Guilin….rice terraces and relaxation.

Enough of Chengdu already. For the past few days we have been based in Guilin after another 1.5 hour flight approx from Chengdu. Once we’d got past the serious issue of Joyce’s passport/ticket mismatch again (this time Elena had to get the airline to change the booking before a boarding pass could be issued..) we were allowed onto the Air China plane. This has to be the most chaotic, noisy flight I have ever been on with people running up and down even as we were about to take off. Nevertheless it all went smoothly.
So, yes, Guilin, a small place at one end of the Li River..or so I thought. The drive in from the airport was very promising with lovely new, landscaped roads but as we approached the city centre those awful tower blocks appeared once more. To be fair this is a smaller city of just 800,000 inhabitants but how come then, that it still has a main street that, at night, resembles Oxford Street complete with double decker buses?
Our hotel here has been the Hotel Bravo which is a big hotel used by lots of tour groups and it’s about a 15 mins walk from ‘Oxford Street’. It immediately had a different feel to it, more of a holiday hotel than business, partly because it is SO hot and humid here! When we landed it was 84 degrees but then we really are quite far south now. The hotel even has an outdoor swimming pool although you have to wear a bathing hat if you want to go in it. Oh come on…really? I left mine with the lovely plastic flowers on it at home.
We had a day and a half off here to relax a bit after all the previous running about we’ve been doing. This was much needed and allowed us to recharge our batteries a bit. It helped that on the full day it actually rained and so we couldn’t really do much at all although Joyce and Enid still managed to go shopping and bought lots of handbags at bargain prices. We spent some time seeking out alternative eating experiences as there has been a bit more on offer here. We’ve had a pizza at ‘Amani’ which resembled a French pavement cafe and then an Indian which was really, really good. Both highly recommended on Trip Advisor.
We explored the pedestrian street and shops but really other than this there isn’t much to do in Guilin itself. As part of our planned relaxation we decided to all have massages in the hotel. Joyce and Enid went first and then Jane and me. We didn’t see the other girls in between so no chance for them to warn us. We had chosen to have head and neck massages which sounded just the thing but when we arrived we were invited to sit down in what looked like barbers chairs. This was the beauty salon of the hotel and not at all private. Then the two Chinese girls set to work.. with us (and them obviously) fully clothed and no sign of any aromatic oils. Very odd business Chinese massage. They proceeded to poke, push, pull, slap, thump, bash, pinch, scratch and claw us. It was quite hurty at times as they got to grips with our heads, arms, hands, backs and shoulders. After an hour of this we were somewhat dazed and said ‘thanks’ and were on our way.
The next day, after the Indian, I woke up feeling rather unwell with stomach pains and generally on another planet. It seemed to get worse during the day and I honestly think now that it wasn’t the Indian but this massage that had made me feel bad. Enid says its something to do with released toxins. I think it’s to do with going out and drinking beer and eating spicy curry after a Chinese massage.
Either way I felt rough and didn’t really want to play. How marvelous it was then, that the tour today involved travelling two hours (have you noticed its two hours to everywhere here?) in the van along the most awful bumpy, bendy roads to get to the rice terraces at Longji! Yes, it was truely torture as I rolled from side to side in agony. Still I was determined not to miss out, even though when we arrived we still had to climb up 800 steps to get to the best viewpoints.
We took it very slowly as we were all actually suffering from the heat and humidity. We walked up through some old traditional villages and met some of the people from the Yeow ethnic minority here. This groups speciality is that the girls only ever cut there hair twice in their life. Once at 18 and once at 50. They wear it tied up in different types of knot at the front depending on how many children they have. Their hair is always really beautiful and shiny and black and supposedly never goes grey. It did seem to be true on the women we saw. The elderly people were sitting selling stuff to all the visitors ( and there are lots of visitors) such as fruit and chillies or string sandals they’d made. It was a little bit sad seeing them have to do this but it certainly seemed to be providing much needed income for the village as there was a lot of building work going on even here.
Our new guide here in Guilin is Chanel. She has the best English yet and tells us good stories in a very visual way including how to tell someone ‘I love’ you in Chinese. Just say “Wall I knee’. She led us up the hill until we found the spot for the best views of rice terraces in the whole world. There was a sign saying this so it must be true. It really is incredibly high so the views are spectacular even if the day was a bit hazy and the rice crop had already been harvested.
After the climb we came back down to the village and stopped for lunch at a nice, busy restaurant sitting on their balcony over-looking the village and terraces. The girls ate rice cooked in bamboo and salty green beans whilst I sipped slowly on the magical Coke Zero known in Mexico for its healing powers. Then we had the long drive back past other ethnic villages such as the Dhong and Meow people.
I stayed in that night as the girls went out for a Chinese at McFounds. I had a good sleep and then, when I felt upto it Jane got me my tea. A Snickers bar, some plain Pringles and a nice cup of tea. I knew I would feel better the next day. Meanwhile I lay thinking about the Meow people and realised that that is something you don’t see in China. Cats. Now why is that….?

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What else is there to do in Chengdu?

Once we arrived back in the city it was still quite early and as we had not eaten all day we decided to venture out again into the big city. First stop was the brand new shopping mall near our hotel just to have a look really. Once inside we explored the 7 shiny new floors of this place only to find that the majority of the shops were actually empty. It did, however, have a cinema, a handful of restaurants, a fitness centre and even a big ice skating rink.
On the ground floor there were more shops and we had a mooch around Muji and then C&A. Joyce was very excited to see that the latter’s brand name ‘Clockhouse’ was still in use. Once we’d had enough of this we found Pacific Coast Coffee house which looked just like a Starbucks and decided to go in (yes- there are plenty of the real Starbucks but not seen a Costa yet).By now I was starting to have serious Carb withdrawal symptoms and so indulged in a good cappuccino and slice of walnut and caramel cake. We also enjoyed a bit of an Internet interlude as this seemed to be very much what all the other young people were doing.
Right, now we’d eaten it was time to find somewhere to have dinner! We were walking down a really busy street and we soon realised that there must be something going on at the stadium..a concert or something. The only restaurants we could find were fast food places and we didn’t fancy those much. We were just about to give up and entertain having dinner in the Holiday Inn’s sterile restaurant, when we stumbled across a very lively side street with lots of tables outside packed with young diners. One particular place was REALLY loud and buzzing and we poked our noses in and realised it was one of the local specialty ‘Hotpot’ restaurants. Ah now this was the place for us so in we went.
This Sichuan speciality is not like your Lancashire Hotpot back home (Mike, you are right…and we’d already tried this before your recommended it!) and guess what? There were absolutely no other Westerners in here. Luckily, they had a nice young man to serve us who spoke some English and he explained what we had to do.
Basically, here you all sit around a wooden table which has a gas ring sunk into the middle of it. This is used to heat a very large metal pot of water which has an inner part full of dirty hot water and an outer part which is full of oil containing hundreds of chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. Next you fill a small bowl with a can of sesame oil , some chopped coriander and some salt and what looked like Parmesan cheese but presumably it wasn’t (Jane says it was garlic). Then the nice boy makes suggestions of things off the menu that you’d like to cook in the Hotpot. We chose mushrooms, beef, pork, potatoes and tofu strips. Whilst this all cooked we ate some of the side snacks such as quails eggs and some little fried bits which were a bit of a mystery but tasted very good. At one point a very drunk man came up and shouted ‘Hallo!’ and then rambled on a bit in Chinese before leaving with his mates who all pointed at our fried snacks and tittered. Now what did that mean do you think? Best not to ask….
Once cooked you then dip the bits in the marinade bowl you’ve made and scoff them. What was it like then I hear you ask? Well…….it was ok actually. I don’t think I’ve converted to Tofu just yet and all the other bits that went in the hot oil part tasted very hot and dry. The bits cooked in the less spicy middle part tasted rather bland in comparison. All of this was washed down with beer and in Jane’s case a very, very large glass stein of beer! Joyce hardly ate anything that night and says she really did not enjoy it.
Ah well..the next day we had our final day in Chengdu or in fact we had another long drive to see the Lashan or ‘Da Fu’ Buddha which is the worlds tallest sitting Buddha at 71 metres. We had a 20 mins boat trip with lots of Health and Safety issues to see this and it was pretty impressive carved out of the rocks. Then we had a walk up the worryingly named ‘small mountain’ to get to the top of the Buddhas head. It was by now very hot and sweaty so you can imagine how impressed we were when we heard that there was a queue of 1.5 hours to climb down the steps to the Buddhas feet. It was ridiculously crowded with tourists all of whom were Chinese except us!
Much to Elena’s relief, I think, we said we couldn’t be bothered to wait and instead would visit the Buddhist temple. Here it was the normal incense and oil burning madness.
That night we returned to Chengdu for our last night. We followed Elena’s advice and visited a part of the city called ‘Narrow and Broad Alley’. This was a really lovely pedestrianised area full of little shops, bars and smart places to eat. We found a French Patisserie and stood ogling the beautiful cakes in the window when the French chef came out and started describing them all to us. Well of course we couldn’t resist this and so we each ordered one of them and then sat at a table outside eating our chosen one with tea and coffee. I chose the Blue Plum tart which was slightly warmed and possibly the best thing I have ever tasted. Or was I just having one of those Carb moments again?
Once again, after pudding we the got a taxi across town to tonight’s chosen restaurant which was a very popular spot with a long queue outside. After a 30 mins wait we got in and it was a very poor experience indeed. Of course they didn’t speak English and had nothing on the menu in English. Luckily Elena had prepared us a new list of dishes we could try and so we showed this to the waitress. She seemed very unhappy in her work. There was a lot of shouting and tutting in this restaurant which I always think adds to the ambience.
When the food came it was also some of the worst we have eaten although some of it never did actually arrive, which was a blessing really as the portions were huge! What was the attraction of this popular place then? When the bill arrived it became clear as we paid just £10 to feed four of us including 3 very large local beers.
So there you have it. There’s plenty to do in Chengdu.

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Hands up who wants to feed the giant pandas?

Well of course we all do. So when we read that we had the opportunity, not just to see the pandas but to get involved, it was too good to miss. This promised to be the highlight of the trip for me and before you all start worrying (Mum)…I’m pleased to say it did not disappoint!
This is why we had come to Chengdu and, in fact, it seems that this is a big part of why the giant city of Chengdu is expanding at the rapid rate it is today-panda tourism. However, there had been a last minute change of plan to our itinerary before we left the UK. Instead of us being able to do our volunteering at the nearby Chengdu Panda Research Centre, we now had to travel two hours to get to the Bifengxia panda breeding centre in faraway Yaan. The reason for this is that they have actually just stopped the volunteer programme at Chengdu. We therefore had to get up at 5:30 in order to be at the centre for 8:30 ready to start work. We drove crazy fast up the motorway to Yaan and as views were just mostly rural China, typically grey and cloudy, we slept most of the way. It’s debatable at this point whether the driving here is worse than we experienced in India. I think the Chinese won as I just don’t ever remember driving anywhere this fast in India-the roads there aren’t up to it.
Eventually we left the motorway and then wound our way up a mountain road alongside a great gorge with a big brown river at the bottom of it. There was bamboo forest on either side. Then finally up at 1000metres we arrived at our place of work for the day.
We got dressed in our ‘digbies’ (or overalls for anyone who isn’t my brother) and then it was all aboard the golf cart to whizz us down to the enclosures where we’d be working. It was all a bit chaotic as no-one spoke much English and it all seemed to be being run by students. There was no health and safety briefing although we did have to sign some sort of indemnity. This seemed to be more focused on making sure we did our days work rather than anything else. Before we left the keepers office though we had our first sighting of a Giant Panda out of the back window. It was a gorgeous 5 year old who we would later help to clean out and feed.
We were split into teams to do our work and Joyce and Enid went of with a lady keeper and also ‘Amanda’ who was an international nursing student shadowing us for the day to improve her a English. Her grandad was one of the security guards at the centre. Jane and I stuck with Elena and one of the male keepers who gave us our orders.
Our jobs today were to clean three panda enclosures firstly by moving out the old bamboo, then sweeping up leaves and panda pooh and then replacing new bamboo. It was hot work and I must say it all felt vaguely pointless but the keeper told us that the pandas are very fussy and won’t eat day old bamboo. So there we go ..our work was important after all! Not sure about the bit where we had to sweep leaves off the slippery road though?
Whilst we were working the Chinese tourists were most amused by us and took our photos and shouted ‘Hallo!’. It wasn’t very busy (in fact this was a benefit of coming to Bifengxia as its much quieter than Chengdu) and once we’d finished our work we were allowed a break to go and stare at pandas. There are lots of different enclosures and at times we were surrounded by pandas. It was amazing to think that there are only 1800 left in the world. The pandas here all seemed happy enough and certainly seemed healthy and well cared for. Many of the pandas at Bifengxia have been re-located from elsewhere, particularly from Wolong Reserve which was badly affected by the serious Sichuan earthquake in 2008. It’s a shame they are not wild but at least these here are living in more or less their natural environment at this altitude. We were also told that they do try to get young pandas that they breed released back into the wild
Of course we took hundreds of photos but then it was time to get back to work. Now we had to prepare to feed the pandas. Whoopee! We had to cut up apples and carrots and panda biscuits into bite sized chunks. Then we went back to our individual panda’s indoor enclosures and fed them through the bars. I have to say this really moved me and when it came to my turn I nearly cried. They are so gentle as we handed them bits of biscuit and then apple and we got so close to them we could really look into their expressive eyes. Ahhhhhh.
Now our days work was done and we were free to wander around some of the other enclosures and stare at more pandas. We found year old pandas up great big trees and then a really young couple of pandas rolling around and playing. So cute as they made little meowing noises!
We also found the panda nursery and could see through a window two tiny pandas of about a month old. Unfortunately, they were fast asleep and in cots so we couldn’t really see them very well. I did arrive here hoping to be able to cuddle a panda but it is extremely expensive to do this (voluntary contribution) and now quite frankly, it felt a bit wrong. It was just amazing to have spent some time close to these beautiful creatures and on our way out we bought bagfulls of toy pandas that were quite happy for us to cuddle them.

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Getting Chillies in Chengdu

As you’ll have gathered, Chengdu is another vast modern city. However, what has been different here is that there seem to be far fewer Western people and apparently none at all in our tower block hotel-The Greenland. As a result hardly anyone here speaks English and so its all been a bit more of a challenge.
We were really tired after our day of travelling again and didn’t feel like going out exploring so decided to eat in our hotel. We are staying on the 30th floor and Jane and I went first of all to check out the ‘Western Style’ Restaurant on the ground floor only to be greeted by several giggling waitresses who had to run off to get a boy to try and speak to us. He showed us in and said there was no menu it was buffet style. We had a look around for pizza, chips, jacket potatoes, spag Bol….but no sign. All they had was pots of limp looking veg, raw fish and ‘local meats’….don’t ask.
There was no-one else eating here and -nope- this wouldn’t do and we decided we’d try the actual sit down Chinese Restaurant on the 4th floor. Once again there was absolutely nobody in here just 3 very smartly dressed waitresses who really struggled to speak any English at all. Now I know we should be fluent in Mandarin by now but of course we are pathetic and we are still struggling with ‘Good Morning’. Zaoshang hao!
So this was going to be interesting especially as the menu they showed us, which was in English, only had about 3 dishes on it and one of those actually was Spag Bol!! Luckily though, Elena our guide had given us a list of 4 dishes we could order and written them down in Chinese and English. We handed over the piece of paper and asked if they could cook these. They agreed they could and then a little later the dishes arrived. Three of them were perfectly acceptable but the one called ‘beef’ was in actual fact more accurately described as a plateful of chillies with 6 pieces of beef. Crikey that was hot but then that is the speciality of Sichuan Province.
These dishes were nicely washed down with more pijiu but no matter how she tried Joyce couldn’t get them to understand Coke Zero. She even tried loudly saying ‘Coke’ and then spelling out ‘zero’ with her finger on the tablecloth. Unfortunately they didn’t get that either.
What on earth are we doing in this giant city where no one speaks English I hear you ask. Well actually we are here to do some work. Volunteer work.
Now that deserves a blog entry all of its own.

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ABC…another big city. Xian to Chengdu

After our long day out exploring Xian, we then enjoyed our evening in the hotel at the Dumpling Banquet and grand show. Ellen was very attentative and made sure we were happy before we managed to persuade her that it really was ok for her to go home!
We settled down and tucked into lots of different types of dumpling all of which were supposed to be made in the shape of the thing that was within them. My particular favourites were made in the shape of cabbage and walnut (not together) and that’s exactly what they contained. We sat with an Australian couple and their little boy and the chap taught us how to order a Binda Pijou. Otherwise known as a cold beer. Good man.
The show was also very good and we enjoyed different types of dance and acrobatics. The girls did various flouncy things with ribbons and long sleeves and the boys tended to dress as warriors. One slight diversion from this general theme was the solo trumpet player who looked very pleased with himself as he trumpeted away and then did some whistling as well engaging directly with the audience. Who was that bloke in the 70s who used to do that whistling thing ? Well anyway this chap was his biggest fan. The grand finale was very dramatic and as you’d expect everything was perfectly choreographed and in time, even here in our hotel.
The next day we had to be up and ready to go again as we had a visit to the Shaanxi Museum in Xian. This place was very busy and clearly very important in Chinese culture as it has 370,000 relics chronicling the history of the area right back to pre-historic times. Ellen was really keen to share all this with us but to be honest we couldn’t muster up the same enthusiasm. But we politely went round taking it in turns to coo at the old pots and figures. However, once we made it through to the Tang Dynasty where Xian reached its golden peak..it all became a bit more interesting. It was here that the Silk Road made Xian such an important capital of the Chinese empire. This was when Buddhism was introduced and more fancy silks and pottery etc. There were several spots where students were creating their own versions of the masterpieces in clay but I resisted having a go. After a couple of hours it was time to go and make our way to the airport.
Here Ellen took great care of us once again and after another ‘airport incident’ it was time to say goodbye. We all gave Ellen a hug which she clearly found very awkward but even so she stayed to wave us through the security check in. Bless her.
Oh yes..the airport incident this time was Joyce. Unfortunately Joyce had to update her passport in between us booking the trip and us now actually flying. This means that her passport details don’t match the records the airline have. This means they now don’t want her to fly which is a little awkward. Anyway, they seem to fuss about for quite a while and call other superiors and eventually they get bored with it all and just let her go through because too much of a queue is building up. Hurrah.
This flight to Chengdu was just about an hour and we landed in very cloudy weather. I knew nothing about Chengdu and thought that it was probably a rather smaller town. Oh my dog…it’s incredible, this time we were told Chengdu had a population of 14 million. The airport here is super modern and we met our new guide Elena who was again very young and preppy but this time with v good, confident English.
Then we drove into our latest ‘another big city’ (ABC as referred to by an American on our plane). As we drove in we passed every single brand of car retailer you’ve ever heard of. This was no small town place and as we got into the city centre this became even more obvious as the impressive tower blocks just got taller and taller. The traffic also got more and more clogged and once again the cars are nearly all really smart.
I was open mouthed as we again passed major, high end retailers such as Versace, Prada and Tiffany. I am gob smacked by all of this. This is meant to be a Communist country and yet they seem to be so much more advanced even here in Chengdu. Once again my perspective on the world is being challenged and I feel very small. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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Xian..warriors and City walls

The next day we were allowed a lie in and met up for breakfast at 8am. The Grand New World hotel is indeed quite grand and it’s clearly used by a lot of tour groups and mostly European and Australian this time. Breakfast was a little calmer than in Beijing..in fact everything here in Xian is a little calmer. Thank goodness.
We met up with Ellen and Mr Wah and we were on our way out for a very busy day. Firstly we had to drive out of the city centre and about an hour south to get to the site of the Terracotta Warriors. It’s actually a vast city and once again really bustling. The traffic here is interesting as Mr Wah and all the other drivers spend their time weaving from one lane to the next just to gain a tiny advantage. But just like India, it all seems to work perfectly well.
The amount of development going on here is really incredible. I know we read about this back home but until you see the vast numbers of tower blocks going up even in Xian, I don’t think you can appreciate it.
The other result of all this development, I think, is that the city is filthy. Once again there is no litter or mess as such, it’s just that everything gets covered in a layer of dirty. Thick dirt and after a day out in the city I think our lungs were too. The sun didn’t manage to breakthrough the smog today and I wondered if it ever did.
Anyway…other things we passed on the way to the Warriors were once again lots of western looking shops and malls and then, in contrast as we escaped the city centre, we passed lots of roadside stalls selling pomegranates. This is apparently the pomegranate capital of the world.
We arrived near the archeological site where a whole town has developed around it. There are four hangar like structures to explore and Ellen led the way. As we entered the first and original hangar the huge expanse of the site became apparent. You immediately get the scale of the place and it was amazing to be stood seeing this ancient army of the Qin Dynasty back in 210BC. Ellen enthusiastically explained the history to us and I do know that it wasn’t until 1974 that the farmer discovered the site. In total there are 8000 warriors, 130 chariots and nearly 700 horses buried here.
This very first view right up the hangar was stunning but very, very crowded so when we saw the opportunity to go up the red carpet and get right in front and have our photo taken, Jane and I said yes. To be honest there was a picture of Tony and Cherie Blair doing the same thing and I thought we should too! We ain’t never coming back Jane, I said. This was really cool as after having our photo taken we were then allowed to wander about and take out own photos and get just a little bit closer. It did feel very privileged just for a few minutes.
Well now we were very excited and virtually skipped about the rest of the site. We saw what the site looks like when they first open it up and how the Warriors are broken into many pieces and then we saw how they painstakingly piece the puzzle together to recreate the original. It takes two years to mend a warrior. We enjoyed looking at all the different types of warrior and of course all their different faces which, as you expect all seem very lifelike with individual expressions.
There were three more halls to explore which showed different states of uncoveredness but the first one was by far the most impressive. Of course we had to make the most of having our photo taken with the replica warriors as well before it was time to leave.
By the time we’d finished we needed a coffee break and Ellen explained that there was no Starbucks here. However, we did find a nice Subway which served up a perfectly respectable takeaway Cappuccino.
Next stop on our day was back to the city and a tour of the city walls. Ellen explained that there were different options here and we could choose to go around the walls either by foot, on bikes or in a golf buggy. We chose the bikes and after some serious health and safety guidance from Ellen, off we went. The walls are 12 metres high and something like 15 kms in a square all the way round the old city and were built in the Ming Dynasty.
The views weren’t much to write a blog about what with the smog and the tower blocks but we enjoyed our free time. We didn’t get quite as far around as we thought we had before it was time to turn back and in fact had just ridden from the North Gate to the West Gate. It was a really enjoyable way to spend the afternoon but we weren’t finished yet..
Next stop the Muslim quarter. This is in fact one main street where the ethnic Muslim minority offer all sorts of different street food. It was a really lively and colourful spot. We watched them make the special toffee, selling fried whole squid on a stick and making tiny fried eggs. Then we came back through the covered alley which was the flea market. Joyce got her bartering head on here and we managed to buy some quality tut before we arrived back at the van.
In the evening the action didn’t stop. We’d booked in tonight to watch a show in the hotel and eat the dumpling banquet. More of which tomorrow…..

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Xian…city with a heart

The next day we had to be up really early ready to transfer to the airport and catch our flight to Xian. Everything went smoothly and our new guide dropped us to the airport and check in was going well until they X-rayed our bags behind the counter. Suddenly the security guard was making a bit of a fuss and shouting at our guide. Enid was summonsed to go and explain the contents of her suitcase. The security guard was convinced that she was a very heavy smoker ..poking his finger at her saying she had two lighters hidden in amongst her pyjamas. They started unpacking her bag in that humiliating way they do and there was a lot of tooing and froing between Enid’s bag and the X-ray screen. Enid was denying everything and Joyce, Jane and I pretended to have nothing to do with Enid. We didn’t really fancy being locked up for 10 years in a Chinese Women’s prison (although Jane has always been a fan of Bad Girls so maybe she wouldn’t mind?). Eventually the offending item was discovered. It wasn’t a lighter after all but two mosquito bite zappers which apparently meant Enid was innocent after all. Once he’d made a phone call to his General the security guard let Enid loose and we were free to go.
After this the flight itself was very mundane and in a couple of hours we were landing in Xian in the smog. Oh yes this is a smoggy city and it just goes to show how lucky we were in Beijing.
We met our new guide ‘Ellen’ who was another young student type and also Mr Wah who was our driver. Immediately we could tell that Ellen was going to be a much better guide, she was really lovely and engaging.
They took us to our hotel The Grand New World in the centre of Xian and then almost immediately we went out to visit the Little Goose Pagoda. This is a 43 storey pagoda which had been split in two twice by an earthquake and then pushed back together. It was a peaceful spot with nice gardens and it made a change to be away from the madding crowd.
We watched some ladies doing a square dance which was very balletic and then enjoyed Ellen teaching us how to count to ten on one hand the Chinese way.
In the evening we went out to eat at a restaurant Ellen recommended. We were a bit worried as she seemed very reluctant to recommend anywhere outside the hotel. However, this place Na Jia Lou was close to the hotel and we merely had to risk our lives crossing the main road with five lanes of traffic all going in different directions and no apparent way to know when it was safe to cross. Somehow we made it and then also found the restaurant by checking the Chinese symbols on our piece of paper against the restaurant sign. The place was packed and the staff came out to pull us in! It was full of locals -who by the way all tend to look Mongolian up here- and clearly a popular choice. There were no other Westerners in here but after a good stare they all settled back down again. The big man who looked like a Mongolian Triad member did seem to think that the way I used my chopsticks was worth a titter.
We ordered beer -a good start- and then studied the English menu with pictures. We had the most excellent feast ordering:
-twice cooked shredded pork with chilli sauce and onions
-sweet n sour spare ribs
-beef and rice with way too many chillies
-bok choy and other green veg
-sweet potato chips with toffee (yes, I know, really)

We didn’t order the spicy donkey, the squirrel fish, the twisted chicken gizzards or the snakehead stew. We also avoided anything using the generic term ‘local meat’. Call me a wimp if you like but I’m sticking with the toffee chips which were absolutely amazing.
It was a great night and I’d already decided I was going to like Xian. It’s a big city with 8 million people living here but it seems to have a nice heart.

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Dynasty- the new Beijing soap

Having returned from the Great Wall rather late we didn’t much feel like exploring so Jane, Enid and I just went back to Cafe 1901 for coffee and cake. Joyce meanwhile stayed in the hotel room watching Batman on the TV.
After a better nights sleep we had to be ready again at 7:30am for another packed day around the sights of Beijing.
Today we started our tour at the Summer Palace. This was the Summer residence of various emperors over the ages and was a short distance from the centre of the city. When we arrived there were rows of coaches already lined up and crowds of people waiting to go in. Most of the people are Chinese tourists of all sorts. School groups, olds groups , tiny ethnic minority groups. It was very loud and hectic and really rather unpleasant. Lots of the Chinese tourist guides speak to their groups through blaring electronic systems and unfortunately their voices sound rather aggressive and screachy.
In we went and walked around some old rooms and looked at some brass lions etc. The buildings are very splendid from the outside but nothing much to see inside. An impressive feature here is the long corridor which is in fact the longest painted corridor in the world (official Guinness book of records). It is open to the elements and runs alongside a large lake. It is 728m long and covered in 14,000 scenic paintings. I’m sure back in the days of the Emperor it was very tranquil but today it was packed with rowdy tourists. Still the views over the lake were pleasant enough.
We learned a bit about the various Dynasties (Ming, Qing, Tang, Song, Jin, Liao) and how they’d lived in this Palace. Well, the others may have done but once again I am afraid to tell you that I wasn’t listening. I think I really will have to catch up by watching The Last Emperor when I get home. There was, however, a lot of talk of the Dragon Lady who seemed quite a good character and was famous for keeping the Emperor of the time in check.
To finish our visit here we had a trip on a large Dragon Boat. This was at last a little more peaceful and we had good views back from the Kunming lake to some of the other buildings on Longevity Hill.
After our visit here we needed a coffee break so Yan said we could have one in the Forbidden City. On the drive over here we had a brief stop at a flyover where we got a view of the Olympic Park and the Birds Nest stadium. Then onto the next stop -our official Tianenmen Square visit.
This started in the Public toilets which obviously most guide books tell you to avoid. We braved it anyway and to be fair it was ok. We of course all had to queue to use the one Western style loo with a seat as opposed to the 30 squat style cubicles. The sign that said ‘no sitting’ did slightly confuse us. I imagine they just didn’t want people making themselves too comfortable in here.
Right- into the square we went and part of it was closed off today. We’d already sussed that this was something to do with the Tour of Beijing cycle race and just as we arrived the whole entourage rolled into the square. It was an impressive sight although nobody we recognised. We then walked quickly through the square without any guidance from Yan. I think she figured we’d already visited ourselves and so we could just whizz through. This suited us fine as we needed coffee and were already getting weary.
On we went under the big main road and towards the entrance which is next to the big picture of Chairman Mao. There was a lot of security around here including some very poor undercover detectives.
Once in we then proceeded to go through a series of very large gates and walls moving from the Outer Outer courtyard, to the Outer Inner Outer Courtyard, through the Inner Outer Outer courtyard…..you get the idea? Yes lots of different areas that all looked very similar. Yes this building was bigger than that building but basically….all the same! It went on Forever.
Apparently what was ‘Forbidden’ here was having a cup of coffee until you’d gone into some sort caffeine detox trance. Yan just kept us marching forwards.
Of course this made it all the less likely that I would learn anything about Emperor Ming (isn’t he a character from Flash Gordon?). Apparently there was talk of concubines and eunuchs and all sorts of goings on. In each courtyard Yan invited us to look through the windows into the various rooms. Enid wanted to get her duster out because all we could see was some rather dusty old furniture. Hm.
Eventually we arrived at the Hall of Mental Cultivation. I wasn’t really in the mood for that so it was lucky that it actually turned out to be the Hall of Coffee and Snickers bar. Hurrah… I was human once more. Jane decided to go for the slightly more dodgy option of pink sausage on a stick. Like a hot dog only tasting of Chinese Five Spice. Nasty. Joyce and Enid meanwhile marvelled at the wonders of 40p Sprite.
Fully mentally cultivated we now continued our wander. Finally coming out into the small Emperors Garden. He had a bit of a funny idea of gardening as mostly the garden was full of large volcanic rocks. There were, however, some really beautiful old trees.
This completed our tour for the day and we were dropped back at the hotel nice and early. After a bit of a breather we ventured back out to find a restaurant for the night. Now I know we’d turned up our noses at Burger King the day before but today we opted for Italian. Another of Jane’s recommendations up in the Hutongs in the HouHai area of the City. This involved a taxi ride and we began to wonder about our choice when the first 3 taxis refused to take us to this address. We think it’s just because they get paid a fix amount and this was quite a way out in the rush hour traffic. Eventually the hotel doorman found one who would take us and off we went. We got dropped off on a main street and the taxi driver waved his hand vaguely down an alley. We braved it and wandered in and this was more like the Hutongs I’d expected. It was a dark alley with mopeds and people walking around. Just a short walk along we found the quaint lights if this tiny Italian ‘Mercante’. We had a lovely meal and a couple of glasses of red and all was right with the world. It really felt like could be back in Florence. We made it safely back too which is always a bonus I find.

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Grumpy on the Great Wall

Ok so having had a night of interrupted sleep we had to get up at 7.00 in order to be ready for our first full day in Beijing. You’d have thought sleep would come easy after all the excitement of the night before but no. At 3am in the morning my mind was racing and literally wouldn’t finish a sentence. Plus it was stiflingly hot as apparently it is a Government ruling that we are not allowed air conditioning in our room. So instead of refreshing air the vent is in fact pumping out heat. Too much heat. Then at 4am Jane’s phone decided to ring with an incoming call. Excellent.
Oh my dog I was tired by the time I could get up. Oh and still jet lagged obviously- so I was right up for it. We went down for breakfast where it appeared that the world and his wife had joined us and I ate some cereals and an egg and toast and immediately started to feel nauseous. I really am quite poor at being over-tired.
We met up with Yan again and piled into the van. Off we went to the Temple of Heaven where hundreds of people had already gathered to watch some old folk doing their morning exercise classes in the shade of the trees. Actually it was all rather civilised as different groups of people practiced traditional tai chi, sword tai chi, ball tai chi and our favourite badminton racquet and two ball tai chi. Jane was convinced to join in and enjoyed it so much that we actually purchased our own set. Then we walked up to the Temple itself where it turned out all the people hanging about weren’t actually queuing to get in, they were really just there for the social. They were playing cards and dominoes and some of the women had their own knitting circle.
In we went and saw the temple and Yan told us some stuff about it. I’m afraid I couldn’t really hear her so all I can tell you is that the blue tiled roof is a reference to the God of Heaven but apparently it’s not religious which seems odd. It did look rather attractive though in the sunshine today and yes..the blue sky.
Next stop for us today was a rickshaw ride around the old area of Beijing called the Hutongs. Now I’d heard about this and thought it might be a nice contrast to modern Beijing but I’m not really sure about where we got taken. Yes it was narrow allies but there just seemed to be a load of building work going on. The visit to see the nice man’s traditional courtyard house was a pleasant interlude though.
After this there was a bit of a change in our itinerary and we drove all the way out to the Great Wall of China. This took about an hour and a half during which time we all fell asleep in the van. We drove to a section of the wall called Mutianyu. This really was in a most attractive area with mountains silhouetted all around. Even so it had something of a theme park feel to it -having to catch a shuttle bus to the cable car to then get up onto the wall itself. Mind you we were glad of it as our poor bones ached from all that walking the day before. Pathetic old folk.
Up we went and agreed with Yan that we’d be on the wall itself for an hour and a half. It was pretty busy as we started out but really compared to what I’d seen it could be like on TV..this was nothing. Even so taking photos was quite stressful and this combined with jet lag it is quite a combination. I was proper grumpy and seemed to turn into someone other than my normal self. This is not good really when what you are doing is something your partner has always wanted to do. Oh dear, sorry Jane.
Anyway, the scenery was wonderful and yes we are very privileged to be able to visit. But really did we need a Burger King?
No, we didn’t but we did need something so Yan recommended the dumpling place. We were the only ones in here and had some delicious dumplings and little fried pie pancake things. We were slightly nervous when the chef treated us to some additional fried things especially when Yan laughed timidly. However, she said they were only pork so we all tucked in. I think they were….
On the way back we experienced one of Beijing’s other delights. The traffic. It took us nearly two and a half hours to get back. It was awful bumper to bumper all the way. One thing we are beginning to realise is just how many people there are here in China!

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Staying up in Beijing

Off we went in search of Peking Duck. Jane had found a recommendation for the best Peking Duck in all of Beijing in the Beijing Times. It was just a couple of blocks away from our hotel and sounded fairly simple to find.
We desperately needed to stay awake to try and adjust to the jet lag. By now it was dark but it felt very safe walking about.
We walked along Chongwenmen Dajie and then off up Taijichang Dajie which eventually led into the bright lights big city that is Wangfujing. Wow now this was exciting. This was modern, brash, lights, brand names. Crazy stuff. I loved it. It was really busy even though it was Sunday night and had a real buzz.
We walked all along here and finally found the corner on the map that looked as if it should house our restaurant called Xiao Wang Fu. Turned out it was housed in the rather upmarket Crowne Plaza hotel! Still we’d walked along way and decided to go for it. It was actually a very smart place and the food was very decent. Whether this was the branch that had won the best duck award…I doubt it. Still two beers later and the jet lag was drifting away.
Happily we decided to wander back again and got too involved with various groups taking photos. Jane and Joyce even joined in with the flash mob dancing outside the church!
Then we decided to take a detour down the backstreets as I’d read that this turned into a streetfood market at night. It was great, really lively and all sorts of stalls selling all sorts of things. Scorpion kebab anybody?

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