A Travellerspoint blog

Day 32

Monica and Mike take the boat

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Because it's important we wake at seven-thirty, I arrange an alarm call with reception. I set the alarm on the room clock (a complex process), and reset my mobile alarm. Overkill, you might think. The unfamiliar clock alarm fails: it's probably going now; the alarm call does not materialise: maybe someone else gets an unwelcome wakeup. The only mechanism that works is my trusty mobile. I would be a hero in Monica's eyes were it not for the fact that from 5.00 am onwards it bleats about running out of battery. This has a detrimental effect on her sleep pattern. Plus ca change....

The good news is we're on time for our guide, Jeff. We are his only two customers for the day and we have a minibus to ourselves on the way to the wharf – a forty minute journey. Jeff belongs to one of the many ethnic minorities that call Guilin home. The name of his group, translated into Mandarin, means 'strong'. But you can see I'm not strong, he says. People say I am cute. He is cute. He's about thirty-five and has a wife and four-year-old son. Monica elicits this information. He asks us about our family. When we tell him we have four children he says, you must be very happy.

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Jeff is proud of his city, and loves his job. He tells us about the people who have come to Guilin like Nixon and Bush Snr., and what they said. “Bill Clinton left words when he visited Guilin. Do you know what they were?” We don't. The answer is “Guilin is like a beautiful girl in broken clothes”. Unusually inarticulate for Bill, this was apparently a reference to the dilapidated state of the town.. After Bill left, the city authorities put a lot of effort into cleaning up the rivers and lakes around Guilin and installed the fancy lighting that makes it so attractive at night.

We share a table with Katie and Ian and their son Mike and his wife Penny. At first glance they seem to be helpless tourists, like us. Appearances are deceptive. All live in Shanghai and this is merely a weekend trip for them. Mike speaks fluent Mandarin with no trace of a Scottish accent. He is an academic, as is his wife and father. He discusses university options with two Chinese men keen to secure the best for their daughters. As in most of Asia, in China, getting things done is often a matter of who you know.

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Before the boat leaves, Jeff advises us on what to expect. The first hour, not so interesting, the second two hours, very beautiful, the last hour, we can eat lunch. In the event, it is all beautiful. It is a misty kind of day and the mist hanging in the valleys between the mountains makes the scenes even more picturesque. Jeff tells us to look out for Horse Mountain, and try to find as many horses as we can. He tells us that Chou En-lai, when he was Chinese leader, took a trip on the river Li. He 'saw' nine horses represented on the face of the mountain. An accompanying General could see only seven. When it comes to my turn, unprompted, I can find only two. This makes me unfit, in Jeff's eyes, to lead China.

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We stop in Yangshuo for an hour to buy souvenirs. The ethnic goods we like are way out of our price range. We are assailed by street vendors selling cheap goods. We adopt the time-honoured practice of buying stuff we don't need. Monica buys another hat. Even when you buy an item, a straw hat, say, someone will ask what you paid for it and offer you another at half the price. I buy a miniature silhouette of myself, cut in paper with scissors by a man who follows me, studying my profile. He captures the baseball cap and glasses, but Monica has doubts about the chin and mouth. She says it looks more like George Clooney. That's good enough for me. I buy it.

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No tour is complete without a trip to a pearl warehouse (government owned), or a visit to a government art gallery. In the first we are instructed in the South China Sea pearl industry, on the differences between fresh-water and salt-water pearls, and how to tell real from fake. “No fake here,” we are reassured. Then we are unleashed upon the display cabinets – we and an Australian girl who knows her pearls. Monica succumbs to temptation.

Next, it's on to the National Gallery where there is already a seated audience of American teenagers waiting for the lecture. A serious young man tells us all we need to know about Chinese painting in just ten minutes. He covers brushes, brush strokes, paints, technique, history and so on. His talk is animated by a young painter who, Rolf-Harris-style, dashes off a piece of work showing some bamboo canes. I buy a painting, and get the bamboo picture as part of the deal. It's a moment of madness. Will either survive our travels?

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We take the taxi to the station, not knowing what to expect. Guilin Station is modern and civilised. There are escalators to take us up to the waiting room. Yes, there is the inevitable crowd waiting for the train but nothing on the scale of previous experiences in China. Getting onto the platform involves merely descending a few steps. Our train is quite modern – Monica gives the toilets the thumbs up. We find we are sharing with two men, neither of whom speaks. They occupy the top bunks, and try to get some sleep while I snore. My head cold is worse. I'm the last person anyone would want to share a carriage with.

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Posted by mikemonica 19:26 Comments (0)

Day 31

A Day in Guilin

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Guilin is famous for its scenic location among a host of beautiful two-hundred metre rocky peaks which stretch along the river Li. These have been portrayed in Chinese painting for centuries, and now feature in any marketing of China. When people think of the 'picturesque' Chinese countryside, this is what they visualise. This is why we've come to Guilin: to look at the scenery. We plan to take a boat trip down the Li tomorrow. Meantime, we decide to conduct our own walking tour of the town, guided by the tourist map we obtained at reception.

Guilin is a city of human dimensions. Its population is not measured in millions, only about seven thousand people live here (I'm quoting last night's driver), and this is small by Chinese standards. The centre of the town is based on its original medieval model. One side of the old town is bounded by the river Li. Man-made lakes: Shah Hu and Rong Hu, the remnants of an original moat, complete the encirclement by water. You can pretty much walk around the town on paths beside the river or the lakes. You are away from the traffic, also moderate by Chinese standards.

We head south along the river towards Elephant Trunk Hill through a park celebrating the large stone pachyderm. There are elegant themed bushes, statues, ornamentation on the street lamps and gates. The story is that this three hundred metre hill is the body of an imperial elephant turned to stone. The shape of the hill corresponds to the creature drinking from the river. I pose, pretending to play the drums, in front of some musical elephant statues. Monica poses in front of some magnolias. She retains her poise, I lose even more credibility. There is a steep stone staircase up the hill to a small pagoda at the summit. Monica cannot resist steep stone staircases, so naturally, we climb to the top, and visit the various viewing platforms. It is a warm, humid day, and we are wearing our Siberian anoraks.

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Our forst circuit is of Shah Hu, a large lake featuring two ornate pagodas. These are illuminated at night and provide a centrepiece on an evening light show around the lakes. We catch this later in the evening as we reurn from our restaurant.

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Guilin is popular with Chinese tourists, and for a number no holiday is complete without a photograph of themselves with Monica. There is an island in the middle of Rong Hu reached by a windy white bridge. She's stopped on three occasions for a photographic session with giggling Chinese girls. One takes it quite seriously and arranges artful poses for the pair of them within stone arch.

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Monica photographs a few wedding couples using the lakes as a scenic backdrop before we enter the the Jinjiang Princes' Palace – basically, some old (rebuilt) Chinese buildings in a park within the old city walls. The principle feature is another small sharp pinnacle Duxiu Feng (“the Solitary Beauty Peak”). Even though this has only 306 steps to the summit, I decline the invitation to climb it and settle for photographing it behind Monica. She settles for working out on some park equipment.

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As we return to our hotel, we catch sight of what might possibly be our boat tomorrow.

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Posted by mikemonica 04:14 Comments (2)

Day 30

On the train to Guilin

We are woken at seven o'clock by the intercom system playing classical piano music. It is time to get up. This has been a feature of our journey to Guilin. Music is played incessantly, only occasionally interrupted by an announcement of some sort: an approaching station, a special deal in the restaurant car, health and safety advice – I'm guessing, you understand. Every so often someone pushes a trolley past our compartment. There are three or four of these, each selling different items: fruit and snacks, beer and soft drinks, heated and ready meals, books and magazines, toiletries and toilet paper - everything you might need on a journey of this sort. There is a restaurant car but we have brought our own food.

Li Li tells us she is originally from Xinjiang province. This is way in the north west of the country, about four thousand kilometres from Beijing. North of Tibet. It's mostly mountains and desert. When she was a child, her parents moved to Sichuan province - “Where the pandas are”, she advises us. What is your job? Monica asks, using the phrasebook. Li Li uses her internet connected phone to produce an English translation. She sells medical equipment. After this tiring conversation, she spends most of the day sleeping. Did she have a disturbed night? I have a head-cold, and am inclined to snore. Could that have been a factor?

We cross the Yangtze river at half-past nine. It is truly enormous. The passing spars of our steel bridge prevent Monica from getting a clear shot of the ferries. We have entered the Yangtze Basin now, a fertile region, greener and less impacted by the drought that seems to have affected the rest of the country. The train stops at Yueyang on the eastern shores of Dongting Hu, China's second largest freshwater lake. The countryside here is rich in paddy fields, and lotus ponds. Soon after, the area is fringed by enormous mountains that spring from nowhere. It's an overcast day, and the mountains take on a misty, ghostly appearance - not ideal for our photographs. The music has now changed, alternating Chinese Pop with Chinese Easy Listening, and even Chinese Rap. Who knew? Monica is spared this as she listens to Nick Drake on her iPod.

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As an alternative amusement I read to her from our guide book. Apparently, Guilin is famed for its exotic cuisine. One recommended restaurant displays live snakes, cane rats, crabs, pheasants and fish outside “for your delectation”. All this for around £6 for two. The guidebook also warns that cruises on the river Li may be curtailed in the winter months when water levels are lower. If it has been a really dry year (like this one?) the river trip may last only an hour instead of six. I look out of the window. The weak intermittent drizzle has stopped. This is unwelcome. We need all the water we can get.

It is four o'clock now and for some time the country has been lush and semitropical. The good news is there are waterlogged paddy fields everywhere. The water is drawn from the numerous muddy rivers and tributaries we cross. No drought here.

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The train passes through numerous cities, stopping at some. As a rule, the least attractive aspect of cities anywhere may be viewed from a railway. This is doubly true of Chinese towns. The rear of old, decaying tower blocks run alongside the tracks. The fronts of the buildings may be fine but their rears make no pretence. This is how people really live.

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Li Li has appointed herself as our guardian. On two occasions when I am involved in making purchases from the passing trolleys, she intervenes, selects a much lower note from my offering, and gives the vendor a piece of verbal abuse for attempting to rip me off. They are charmed by her, and simply shrug with a 'guy's-got-to-make-a-living' expression. The people who really rip you off are not these people but the big hotels, and American chains like Starbucks, should you frequent them. A large Chinese beer on the train costs 70p. A small beer in one of the grand hotels (such as we've been staying in) will cost £4.50. Li Li establishes that the train will arrive at 11.00pm, not 10.00pm as advertised.

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In the event, we arrive at 22.49, and a slim, elegantly dressed Chinese gentleman is there to greet us. Our car is a Buick Royaum limousine. Changed times indeed - of course, you get what you pay for. Our new friend speaks impeccable English, and when I ask about river levels, he laughs. It's no problem. This is the rainy season.

Posted by mikemonica 01:57 Comments (1)

Day 29

Last Day in Xian

It's our last day in Xian and we decide to spend it in the Muslim Quarter. This is 'old China', low-rise ramshackle buildings, open fronted shops and restaurants, seemingly unchanged in hundreds of years. The area comprises a labyrinth of alleys centred on the Great Mosque. The traders sell everything from street food, to caged birds. It is colourful, crowded and exciting. Many of the women here wear head scarves. We discover a shop selling New Zealand ice-cream, and buy some – it is so hot. How times have changed.

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Monica's enthusiasm for street food wanes after she sees a couple of stalls selling slabs of meat. We eventually find the Great Mosque, a peaceful haven amid all the frantic alleyways. It is not 'Great' at all but a rather low key affair. The usual set of Chinese style buildings based around a large courtyard. There are two old men there, praying towards Mecca

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Having seen enough of the alleys, we decide to escape and head for a couple of small parks marked on the tourist map – but definitely off the tourist trail. The first is Linhau Park. This is a water park which comprises a number of artificial islands linked by stone bridges within a large man-made lake. Most of the water has been drained from the lake, and only one part has any water in it. Young people are paddling around this stretch of water in colourful hired boats. We sit on a bench and watch an old man inscribe Chinese characters on the path. He uses a brush and can of water. As the water evaporates, the characters disappear. He gathers a small crowd of old people who comment on his work.

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Our next stop is the Revolutionary Park. This is larger, and more formal and has large statues of Communist military heroes dotted about. In front of one of these we listen to a young soprano sing martial, stirring songs commemorating, we decide, the heroics of the Long March. It emerges that the park proves a stage to anyone who wants to perform. We listen to a woman singing traditional songs in a small gazebo, her partner accompanies her on a curious two stringed instrument. We move from the sublime to the ridiculous. A percussion group of pensioners accompany an old woman singing shrill discordant songs.

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We retreat to a quieter part of the park to eat our 'liberated' breakfast pastries. We are seated beside a table where a couple of young medical (?) people are treating a number of senior citizens by attaching them to an electronic device. Belts are trapped to their waist or neck or back and they sit and enjoy the electric charge to the painful part.

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While we are fascinated by the Chinese, they seem fascinated by us, particularly me. Wherever we go, people point at me, want to be photographed with me. I enjoy a kind of celebrity status. I've worked out why this is. To Chinese eyes, I'm George Clooney. Granted, not the Clooney of ER, but the Clooney of “Sharia”, the film in which he grew a greyish beard, and put on some weight. The resemblance is uncanny. Speaking of which, there have been some comments made about my appearance on the blog. Some of the photographs show me as rather bulkier than I am in reality. This is due to the down-filled anorak that I continue to wear. Underneath this, I'm as sylph-like as ever. Our anoraks are increasingly a problem. They were fine in temperatures of – 20 degrees, not so in temperatures of +20.

As we leave the park, we come across a set of people dancing to some rhythmic Chinese music. It is a kind of line dancing, everyone moving in time, executing a complicated series of steps. Everyone appears to know the moves, though there is a woman at the front who changes the music periodically, and who 'leads'. We notice that those at the back are less familiar with the routine. It all seems beautifully choreographed and we wonder how many hours of practice it has taken to get this good. I stop Monica from joining in. We have a train to catch.

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We get to the station and it is the bedlam we anticipated, thousands of people trying to get through security to gain access to the station. Others camped outside wait until their train number is flagged on the electronic board. The security people confiscate my Swiss Army knife, that has survived countless similar checks. What will we cut our bread with now? The official laughs and repeatedly says 'sorry'. He doesn't seem very sorry.

To get to the platform from our designated waiting room we join a throng of people pushing and shoving their way up a set of stairs carrying all their worldly goods. This leads to a bridge over the platforms. It's a scene from Dante's Inferno. The heat from all the bodies is overwhelming. A stocky woman porter takes Monica's case, heaves it onto her shoulders, and sets off up the stairs. I'm swept along behind in the scramble up the stairs.

The Guilin train is incredibly long, as are most of the Chinese trains we've seen. This is how ordinary people travel in this country. There are lots of dormitory carriages with row after row of bunk beds. Our carriage is luxury by comparison. Meant to take four people, it's already occupied by our new travelling companion, a pleasant and friendly young girl called Li Li. Li Li doesn't speak much English but we establish that she was in Xian visiting her boyfriend and is now returning to Guilin where she lives. Li Li has two mobile phones and she spends the rest of the evening texting and receiving messages. Monica discovers the toilets are 'traditional'. I'm not drinking anything for the next thirty hours, she says.

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Posted by mikemonica 18:36 Comments (3)

Day 28

Monica and Mike take the bus

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It's another sunny day, our twenty-eighth, as we walk from our hotel to the station. Bus number 306 runs from there to the Terracotta Army site every 15 minutes, and there's one waiting there when we arrive. It is twenty mile journey, and the fare is 70 pence each. The bus spends half of its time trying to exit the city: the traffic is slow moving. Along the route locals board and leave the bus. All around there is evidence of China's attempt to house its vast population. In Xian, as in every city we've seen, there are scores of tower blocks being built to join the huge numbers already occupied. The trend appears to be for thirty to forty storey buildings with identical blocks clustered together. When the Chinese like a building style they replicate it four, six or eight times.

The Terracotta site is obviously a prestige project for the country. The complex is within a large landscaped park. There are souvenir shops on route but these are housed in a modern brick built village complete with pools, fountains, and statues. It is all very tasteful, even though the usual tat is on sale. There are three pits, where the warriors are still being excavated – it is estimated there are about eight thousand. Each pit is housed in a grand well-designed hall. These all front onto a huge piazza. The warriors were discovered little over thirty years ago, and the Chinese have built a establishment that reflects their cultural importance.

Each hall shows the warriors in the pits, in the poses that they held when they were buried about two thousand years ago. Each soldier has different features and expressions, and there are different ranks represented from general to archer. There are also horses and chariots and weapons. The statues were originally painted to make them even more lifelike but the pigment has now faded. The whole effect is hugely impressive.

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In another hall, there are are two magnificent bronze chariots found in 1982, near Emperor Quin Shi Huang's tomb. One is an Imperial Fleet leader's chariot and the other a copy of the Emperor's own cart. They're half actual size, and the attention to detail is amazing – even the drivers' knuckles, nails and finger prints are shown.

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As we move from one hangar to another, we're spotted by a group of older Chinese, most wearing the red baseball caps that identify their tourist group. They burst out laughing at us, and one springs up from the wall on which they've been sitting and insists on being photographed with me. I'm used to this by now – I'm in someone's memoirs of the Great Wall. I put my arm around my new friend's shoulders for the shot. Even more merriment. Then it's Monica's turn. Two women insist on being photographed separately with her. It is comforting to think that long after we have left China our photographs will be adorning some Chinese living room.

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Before we run the gauntlet of souvenir shops on the way back to our bus, I'm approached by an enterprising Chinese youth selling miniature terracotta warriors in a box. He shows me the five figures. Twenty Yuan. That seems like a good deal (£2). I show some interest. He sees a 'mark'. Each, twenty Yuan each figure, he says. I lose interest. He follows us. Ninety? No. Eighty? No. Seventy? No. Sixty? I'm not bargaining, just trying to escape. In the end I give him sixty for my souvenirs. Later we see them everywhere. I could have had them for twenty, or even less. I consider it my contribution to Chinese inflation.

On the way back, Monica photographs Chinese cyclists.

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In the evening, we get a taxi to the Big Goose Pagoda, the largest Buddhist temple in Xian. We travel for miles and the fare is just over £1, without the tip. We have come to see the musical fountain. This is a 'son et lumière' show, with lights, choreographed fountains, and European and Chinese classical music played on loud speakers. A large Chinese crowd has gathered to watch the display – this in March for a nightly show. What must it be like in summer? Everyone takes photographs of the dazzling display. It lasts for half an hour, and then we spend a similar time trying to catch a taxi back into town.

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Posted by mikemonica 19:03 Comments (5)

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