, the restaurant wasn’t in the monastery, rather it’s named after it. Again there seemed to only be one cook or stove (like Leisha’s) so getting the food took a while. it was quite nice though!

At one point in the evening I had the surreal situation of being an Englishman seated in China listening to a conversation in Swiss/German on my right and the conversation in Swedish behind me between two Swedes and a couple of Norwegians. I was, not surprisingly, at a loss for words…!

Day 15: Monday 23rd September –
The Secret Life of Monks

I hardly slept last night. I think I went to bed too soon after eating, plus my cold is getting worse.

We did a walking tour of Labrang Monastery this morning; it is actually the only way to go round it. It’s a fully working monastery; this much is fairly self-evident when you see the numbers of monks walking round the main street!

As for restricting the desires of life, I now have this image in my mind of a monk on a motorcycle!

Obviously this monastery was a lot different from the others seen so far. It’s *big*, maybe a thousand or so monks – also a nunnery – a whole building surrounded by large prayer wheels. As has been said, it’s one of the most important Tibetan monasteries. The Lama here isn’t in residence though, revealingly the guide stated that he was in the “Chinese Office” in Lanzhou; some collaboration between the monastery and the government there! It explains how something so large can stay active, also a bit why they cannot expand to pre-1960s levels (3,000 monks and more impressive buildings and walks) – there’s a bit of give and take on all sides.

Our monk guide (Jane thought he had nice arms) was a lot more dedicated than the critical pseudo-revolutionary Karsang! He certainly felt passionate about his job and role, maybe he was getting a touch un-nerved by our resident investigative journalist in disguise (Radka).

The monastery is spread over a fairly wide area, and there’s a lot more to it than Langmusi. You can tell that this is more respected and influential in the size and strength of the buildings (Langmusi’s looks like a country church in comparison!!), and by the value of the ornate fixtures and furnishings -> there’s a lot of money in this place!

Junior Tibetan Monk Olympic Gymnastic Competition!??!

One interesting event in the monastery, we passed through the large main hall. It was dark, and full of monks praying; chanting; in the Tibetan language! When written down it looks a bit like Sanskrit; indeed that’s where the Tibetans got their written language from.

We finished the monastery tour about lunchtime, and, after a bite to eat in the “monastery restaurant” again (hee² you notice just how often we always go to the same old places!!) we formulated afternoon plans. Most of the group were to go to a small village in the sticks; a 2,000 year old mud-walled village of uncertain origins. I decided not to travel, mainly due to my cold -> Jane and the Odettes insisted that I go to bed!

I wandered up to the rooftop terrace and sat and wrote for a bit. After talking to Tom though, it got colder and began to rain a bit. Inside I met Jane, which surprised me as I thought she’d gone to the village. She was going to bed to read, but intended to go shopping later. I still needed to buy souvenirs so asked her to give me a prod when she left.

Stayed in the room, relaxing, for an hour or so, writing and having a lie down. Eventually, Jane did call by, and we went out.

We walked down the main street, passing through many of the shops. Jane bought herself some silk; there was a shade of blue I liked so I bought some myself; gawd knows what to use it for but meh. Jane was going to use hers for cushion covers.

Bought a couple of other things too. Leila wanted something genuinely Tibetan Buddhist; figured she wouldn’t be able to read a book so bought her a red prayer flag and a prayer wheel. The wheel took some hard bargaining (from 75 to 40 Yuan). The quality of wheels were varied, some of them were cheapo things; some were solid wood and cost 200 Yuan! Saw some other bizarre things too; blocks of wood imprinted with Tibetan symbols, varying sizes of Buddha and other Buddhist deities, knives, and other more bizarre things (bow and arrow?!). Also bought a teaspoon, despite Jane saying I wouldn’t find one (this may seem odd in the land of tea, but in fact the Chinese don’t take sugar in their tea!).

Came back to the hotel. Surfed a bit, then we all met in the room just below the rooftop patio again. The others had had a reasonable time at the mud-walled village, although they had a bit of hell getting there – the driver took them on the long route and the roads were a bit poor so they had been jolted about a bit for around an hour longer than they should have been!

We kinda all went our separate ways for food. Unusually then, we didn’t eat at the normal restaurant! After grabbing some more dodgy rice wine (£3/bottle with a picture of some 80s English footballer complete with perm on it – although it was a modern picture of him, we never did find out who he was!), “the lads” went to a place called “Snowland” which was opposite the usual place. It was quite busy, being full of the Intrepid mob. Service was relatively slow; Andy and James had nearly finished when Alan got his, and all three were a distant memory by the time me and Dan got ours! Was nice though.

We got back to the hotel at 11pm and descended on Alan/Dan’s room. We were joined by a couple of the New Zealanders and had a bit of a party. I didn’t stay too long though; still wasn’t feeling so good, so I went to bed about midnight.

Day 16: Tuesday 24th September –
Tarmac all the Way, She Said

Despite the fact the bus was due to leave at 10am, breakfast was a bit of a rushed affair. Despite giving ourselves almost half an hour, and despite us being the only folks in there, I had to wolf down a chocolate pancake and Andy had to eat his brekkie on the bus. I think part of Alan’s never arrived either!

The road out of Xiahe was just as weird as the road in. Although pretty wide, it hadn’t been completed and in parts it was blocked off with concrete so you could only drive own a narrow section of it. We saw people working on it by the roadside but … Jane said it was like this last year and that she had expected it to have been built by now!

On this section out of Xiahe, the driver got stopped in a routine police check. This didn’t happen as often as I had expected it would – but then I suppose we didn’t drive too much down main roads on our trip.

The road was still bumpy and made from stones and gravel even beyond our lunch stop. To be fair, you could tell it was a better quality road, it was a lot more comfy than the road to Langmusi had been, but even so there was still a considerable lack of tarmac!

Lunch was in another roadside noodle place – fairly cheap and very filling. These places seem to do only eight types of dishes; noodles with or without meat, with or without spice, and plain or in soup. Or some combination of the three anyway! But you get a pretty sizeable bowl and it’s very filling and tasty.

The journey to Lanzhou took in total about 7 hours. The second half of the journey was pretty similar to the first half – same kind of scenery, same kind of road. At one point, you could really see them building it; the dust was everywhere. At another, the bridge supports for a huge viaduct were in place, for what seemed to be a motorway heading west from Lanzhou; when that’s in place it should knock a couple of hours off the journey time from Xiahe.

We reached Lanzhou about 5pm-ish, and initially didn’t really know what to do. We had a train to catch at 8:30pm but until then we had free time. We dumped our bags in the local tour office, in the back passage of a large hotel, and had a look around. There was an odd little underground shopping mall under the main square, selling all kinds of naff goods, bags, toiletries, “have your pics scanned here”, and the like, but nothing caught my eye. Had a wander quite a way down a couple of the streets, lots of eateries but not much else.

On my way back, bumped into Jane having a drink, sat with her a bit. She was trying to persuade some elderly male local that I was just a friend, not her brother (or anything else!). They do seem to be quite a curious people.

We went to a local restaurant; everyone else was already there when we arrived. We had a series of local dishes in the now-standard banquet fashion. The big table of lads and Kiwis seemed to have a few problems ordering food, and some food never arrived for them – they had a bit of ours though and liked it (sizzling beef) so we made sure to order it another time.

Lanzhou train station is another of these newly-built ones and consequently does look a bit flash inside and out; clean, metallic (airport-like) with lots of escalators. The train was due to leave at 8:30pm which didn’t give us a lot of time before lights-out on the train, but that didn’t matter.

Aboard, one of the ladies passing down the train had DVD/VCDs and a player, so Andy and Dan decided to get a couple of movies to watch on the train. At 15 Yuan for the hire, 10 Yuan for the movie, reasonably cheap! However, it turns out that speaker hire was an extra 10 Yuan!! Otherwise only one person could hear it through the headphones, with stereo soundtrack in Chinese one ear and English the other!

He got his speakers in the end though, and a few of us got to watch “Black Hawk Down” which is all right if you like war movies! They did get other movies but when that one finished it was after midnight and we figured we ought to go to bed. I was on a top bunk and it was surprisingly comfy.

The movie watching wasn’t 100% simple either; at halfway we had to change CDs but the new one didn’t seem to work! After about 5 minutes and a bit of help from one of the stewardesses though, we got it working!

Day 17: Wednesday 25th September –
The Great Inter-Continental Arm-Wrestling Championship Cheating Scandal

It would appear that all over China, the scene outside the railway stations is always one of mad excitement. For a Westerner, it’s almost akin to being some kind of famous pop star!

Xi’an was no exception. Walk out into the open air and hordes of mad Chinese descend on you. The usual touts were there (taxi? minibus?) but also scores of middle-aged ladies haranguing us to buy maps and, more oddly, wanting our used train tickets. We presume that they use them for something but not even Jane knew what, or why.

We had to wait a few minutes in the car park outside for the minibus to arrive; traffic is as bad here as in most cities we’ve passed through (though the small towns don’t suffer much at all – Yangshuo, Songpan, Langmusi, Xiahe didn’t have much traffic at all). Car ownership seems to be a big city thing – but even so most vehicles in Chengdu seemed either to be taxis or hotel minibuses.

We had to wait a bit in the hotel while our rooms were finished being cleaned; it didn’t take too long though, fortunately. One problem I did have though was that, in a repeat of the Chengdu situation, my door keycard didn’t work, so I had to be let in by the floor staff (and then have to get it changed later).

Finally paid back Kathrin the money I owed her for the coat back in Songpan. Hey I may be late but I always repay my debts LOL (when I remember anyway)! We’ve hardly spoken to each other since Langmusi, which is a bit disappointing. Won’t talk much to her today either as she’s got a friend in Xi’an who she’s going to meet.

After breakfast in the hotel (nice Chinese-style buffet breakfast with all kinds of obscure brekkie items – rice, chopped cabbage, etc.), we had the day essentially free for ourselves. The night before, Jane had given us a brief overview of the town and we all had maps, so we knew what was around.

After a brief rest in my room, I set off for a walk about 11:30am. The first place I headed was the city wall. Lots of cities in China had city walls, however most were removed or destroyed over time; the walls of Xi’an have been kept, and renovated, and it’s now possible to walk or cycle right round the city (it’s about 12km in total).

The Great Wall of, er, Xi’an!

I walked from the East Gate almost all the way to the South Gate. The wall is quite high, but on top it’s wide and flat. You can see quite far from the ramparts; or I imagine you would have been able to before they built high-rise office blocks! Going on the wall costs 10 Yuan. I don’t know if that was per section or if I could have gone right round for 10 Yuan. On the wall it was pretty quiet. I only saw a handful of people for the whole time I was up there, including a couple of cyclists. Occasionally there was a little shop or stall, but other than that it was pretty quiet and peaceful – a far cry from the streets below!

My next destination was the Shanxi History Museum, some two and a half miles south of the wall. Normal people, in this heat, for that distance, at the relative prices, would have got a taxi.

After a fairly substantial walk (!) I reached the museum about 1:30pm. It surprised me to see Dette outside – she was waiting for Louise, and told me that the lads had just gone inside, and that it was good if you liked museums! I passed Louise going out on my way in, she asked me where Dette was!

I did briefly see the lads ahead of me at the start of my visit, but I looked round a lot slower so they were nowhere else to be seen en route.

The museum was built on two levels, each made up of open-plan rooms. In essence there wasn’t a lot to it, but it was fairly big. It documented, with archaeological finds, the history of the region now known as China from prehistoric times to (nominally) the end of the Emperors in the early 1900s, though in fact the last couple of centuries were pretty much glossed over. All the labels were in Chinese and English (with a couple of exceptions), and while all the maps and graphs were in Chinese only, most were pretty self-explanatory. But if I see another piece of stone that’s allegedly a weapon or a piece of jewellery, I will scream!

Spent maybe an hour and a half in there; it was good to get out of the heat outside. But I knew I had to go back out there eventually. I firstly headed a bit further southwest, to quickly look at one of the pagodas in Xi’an, then had a long and pleasant walk back into the city centre, passing through the South Gate on my way.

Got back to the hotel maybe 4:30pm-ish, said “hi” to the two Odettes, and collapsed in the room for a bit!! Stayed there for a couple of hours until it was time for evening meal, and then Jane had “promised” us a disco!

Just beyond the hotel, through the main square / car park, there was a long street in the Muslim quarter. It was a bit like Songpan – narrow, busy, and lined on either side with restaurants. It was to one of these where we went for food; quite a way inside the quarter. Jane had taken groups there before, so although nothing was in English, there was a friendly atmosphere. Jane arranged all the food at the counter – she even remembered the sizzling beef, for which Dette was grateful!!

It was a damn fine meal. Strange things happened; we saw Mirella drink (and I think she even had a smoke!) – not the innocent girl we were led to believe 😉 hee². And we played drinking games; or what would be drinking games if we were drinking (I did have a spot, actually, some of Jane’s vodka. But declined Andy’s Bourbon). Tom came up with one where we all crossed arms and put our palms on the table, so that (eg) between my left and my right hand Tom’s right hand was on the table. Then we had to bang on the table in succession, bang twice to change direction; it all got very mad (with Dee offering additional alternative rules amid the chaos) and by the end Mirella still had both hands on the table so was declared the winner. We also played “Fuzzy Duck” (I cannot contemplate this game without thinking of my ex-penpal Claire Anderson).

Then the fun really started. I don’t recall how it happened, but we somehow got on to arm-wrestling! Andy and Dan must have been keen to show off their muscles or something (!). Anyhow, Dan and one of the waiters sat down to arm-wrestle; within two seconds the waiter had won. Then Andy sat down to try; it took a bit longer and you could tell he was straining, but he too lost fairly quickly. Andy later complained that the waiter was merely playing with him, letting him think he had a chance, toying with him, then “blam”. Dette had a go next, to try to preserve the honour of the tour party and promote womankind. She lasted longer than Dan, but still failed.

So then Alan stepped up to the table. The omens were not looking good. Then … it actually looked like Alan had the upper hand. It was a tense struggle and both players fought hard and gained the advantage, but in the end it was Alan who was victorious.

Hands are joined in battle as an excited Mirella and Ian watch and a nervous Dan fiddles with his betting slip …

A rematch was hastily arranged, on a more central table. By now, there was a reasonable crowd of restaurant workers watching on – I don’t know if the other diners knew what was going on, or what they’d have thought if they did! This second match between Alan and the waiter ended in a bit of controversy, with both players being accused of cheating, of using two hands, of not sitting properly, of using their legs etc. A further match was arranged, but the same accusations flew. There was needle in this competition now!! Alan nominally won overall we think. Then we had one final match – more controversy as Alan’s opponents swapped – having tired himself out he asked another, slightly bigger, waiter to take over. Needless to say, after a bit of a struggle, Alan lost!! Not to worry, we cheered him anyway!

We went from the restaurant to the nightclub, after a discussion about dancing styles; “Shopping Bags” (stand and move arms front and back as if you’re shopping -> the more determined and vigorous version is DVD shopping, as practised by the Swedes!), “Stack the Shelves” (pretend to hold and move boxes from down to a higher shelf), “Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box”, and many more. As far as we could tell though, no-one went on to try this in the disco!

The club was free to get in, and there was a short lift ride to the dancefloor. Drinks were relatively expensive for China (but similar to UK pub/bar prices). I had a bit of a dance but spent most of my time watching the others dance instead. Mirella was the fittest; she was dancing pretty much the whole night! Andy and Jane did try to get me to dance – nooo way! LOL! I think they were getting a tad drunk too!

The club had a large video screen on which they showed a (small) number of videos – Rock DJ (full version!) by Robbie Williams, and surprisingly a selection of Eminem’s. The small screens dotted around showed a different selection of videos, and neither bore any resemblance to the music that was playing!

We got ‘glow in the dark’ bits of plastic, I got green but you could also get red. Looked very nice in the disco light!

At midnight the disco stopped and turned into a sort of cabaret evening; this was our cue to leave. A couple of the others stayed but me, Jane, Mirella, and a couple of others left, via a stall to get some water.

Alan had an interesting experience; a Chinese bloke started to hit on him!! He managed to avoid going back home with him though!

Day 18: Thursday 26th September –
The Mighty Qin

We only spent one night in Xi’an. Though because of the times of arrival and departure, and everything that we did, it felt like longer.

Got up early again. Though not as early as those of us who fancied breakfast. Luggage was collected by the hotel staff (we having left it outside our rooms) and held downstairs in a big net. We would be coming back to collect it.

We were off to see the Terracotta Warriors, which probably would have been counted amongst the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World had the Greeks known about it at the time! They were designed by (made to order for) the Emperor Qin, for his tomb. However he died (207 BC) before all the warriors were finished, and the local populous didn’t feel the desire to complete their work! Although only Emperor of China for a short time (221-207 BC), his rule was achieved by conquering/subjugating most of the other Chinese kingdoms, thus effectively uniting China for the first time. His legacy thus continues to this day – a sort of Chinese ‘King Alfred’! Qin is also responsible for the original development of the Great Wall of China, so with hindsight he’s one of the most important Chinese emperors ever – especially for tourism purposes!!

For historians and archaeologists, the interesting thing about the warriors is their individuality. Each warrior is different, and represents a real warrior in Qin’s army. However, not all of the warriors are ethnic Chinese! There are Mongols, other East Asians, even the occasional Arab! Proving that the Arabs and Chinese had some contact even all those years ago. As a comparison, the Roman Empire at this time consisted of most of Italy and not a lot else.

We went by coach to the tomb site, complete with local guide, a 27-year-old guy who, while being friendly, was also loud! He didn’t stop talking through the whole journey (an hour and a half, or thereabouts). A couple of people at the back ignored him, and went to sleep, but people like Radka were interested, and asking questions (as always).

Quite a dull journey really, quite flat countryside, and pretty good roads. Which made a change, after the roads we’d been on previously. We reached the site about 9:30am, slightly later than we intended but still early enough to avoid the vast crowds!

Off the bus and into the mad throng of street vendors (well, after buying our tickets anyway). We passed through them quite quickly – we could always buy some stuff later.

The site is divided up into several sections, or pits. The vast bulk of the discovered warriors are in pit 1; the other two open pits are still being developed (one represents the command centre! It is that detailed!). There is a pit 4 and pit 5 but they’re not open yet. Even in pit 1 they haven’t even got halfway yet! Pit 1 is enclosed in a huge room – a bit like an aircraft hangar in terms of shape and style. There is some natural light allowed to come through windows, but the room is so vast that it’s still quite dark – you’d have thought this was to protect the warriors but they’ve already faded so it probably doesn’t make that much difference. Originally painted in multi-colours, they have all now faded to grey.

The Terracotta Army. Several thousand warriors who never need a toilet break.

Recreating these warriors is a vast job; as of some estimated 8,000 individual statues, they have recovered only 3,000. It’s not simply a case of finding them either; they are broken and the archaeologists have to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. You can see that some bits have been lost forever. You might think that this was because of the sheer time between then and now, but no! Most of the warriors were smashed up some ten years after Qin’s death by a gang of rebels in the civil war that followed!

We had a look round pit 1, then the smaller pits (3, then 2). In the latter two pits there is much less to see, they are smaller areas and are very much still “work in progress”. The archaeologists work on them during the night when there is a lot less noise and a lot less disturbance and distraction from tourists.

We watched a small film beforehand at the complex, a small 360° Imax effort. Quite well done though; it was all about the emperor Qin, what he did, and the history of the warriors. They were discovered in the 1970s completely accidentally by farmers digging a well!

We stayed most of the morning at the site, and we finished by going round the museum (which really wasn’t that memorable!), then briefly passed through a bit of an art gallery (paintings of almost Mongol looking people doing sport painted in an artistic way) before wandering past the vendors on the way back to the coach. At some point Dan and Louise disappeared on ahead – cue more gossip and disappointment in my mind! (Even still, maybe I had something for her.)

Passing through the vendors I saw thimbles!! My mother collects thimbles and I had wanted to get her a couple from China. Jane thought this would be nearly impossible. In the confusion wrought by Dan and Louise’s departure (ie we couldn’t find them!), I managed to slip away and start to haggle. Managed to get her down from over 100 Yuan for two, to around 70 Yuan.

I think they must have thought that I’d go lost; Jane came back to see where I was. Seems the missing duet had already made it to the bus so I was the last one left! Whoops … hey it took a while to get the right price!!

The journey back was considerably quieter than the journey there. It was also longer. Again the New Zealanders took the opportunity to have some kip … we got stuck in traffic coming into Xi’an town centre and it took almost an hour longer than the journey out!

We had about two to three hours to spend in Xi’an before we had to meet up for the bus to the station (get another overnight train!). I had a wander round the Muslim area where we had had food the night before; bumped into the Swedes who had had lunch in a small noodle place where we had seen the chef banging noodles the night before. After a filling 5 Yuan bowl I was ready to see the mosque.

On the way I bumped into Radka and Vivien, so we explored the back streets together. Narrow, with food stalls on either side – it’s hard to get away from it in China! They bought some bread snacks for the journey and we tried to find this Chinese-style mosque that Xi’an is famous for. Although we got lost on the way (bad signage, honest!!) we found it eventually – down an indoor mall of souvenir stalls in typically touristy fashion (cf Yangshuo, only a corridor not a road). I did buy Mao’s Little Red Book – should have got one in French for Laure maybe?

The mosque was strange. Obviously living in Birmingham, I am used to the Islamic style – one of the biggest mosques in Britain is just off the Middle Ring Road, it’s traditionally styled and impressive as you go past. This mosque in Xi’an, er, wasn’t LOL. It looked not a little like an ornate garden, could imagine trellises of hanging ivy all around. It was, basically, a Chinese building that just happened to be used for Muslim worship. The only indication of its use, if you didn’t know beforehand, is that on many of the doorways and overhanging wooden bars, there are inscriptions in the Arabic script.

Vivien and Radka posing in the Chinese mosque at Xi’an.

Anyhow. We wandered back to the hotel; supposed to meet at 4pm, got back quarter to and saw half the group just leaving in a minivan! We hung round the hotel lobby for maybe 45 minutes to an hour waiting for it to return – traffic was apparently horrendous! We had the “treat” of watching Dan singing and dancing softly to himself to his headphones. Certainly a lively soul, if a bit mad.

Eventually made it to the station, avoided the X-ray machines for the third time (!) and waited for the train, in a station that was just as typically hectic as the others. We had to walk a bit along the platform when the train got in (the other two trains, our carriage was right at the entrance). It was quite crowded – obviously mostly Chinese (we’d seen very few Europeans on any of the trains! Two backpacking Finns had passed us on one train, and on the train to Xi’an Dan had found another tour group, but otherwise it was mainly locals). It turns out I’m sharing my 6-bed compartment with a little kid – whose favourite pastime in the early part of the journey was to hide behind the corners of the bed then pop his head out, look round, say “hello”, and disappear before we had a chance to see him. He mainly did this at Tom … he was sleeping in the bottom bunk of the three I was on top of. (Dee told me later that he was screaming much of the night – didn’t hear a thing. Evidentially, once asleep, I’m a heavy sleeper!)

There were no DVDs to be seen on this train either, seems that all trains have different things offered.

Before night fell, we passed through some interesting scenery, including by some caves that are still used for habitation. Wonder what the Council Tax would be on them?!

Day 19: Friday 27th September –
Forbidden not Forgotten

Arrived quite early in Beijing; 8am or so, at Beijing West Station. Apparently the biggest railway station in Asia. I would say that it’s not particularly central, but Beijing city is very spread out so not very much is close to the ‘centre’ anyway!! It did take us a while to get through the station – occasionally we were harassed by minibus drivers but Jane had already arranged ours.

Our hotel was on the South side of the city, and it took maybe 45 minutes to get there. Traffic wasn’t as bad as in Xi’an (but we did see one tailback on the opposite side of the road on one of the ring roads). Most of the vehicles were taxis or minibuses/minivans. Our hotel was the “Tiantan Hotel”, which was relatively close to the building and gardens of the same name (viz. ‘Temple of Peace’).

Just as in Xi’an, we arrived at our hotel before the rooms were ready. We lurked about a bit on the ground floor, and saw an “incident”. Some bloke (light brown jacket, white socks, natch) was having some kind of dispute with a security guard. We thought nothing of it, but then he started to walk out the doors, before breaking into a run as the security guard chased after him! We never found out what that was all about, but 20 minutes later the guard came back, not empty-handed lol! Chinese efficiency and determination, you *will* not escape!

We waited outside our rooms for a bit; the Odettes gave me some really good Chinese bread. Mine was one of the last rooms to be cleaned, which was a little frustrating but meh what can you do? Eventually, over an hour after we arrived, I could stop to rest.

But not for long. Today was another early start, although we weren’t going too far; a relatively short taxi ride to the centre of Beijing – Tiananmen Square (‘The Gate of Heavenly Peace’). I had a bizarre feeling about this; this was my 20th day in Asia, yet the concept of being in Tiananmen Square really made me think, for the first time, yes, here I was in China; I’m really here!

We went there by taxi through the rather busy streets in between, and got out by an old railway station (now a shopping mall) just beyond a road to the South of the square. There were a couple of souvenir-type shops around, but all we bought was water (it was a very warm, clear morning). Daniel and Dette and a couple of others brought out breakfast from McDonalds!

We crossed the main road through an underpass and stepped out onto the square. It’s so big though that it really doesn’t look like one square; it looks like a normal road – but pedestrianised! There are a number of gates on the square, each with a different symbolic role – one however was removed to make way for Chairman Mao’s mausoleum (surprisingly not called the MAOsoleum!). The square was full of people, very busy thoroughfare. As we walked along it, the buildings of the forbidden city grew ahead of us.

We stopped on the square for a rest. It really is a lot bigger than it seems on TV etc. We decided to take advantage of the small queue and go and see Chairman Mao (usually apparently you can end up queuing for over an hour!!). We didn’t go in as a group – some didn’t go in at all – I ended up with Alan and James again. Some people bought some flowers (lilies) from outside. When we got inside, the opening room had a large statue of Mao and two doors beyond either side of him – our queue filled through both of them, as directed by two guards. Those who had brought flowers were allowed to place them at the foot of the statue.

Then we filed through the doors and passed the body itself. We weren’t allowed to stop, unfortunately, so we only saw one side of him, and pretty quickly at that! He’s smaller than I imagined him to be, with a bit of a waxy complexion (he looks like he’d had one too many face-lifts!); oh and he’s also a fat bastard!! But he’s still very popular – the sheer numbers of people queuing up to see him is testament to that.

Beyond the body was the exit hall, where it was possible to buy all kinds of Mao memorabilia. We decided not to, and wandered back to where the group was. Oh yeh, one other point – we weren’t allowed to take anything into the mausoleum, no cameras, bags, or bottles.

We took a few photos on Tiananmen Square before heading down another underpass to enter the Forbidden City.

Most of the Group in Tiananmen Square. But those Chinese tourists get everywhere, don’t they?!

We went round the Forbidden City at our own pace; all semblance of group activity went out the window! Headphones were available so you could listen to a spoken tour as you went around – many languages (but not Swedish!). The English language tour (indicated on the wall of the office with an American flag gnash growl) was narrated by Roger Moore, a fact later sarcastically alluded to at various points by Daniel.

What a couple of them did -> a sort of Anglo-New Zealand cost-cutting exercise, was hire one spoken Roger Moore guide, and one of the group would listen and sum up to the others what it was all about. This is because Roger cost 60 Yuan and the entrance fee was only 40 Yuan!

Interesting place, especially given its raison d’etre! The first area, plus the entrance, is a wide courtyard that was used in older times as a sort of pseudo-market-square. It provided the nearest outlet for the ladies of the court to recreate the concept of ‘the outside world’. The ‘Forbidden’ aspect of the city thus worked both ways. It was forbidden, without prior and very special consent, for an outsider to enter the gates of the city, still less the inner chambers. However, it was equally as forbidden for those living within to go outside of the city.

The inhabitants of the city were the Emperor, his wife and family, his harem of courtly ladies, the eunuchs that served them, and other courtly personnel. The South end was given to the Emperor, while his wife etc. had the North end, and entered by the less significant North Gate. I guess it must have been quite a boring and lonely life, although a big place it wasn’t the world so I imagine you would get bored easily.

Or maybe not, given the demise of one or two of the Emperors; one of whom, we are reliably informed by Roger, left around 30 children, some 28 of them mothered by harem girls; another died ‘in the act’. You can imagine Roger’s eyebrows flittering at that one! :p

Although we could pass through the Forbidden City, the buildings inside were closed – we could peer through the doors or the many windows to see what lay inside, but we couldn’t actually go in to see for ourselves, which was a bit of a shame. They are mostly of a similar style outside, but each has little tweaks to make them all unique – from small iron statues at the roof edge, to a long (20-30 metres) length of marble, transported to the city in one piece from the stonemason some 35 miles out of town, by sliding it along iced roads!

Typical Forbidden City detached property, spacious, good interior decor, on busy street, close to local amenities …

At the far North end of the City is a small park, complete with ‘mountain’, a small stone block, maybe 30 feet high, requested by one of the emperors to remind him of the world outside – so he could pretend to climb the mountains in his country and, at the top, look out across his empire.

We spent a couple of hours in the City, looking round, sometimes in a group, sometimes not. By the end though, we’d all kind of broken up. Several of the others were going to head for the flea markets in the eastern part of the city, I decided to walk North, towards the Hutong area. And yes, I did walk; at the time I’d got bothered by bike/sidecar operators I didn’t actually know where I wanted to go. After a bit of indecision, I headed North.

I walked down a couple of long streets, at first tree-lined and residential, but then more shopping streets. I passed over a nice waterway, leading to a sort of harbour, although deserted it was all nicely decorated with flags and stuff.

I reached the Hutong area after some time. It’s hard to believe that somewhere as different as this is only two miles from central Beijing. These Hutongs are the remnants of the old residential parts of the city, originally found all over Beijing but now there are only scattered pockets left; the largest of which is on the North side of the city centre. They are an area of narrow streets and alleyways, downbeat housing in cramped areas, traditionally Chinese. The government has been trying to remove them for years, and get everyone to live in normal (high-rise?) housing, but in doing so it has made the Hutongs themselves into a tourist attraction (‘oh look, how quaint!’). It has to be said they were quite quiet while I was there! It must be easy to get lost in them, they’re full of little streets, blind curves, and dead ends!

Walked back to the hotel. This was probably an impressive achievement; fortunately it had cooled down quite considerably from the morning (still hot though!). It was about 6-7 miles, and I was quite dead at the end of it (having already walked a fair way – the Forbidden City itself must have been 1½ miles long!). At one point I thought we were going to have a thunderstorm but fortunately we didn’t.

Flaked out in my room for the next couple of hours. Most of the others went out early evening to see some performing Chinese acrobats -> that sort of thing has never been my scene and besides I was still tired so I stayed in.

We all met up again though after dark, for another meal. I went downstairs to wait in the hotel lobby, and I got met by Dan, who was in a bit of a casual fluster as he’d managed to lose his hotel room key! He wasn’t too bothered though, as even if he admitted to it the ‘fine’ for a replacement was only 50 Yuan or something.

The meal, in a restaurant just down the side street from the hotel, was reasonably good – the broccoli in oyster sauce was surprisingly excellent and full of flavour. It was also pretty cheap, just over 12 Yuan each for the whole mini banquet.

Wandered back to the hotel in stages; the last to leave were Andy and Dee … This again gave rise to some rumours (tsk). I stocked up on water and snacks from the local corner shop. Lots of walking tomorrow!

Day 20 :Saturday 28th September –
Anticlimax (Der Anfang Vom Ende)

“The beginning of the end”; it was effectively the last day of the tour. And what better way to celebrate this than to go for a little wander down the most famous object in the Eastern Hemisphere (discounting the Kremlin, Sydney Opera House, Mount Everest, Belgian Chocolate, Chernobyl … etc!) – The Great Wall of China!

It’s not considered one of the Seven Great Wonders of the Ancient World. This is because the Ancient Greeks, who formulated the list initially, didn’t actually know about it, having never been there. But if they had, it surely would have been!!

Having said which … the initial wall was constructed by that man Qin in the 210s BC, initially to use as a boundary between his newly-combined empire and the Mongolian wastes beyond. However it never really served that well as a frontier – guards being easily bribed etc. – but instead served as a useful means of easy trans-Chinese communication and transportation.

Over the years the wall fell into disrepair. Later Chinese dynasties maintained and improved sections of it, especially around the 1300s-1600s; by then little remained of the original Qin wall. Hence, though the wall as a concept is over 2000 years old, the section we walked was genuine 15th century!

It was about a three-hour coach ride to the wall from Beijing. There are closer sections but these are, in the main, covered with tourists. The section we went to was a much quieter spot, at Simatai. The entrance was small and unassuming – and we seemed to be the only tourists there! There were a few local vendors blocking our way though – but we ignored them.

The climb up onto the wall was very steep, up a long flight of well-worn steps, so we were quite exercised before we started! We stepped up onto a landing, and we could see the wall stretching out over the hills in front of us. Because of the age of the wall we could see in one of the nearby towers some recent modernisation – two different sorts of stone making up the wall of the tower.

Pretty much our first view of the wall. Looks fairly intact, right? Wrong!!

We walked along the wall at our own pace; we kept very roughly in a group but some walked quicker than others, in general.

The walk was pretty steep at times, both going up and going down. It’s little wonder this was one of the less visited spots! Of course, this remoteness and distinct lack of people added to its charm. I think it would have lost something if it had been as overpopulated as other parts are forced to be. This was the wall how it was, how it was supposed to be.

Of course that is not to say that the wall was completely deserted. Where there’s tourism, there’s a postcard seller. Or, more aptly, a barbarian horde of them! They followed us along the wall; in general we kind of ignored them, but one thing I will say about them, as well as being persistent they were also pretty fit!! They kept up with us, were ahead of us, and yet they were carrying bags, some quite heavy with bottles of drink. At one point I needed one and was rather impressed by the way that, even in warm temperatures after a long climb, it was basically a block of ice!!

We walked for a couple of hours then stopped for lunch. In theory we tried to stop in a place where there were no postcard sellers but in practice they didn’t bother us during lunchtime anyway!

The second half of the walk was similar to the first, except for a couple of places where we had to walk right off the wall and along a couple of country paths. Owing to the dilapidated state of the wall, some of it was actually “broken” and needed repair.

On top of the wall. That was one of the better sections!

In total we must have walked for maybe five miles, but it took us just over four hours, plus half an hour for lunch. This was due to the terrain; at one point we had a long steep downhill stretch where the “stairs” were merely bits of stone or pebble! Another uphill section, although smooth and well-maintained, rose at an angle that felt like more than 45°! Fortunately it wasn’t very long.

We were all pretty spread out by the end, so those of us near the front stopped for a bit. At which point it started to rain!! Oh well, we’d been lucky so far, we were near the end, and anyway it didn’t last too long.

Right at the end of the walk, when everyone else had caught up, we started our decent down the wall. Most of us took the pathway down but two adventurous souls took an alternative route. There was a cable slide, like on the Krypton Factor, and Dan and Dee said they’d try it if the other one did. So they did! LOL! Didn’t fancy it myself, besides I’d just bought an ice cream lolly … which was actually a bit naff but who cares!

The journey back to Beijing was a comfortable three hour jaunt – but before we left we waited at the bottom in the sort of tourist village. James and Andy bought Great Wall T-shirts, I had a bit of food in a café – it had dried up by then and the sun even came out!

After resting in the hotel for a little while we all went out for a celebrationary last night meal, and what better way to round things off in Beijing than with Peking Duck? We took taxis from our hotel to this really posh, swanky hotel where the doormen opened our taxis’ doors. But lol we then took a short walk from that hotel into the nearby side-streets, another of the hutong areas! (Bet that frustrated the doormen!)

The restaurant itself was a small cosy affair buried deep within the hutong. It was also pretty crowded. Jane had booked in advance; unfortunately a previous group of people were still in situ and didn’t look as if they were going to leave; very nice for them but those were our seats!!! They did have two smaller tables free, but that meant we would be in different rooms and not all seated together, the normally cheerful Mirella was the most visibly disappointed at this, as she felt (quite reasonably) that we should all be sitting together on this, our last night. So what we arranged to do was to eat separately, in two rooms (smokers in one, non-smokers in the other), then all merge into one room after we’d finished eating.

The meal itself was quite cosy and friendly but nothing memorable; another banquet style selection of dishes but including the Peking duck, which was quite nice, but … I dunno, maybe I just felt it was all a bit of an anticlimax? One or two of the group hadn’t handled Peking duck before but they quickly learned the way!!

After the meal, the smokers joined us and we had a bit of a natter about the trip, and what we’d thought of it. It was very strange to think that, in 24 hours’ time, half of them would be home! We sat and discussed what we’d enjoyed about it, what our good memories would be, etc etc. We also had a little presentation for Jane, since not only was she our tour leader but this was one of the last tours she’d be doing before “retiring”.

At length we decided to continue the celebration at the hotel bar, so we ambled through the hutong, grabbed the nearest taxis, and went back. After briefly freshening up we all sat round a large table in the bar. It was interesting to note that seated nearby was another tour group, also going through the “goodbye phase”. We commented that their goodbyes were getting just a bit silly (mainly with regard to multitudinous photos!) – cause we were doing the same!

Slowly, one by one, people drifted off to bed. Quite a number of the party were to be leaving the next day, some on quite early flights. As they left, they went around the table saying goodnight and hugging everyone etc. Daniel, who wasn’t due to leave until Tuesday, commented that he wasn’t very good with goodbyes, especially long goodbyes. Eventually it was just the lads left; most of us were still around tomorrow so it didn’t feel quite the end that it had been. It was still strange though to think that we would no longer be on tour tomorrow, and that it was just us.

Mind you, at least we had it comfy. The two Dettes were off on a train back to Hong Kong (27 hours!!); we told them to take the requisite amount of alcohol! They threatened to wake us up when they were leaving!

Day 20+1: Sunday 29th September –
Superman Must Die

I woke up mid-morning in a relaxed mood. Today would be a day of rest. It was also pretty hot outside, and having been on a hectic journey for the last couple of weeks, I wanted to recuperate a little before going home.

Note that no-one did wake me up in the end, which is just as well cos I would not have been impressed by that 😛 !!

Wandered down the road, past the Temple of Peace, before deciding the heat was too much. Bought lunch (a couple of bread cakes, and an enormous sausage) before going back to my room.

Of course I had a number of plans and ideas for what I would actually do today. There were several places I could have visited, parts of Beijing I hadn’t yet seen that would have been nice to look at. Unfortunately, as go the best laid plans of mice, men, and backpackers, they didn’t happen. Instead, I fell asleep!!

Woke up about 4pm with a “whoops, oh bugger, ah well, never mind!”. I am sure I’ll pass this way again before I die! (Mind you, I said the same about Portugal …). Besides, having been so used to having a group around to talk to and bounce comments off, the idea of going round alone seemed a bit strange somehow (of course I can’t reconcile this with the fact that some of the time I was looking round alone, but hey, we can’t always be consistent and in any case at least I had the rest of the group to fall back on!).

Decided to have a wander round the local area, effectively behind the hotel. I had no sooner got to the hotel reception desk when I met the Swedes and Mirella; they invited me to join them for dinner in the evening – they weren’t going for an hour or two yet which suited me fine.

Behind the hotel, beyond the restaurant we’d been to on the first night in Beijing, there was a bit of a hutong. It seems really weird then that I trekked halfway across Beijing to see one when there was one right on my doorstep, as it were!

I didn’t actually plan my route through it; I just let the roads take me, so I ended up quite deep into it before finding a route back. It was getting dark too by now; the hutong was full of life and lights. Little food outlets seemed to be everywhere!

Got back to the hotel in just round an hour. No sooner had I gone back to my room when the Swedes came knocking. We went back to that nearby restaurant where we’d gone on night one in Beijing. “The lads” had also been invited but they’d made their own plans.

The meal was a tad more expensive this time round; Tom wondered if it was because foreigners got charged more, but I suspected it was more to do with there being fewer of us (four times less people but we didn’t eat four times less food?). We suspect there was also a different menu as one of two dishes we’d had previously weren’t offered to us this time. In addition, a tour rep and her friend sitting on a table nearby were having an argument with a waiter; we suspect it was about the same kind of discussion. It was still good food though.

Went back to the hotel and met the lads; they were actually eating in the buffet pizzeria next door so we popped in to say “hi” and “bye”. We all chatted in the restaurant for 10-15 minutes, before the Swedes decided it was time to go to bed. We said our “goodbyes” and I stayed with “the lads” (Daniel, Andy, and Alan). We stayed at the restaurant until it became clear they’d really rather prefer it if we left; this must have been about 10pm. We wandered back to the hotel bar (right next door) and we had a last few drinks.

The conversation was one of those sort-of completely off the wall chats that can only properly occur late at night with a drink in hand. We ended up discussing superheroes! And potential films that should be made, if any were to be.

There were rumours at the time of there being a new Superman movie, we all agreed it would probably be complete pants, although Alan had an interesting take on the concept; he figured that if one was made, they ought to kill him off in it; he thought that it would be a fitting end to the genre, as modern Superman was far removed from the original cartoon concept. We generally approved of the Spiderman movie though!

Anyway. We stayed at the bar until quite late. Alan disappeared into the toilet while the rest of us went upstairs – by the time I’d gone to bed, he hadn’t re-emerged!

Day 20+2: Monday 30th September –
Return From Civilisation

Got up freakin’ early! We’re talking 6:30am here! Me and Andy were going back on the same flight so we decided to share a taxi. Having been told it would take about an hour, flight at 10:30am, 2hr check-in, leave about 7:15am.

When I got to the lobby to check out, Andy was already there. We had no reason to hang around so by 6:55am we were in the taxi!

It was quite light already, so we passed the parks and public places were indeed everyone was practising tai-chi.

The traffic was flowing freely, which meant our journey time was a lot less than we had planned for; arriving at the airport just after 7:30am. One possible reason for this was less people travelling than normal early morning; tomorrow would be the National Day of China – a public holiday. In the centre of Beijing you could see things being set up in preparation; it was going to be a bit of a bash! Mirella and Daniel, I believe, were the only two of us still to be there to see it.

Speaking of Daniel, something struck me in the taxi. He had said that he doesn’t like goodbyes. It occurred to me that we’d never actually said goodbye to each other! The last I saw of him was a swift “goodnight” before going to bed. Had to chuckle when I remembered that!

So we arrived pretty early at the airport – so early in fact that the check-in desk hadn’t opened! We waited in line for about 20 minutes; a lot of those who joined the queue after us also seemed to have been to China on some kind of tour group!

Beyond check-in it was crowded, as we passed through emigration. Not for the first time, we had to fill in little forms to say who we were and why we’d been here! It seemed to take an absolute age to get through – although we were processed quickly -, obviously some people were being given the once-over (or more even!). Me and Andy joined different queues; he made it to the other side long before I did!!

We had some time to kill, so we looked in a few duty-free shops. Andy bought a couple of Chinese action movies, while I bought a box of “Peking Moon Cake” to take back to work with me – there is a tradition where I work to always bring sweeties back if you go on holiday! There wasn’t much else to do; reasonably sized airport but quite dull; so we went to the gate and sat and read while we waited to board.

The flight back was similar to the flight over; the same entertainment videos were broadcast, and the in-flight radio was playing the same music. I spent my time writing the travel diary (!), ignoring the two films being shown (one of which was “About a Boy” which raised a few laughs amongst the audience).

After many hours we landed in Frankfurt; the airport looked quite a bit bigger than Munich had been on the way out – there was more space to roam around in. We wandered up to a large departure/connections board on the upper level; an old-fashioned type board with mechanical letters that flipped, as favoured by railway stations worldwide. It came complete with letters out of place and just simply wrong, like most of them do. Andy’s plane was due to leave first and when it appeared on the board we bade our farewells. Seemed fitting that as he was the first person I met on the tour, he should be the last person I leave.

The flight back to Birmingham was again pretty non-descript – it also seemed to take forever (the last mile is always the longest). But I touched down on time – 5:20pm UK time or so; though my body was of the firm conviction it was just after midnight! Got the train to New Street station, where I was picked up by Leila in her car, and we went to a chippy on the way home. Real English sausage and chips; quite a change!!

Went to bed at 9:30pm. I was tired!! And I had to work the next day!!!