The Road to the Kasbahs

Last time we came to came Marrakech we were disappointed that we’d been unable to fit in a trip the High Atlas Mountains so this time we pre-booked. I read the blurb that Thomson gave online and whilst there were two trips that sounded remarkably similar, we opted for the one called ‘High Atlas 4×4 – Road to the Kasbah’s.’  

Having had two very lazy days by the pool getting mindful we were now ready for our adventure so on Tuesday off we went. The day started with us waking up as usual to the sound of the 5am call to pŵrayer from the nearby Koutoubia Mosque. We popped into the hotel restaurant to see 6 other adventurers having a rushed early breakfast too. Then we met up with our tour organiser in reception and got assigned to our 4×4 vehicles and Ahmed, our driver for the day. We shared our vehicle with a nice Dutch couple, Peter and his wife, who’s name I never caught but who had a terrible hacking cough.
We drove along to the hotel we stayed at last year and met up with the other 5 vehicles in our 4×4 caravan and met our guide Rashid.
Then we got on the road proper exiting Marrakech to the South East and heading to the mountains. The weather was pretty dull as we set off and as we started to gain a bit of height it got rather worse and soon we were driving in fog which got thicker and thicker. Hm..this looked like we hadn’t chosen such a great day to do this sight seeing trip..but never mind.
The guide wasn’t in our vehicle so we just had Ahmed telling us bits and pieces along the way….all of it in French which only the Dutch lady really unstood.
We climbed through a small town called Ait Ourir which had a market going on. This mostly involves lots of men with donkeys and carts having a gathering in the dusty, scruffy looking place. We carried on into more rural areas with olive groves and green grass before it started to get too foggy really to see much at all, including the car in front.
After about an hour we reached our first stopping point, a cafe with a viewing terrace and we couldn’t believe our luck when, just as we reached here the fog cleared and we emerged into the sunshine. The views were beautiful with lots of green hills around us but by the time we’d had a comfort break the fog had come back again and these views disappeared once more.
On we went climbing higher and higher up towards the pass at Tizi-n-Tichka. The fog cleared once more and the scenery started to change to forest areas with lovely pine trees including an area reserved for the Royal Family of Morocco to go hunting. We passed through the town of Taddert where there is a barrier that is put down in Winter when snow closes the pass.
We’d been able to see that we were heading up towards the snow and now it started to come into full view although nowhere near the road ..thank goodness.
I must admit parts of this road have become a bit of a blur after this. Suffice to say that we kept on climbing and the scenery kept changing. At times we were driving alongside beautiful fast, flowing rivers surrounded by prune and almond blossom trees, next we were driving through areas of arid red rock with boulders as big as houses and precipitous drops to the side of the road. The road is so winding  that it’s impossible to count just how many hairpin bends it has. I am sure the Thomson blurb didn’t tell us all this! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the number of points along the road where there was either a serious rockslide that had been cleared to one side or the safety barrier to stop you going over, had actually gone over itself!
So,yes it is not for the faint hearted this trip and I was so glad that Ahmed seemed to be a very good and patient driver.
After another stop at a particularly precipitous point to take some photos, we reached the high point of the pass itself which is at a height of 2260 metres (7415 ft). At one point up here they were repairing the road. They closed the hairpin bends down to just one lane with one cone !
Soon after the pass we took a turn off the main road (‘main’ road LOL) and followed the sign to Telouet. This road was even more winding and now the Tarmac had obviously run out. Now we really did need the 4×4 and I realised that I have just not been putting my Rav 4 through its paces back home! Ahmed clearly enjoyed driving on this stretch and seemed to speed up. Oh goody…
We now started to travel along a remote valley which became more and more scenic as we continued. We passed through some amazing mud villages. The first main stop was at the village of Telouet itself which has a largely abandoned old Kasbah. We learned from Rashid about the meaning of the word Kasbah. Basically it seems to be a sort of fortress, generally with 4 tall four-sided towers and made of earth obviously. This particular Kasbah was very important apparently back in the day but perhaps not as far back as we might have thought. It was in fact the stronghold of the Glaoui tribe in the early 20th century whereas the scenes that were before us today were positively biblical. The place is still occupied by descendants of this moorish tribe who have much darker skin than the Berber race around here. The main fortress, however, is in such a state of disrepair that we weren’t able to visit- only taking pictures from afar.
After this stop we carried on along the valley following the route of the Wadi Ounila where the scenery continued to be absolutely stunning with different kasbahs and villages along the way. It’s very fertile up here and we passed plantations of palms, olive and fig trees. In some parts though it was just rock the colours of which were continually changing. In places red, yellow, more white and even purple. One particular stretch of the road was just gravel and we even forded a river at one point and balanced along a makeshift bridge at another.
Our next stop was to admire another village which I think was called Anemiter. It’s red mud buildings seemed very well preserved as they hung over the River Ounila.
Finally, we reached our main destination which is the UNESCO World heritage site of Ait Benhaddou. It’s famous for being one of the best preserved kasbahs in the whole region. But it’s claim to fame goes way beyond that as it has been used in lots of movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator and much to Jane’s joy more recently in the TV series Game of Thrones. For those fellow GoT fans it represents the fictional city of Yunkai where the Khaleesi went on her travels in search of an army and those ever elusive ships in series 3. Jane was very excited about this and strode about in her ‘I am not a princess, I am a Khaleesi’ t-shirt just like her heroine Daenerys Targaryen (minus her dragons).
The site stands on a small hill on the far side of a river and to get across to it we had to negotiate some stepping stones. The river was not deep but quite fast flowing and some nice local lads were there to hold our hands for a small price of course. Jane and I decided we would manage without and made it. However, we saw two chaps slip and fall in, one of whom did it in spectacular style as he tried to save his camera bag. Oops.
After this we had a little climb up around the Kasbah which really hasn’t had much done to preserve it which is why all the film producers love it. It was also quite hazardous walking around as a result of this and another poor chap took a tumble. Health and Safety is really not an issue over here.
It is quite stunning and we could clearly see how it had been made from just mud, timber and bamboo.
On our return to the village we went back a more sedate way across a proper bridge! This took us close to our restaurant for lunch where we had some nice Salad, bread, omlette and chicken skewers. We felt we deserved a beer but much to the disappointment of Jane and the Belgian lads we’d sat down with, this was a dry town!!
After lunch Rashid told us that we would then take a drive to the town of Ouarzazate which is pronounced ‘war-zazat’. This was a turn in completely the wrong direction from Marrakech but it seem that there are plenty of reasons to visit. Here are just a few:-
1) it is known as the Gateway to the Sahara (which we did not visit)
2) it has a big film studios here (which we did not visit)
3) Rashid’s friend has a carpet shop here (which unfortunately we did visit)
However, the main reason that Jane and I were pleased to have had this little detour was so that we can say that we have been to a place with a name pronounced ‘War-zazat’.
We had driven 220km to get to this point and by now it was about 4pm and Rashid told us that it would now take 200km drive of four hours to get home. Oh my goodness ….and what a drive. To start with we went along a new bit of road until we met back up with route N9 where earlier on in the day we had turned off to Telouet. This bit wasn’t too bad but then we had to retrace our steps all along this winding, precipitous road back upto TnT pass. Of course it began to get dark and Ahmed, who had by now been driving for about ten hours, was rather impatient to get home. We kept getting stuck behind slow trucks or vans and he couldn’t wait to get past them. It was quite honestly pretty terrifying and Jane was sitting in the front. Poor thing. I, meanwhile, was cramped up in the very back of the van trying my best to test the brakes. As we got lower down not only was it dark but it began to rain. Oh great ..slippy roads as well now.
It did finally take us the predicted four hours to get back into Marrakech but instead of taking us back to our hotel Ahmed decided it would be nice to take us to see the Palace. He drove along very slowly blabbing on in French ‘Regarde a la droit….Regarde a gauche….’ We have no idea what we were supposed to be regarding but frankly we weren’t interested. We wanted a well deserved beer in the bar!
Finally, he gave up and took us back to the hotel. We gave him a great big tip as even though on the way back he got a bit impatient, he really was a very, very good driver.
So there we have it a 420km round trip and this must have been one of the most scenic drives in the world. In the bar later I equated it to having a day trip upto the Lakes back home, having a bit of a drive up Wrynose Pass, and then coming home again same day. Is that what tourists do? Crazy.

 

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Ooh Marrakech

I don’t normally choose to write blog posts about our shorter breaks but something happened yesterday that compelled me to capture a few thoughts about our trip to Marrakech. We came here last year too and had a lovely time so much so that when we were trying to decide where to go for some Winter sun this year..we came back. We are staying in a different hotel this year, The Medina Gardens. It’s still with Thomsons and we chose it because it is closer to the souks and because it has a heated pool. Last years hotel, the Riu Tikada Palmerie, had the most amazing huge pool but it was like taking an ice plunge and in fact I was one of only about a handful of people who ever went in. So this place seemed a better option. It is also a ‘Couples’ hotel. Now this is an interesting concept when you’re a gay couple. I had been slightly nervous that we might be arrested and thrown into a Morrocan Jail (now that would make for an interesting blog post..) but that hasn’t happened yet. However, I must say, I feel rather out of place. There’s something slightly odd about being with a group of people who choose to segregate themselves from others. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it but it does make the place seem quite calm which is good.

Anyway it was our first day yesterday and we decided we needed to visit the spa. The nice lady had all sorts of packages on offer and I think we were a little mesmorized or jet lag perhaps? I doubt it seeing as it only takes 3 hours to get here!! We chose the Bledi package for a 3:30pm visit. After a nice lazy day by the quiet pool (which isn’t heated) it was time for us to go in. This was going to be a Hammam experience, apparently, although we didn’t know what to expect. So let me tell you…

First of all you are asked to strip down to your bikini or pants in our case as no one had mentioned bikini. Then you are taken into a rather hot, steamy room and the nice lady throws lots of buckets of warm water over you. Interesting..

Then you are invited to lie on you back on a slab of concrete covered with a big, kitchen sponge pad. Then we were washed down with some black soap. Funny thing was it wasn’t actually black but it did smell of Eucalyptus. Then we were left for about 20 minutes just staring up at the ceiling. I’m sure normally this would enable one to examine the beautiful patterned tiling of the Hammam but in our hotel it meant staring at a mouldy white ceiling waiting to feel the cold drips land on your body. It was around about now that I got a fit of the giggles and decided not to take the whole thing too seriously.

Next up the nice lady came back and gave us eye pads which smelled rather floral but were quite stingy. This now meant that we had even less idea what was going on. I could hear that something was happening to Jane and so asked her what was going on. She said that she was being rubbed down with a brush which didn’t sound too good especially as I could hear that it sounded quite vigorous. However, when it came to my turn it was really rather nice and in fact it was a rough flannel rather than a brush. I felt well and truely exfoliated.

Next we were covered in mud and sand or rather ‘clay’ as they like to call it. By now we could see what a state each other looked like and we laughed to see each other covered from head to toe in dirt . It was quite oily and felt as if it must be doing us some good as we were left for another 15 mins. Now I began to realise that lying on a concrete slab wasn’t very comfortable.

The lady came back in and made Jane sit in a white plastic chair whilst she threw more buckets of water at her to get the mud off. Then it was my turn and after this we got sent out of the steamy area to sit in a dry area in our robes.

To finish off we then had one of the best massages I have ever had with lovely fragrant oils and just the right amount of pressure and pokiness. 50 mins of total bliss. Lovely. And I have to say that by the end of it I had never felt so clean!

 

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Last night in Shanghai

As the sunset we left Pudong and drove back over the river to catch our evening river boat cruise. This lasted about an hour as we sailed up and back down the river this time admiring the city skyline and light show from the water. I have never seen anything like it. I ❤️ Shanghai, as the lights on the side of one of the big tall buildings kept telling us. It is a vibrant, young, modern, clean and friendly place and a great city to end our trip.

So what of China overall then? I think you will have noticed that I struggled a bit to start with. I think it was the jet lag and perhaps also the slightly cold weather in Beijing but also just the sheer volume of people everywhere, which takes some getting used to.
Once I relaxed a bit then so did the Chinese people we met and once again, like India, I found the people to be friendly but perhaps a little more shy. The other thing we have noticed is what a calm people the Chinese are. Despite their numbers, we never once saw anything verging on aggressiveness or road rage, for example. It was very clear that family is the cornerstone of Chinese society and they were especially lovely with children.
One thing I did find very different here in China compared to India, was the apparent lack of spirituality here. Yes, there is Buddhism and lots of history but I get the feeling that the young population pay more regard to science, business and facts, rather than religion etc. That was certainly the view of more than one of our guides.
The other thing I think you’ll have noticed is how little I knew about China before we arrived. My Mindmap of China was pretty non-existent and whilst I knew about the pace of development, until you see it in city after city I don’t think it hits home. I read an interesting quote about this urbanisation in The Guardian

“Whilst most people in China were farmers 30 years ago, 50% of people lived in cities by 2011 and by 2030 it’s estimated one billion people, or 70% of the population, will be urbanites.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised that at times it seemed a bit busy!
It has certainly been an amazing adventure and I’ve really enjoyed all the different experiences we’ve had a long the way. I don’t think China is for everyone but who knows what the future holds. Shanghai gave us a flavour of what China could become and once they develop the biggest Universal Studios in Beijing and a new Walt Disney World in Shanghai, maybe it will replace Florida as the destination of choice.

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I ❤️ Shanghai! The futures bright….

As I’ve said previously, others had told me that a visit to Shanghai was a visit to the future or perhaps more specifically, that Shanghai IS the future of China.
This it turns out is all SO true and it manifests all around but particularly in Pudong, on the opposite side of the river to The Bund. Here the city skyline is stunningly beautiful with the most amazing, shining tower blocks I think I have ever seen. Thirty years ago none of this existed..it was all just fields (according to Annie so it must be true..?).
On our last day in Shanghai our trip took us over here to look at the fabulous office blocks close up. It seems an odd thing to spend the day doing on your holiday. I mean, you wouldn’t visit Croydon to look at the office blocks would you- but this is different and some of the designs definitely compete with London’s best buildings in the beauty stakes. In fact, the whole thing seems to be some sort of competition for architects as they race to build the tallest buildings in the world.
Jane and I opted to go up one of these to admire the views. It is a building with the nickname ‘The Bottle Opener’ because that’s exactly what it looks like and it’s actually the Shanghai World Financial Centre. At 473 metres tall, it is the tallest building in China and the third tallest in the world. It has the highest viewing deck in the world currently and was completed in 2009. It has a tidy 100 floors and we zoomed up there in a lift (not glass thank goodness) in seconds. On the 97th floor we walked across the SkyWalk which has glass floor panels you walk across and through which you can see to the ground below. This was exciting to do although I found myself moving nervously and holding onto window frames when admiring the view!! From up here you could also see another building still under construction. This is the Shanghai Tower and at 632 metres will become the 2nd tallest building in the world. You can also see the really spangly jewel that is the Oriental Pearl TV tower.
Joyce and Enid decided not to bother with this trip up the tower but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was a lovely sunny day with clear blue skies and we could see for absolutely miles. Looking down on the river and the other tiny little tower blocks was incredible.
After returning to Earth, we wandered around the tall, glass buildings open mouthed and crick necked from looking upwards. It was an incredibly colourful area with smart hotels and landscaped flower beds. The town planners here are doing a great job and you have to keep pinching yourself as a reminder that you are in China and that this is a Communist country.

So, of course all this marks Shanghai out as a city of the future but what other signs were there of this? Well, I was on the look out wasn’t I and in fact became a bit of a bore as I saw something and shouted out excitedly ‘You see, there, that’s the future!’ at whatever it was that I had noticed.
Here are a few things that’ll be coming to a city near you soon:

1) Pedestrian crossings where the traffic lights talk to you politely and tell you when to cross and wait. They also employ someone to guard pedestrian crossings and to blow a whistle at you if you start to cross too late as there is a countdown mechanism telling you how long you have left. People who do this job take it very seriously. A similar job is the person on The Bund walkway who blows his whistle at anyone getting too smoochy…. that did feel more like what I’d expect in a Communist country!
2) Electric scooters that are so quiet you are constantly at risk of being knocked down by them. Mainly because at night the riders ride them without lights (and noise) so as to preserve the battery power. Oh and also traffic lights don’t seem to apply to scooters or bikes so they come at you from all angles.
3) Supermarket doors that play a jolly little song when you enter the supermarket because they are so pleased to see you. It plays over and over again each time someone enters and you start to feel like you are in some sort of sci-fi film or going slightly barmy.
4) Taxi drivers that are protected from their passengers by some sort of wrap around plastic shield. Think Robocop and you’ve got it.
5) Cops on scooters (2 on one bike) with silly little helmets that make them look like Diddymen. Or even better cops on segways…now that is cool!
6) A new range of cute toys that look like a cross between a hedgehog and a baby and are crazily expensive. You watch this’ll be the next big thing in Xmas 2015!

However, my two particular favourite ‘future sightings’ need a bit more explanation. Firstly one day we were having a quick coffee break in a Pacific Coast coffee bar on the Huaihai Street, when in walked a young man with his girlfriend to order a cappuccino. Nothing too unusual there….but this guy was wearing his pyjamas and slippers and I do mean literally his pyjamas not clothes that looked like pyjamas. Where had he come from- presumably one of the apartments nearby but really….is this the future? Luckily, Joyce was clever enough to take a sly photo so you can see this for yourself below.

The second incident actually occurred on our first night in Shanghai. We were a little over-whelmed after our journey arriving in this busy city and just needed to find somewhere familiar to eat. We walked the short distance to the ‘number one shopping street in Shanghai’ otherwise known as the Nanjing Road. We went into a Chinese restaurant in desperation to find that they seemed to serve only things dredged up out of the river (it was after all called The Yangstse) such as bullfrogs, sea cucumbers and other such dirty dishes. The chairs were also very grubby so we walked straight back out again. Next stop, with much relief, was Pizza Hut. It was very busy mainly with Chinese diners. The meal was great and just what we wanted. However, the ‘ future incident’ occurred as a table of young Chinese students got up to leave. I noticed that one of the girls was holding a small plastic box in her fingers and it seemed to have something moving in it. I couldn’t resist asking what it was and she showed me. The little blue box contained two tiny mice. Clearly then this is the new fashion- taking your mice out for a walk. Forget your Chihuahua in a handbag girls, what you need is mice in a box. That is the future!

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Wuzhen….Chinese theme park

The next day it was another relaxed start as we took a journey back in time to visit Wuzhen. This was a bit of a mystery tour as our guidebook made no mention of this place at all. We looked it up on the Internet (this maybe the future but there’s still no Google) and knew that it was a water village which appeared to be almost in Hangzhou..another city. Of course it took two hours to get there as we sped along the motorway at breakneck speed. Not only was the guide here the worst we’d experienced but so was the driver. There were a couple of near misses as he weaved in and out of different lanes if something got in his way. We’ve decided that the driving rules here are that you can do whatever you want, just as long as you don’t hit anyone else. There’s very little use of indicators to tell other drivers what you’re upto, just a heavy reliance on horn bipping to tell people you’re there. How do we like that idea of the future?
Anyway eventually, after passing miles of high rise apartments, followed by vast areas of factories and then acres of rural land with fields of golden rice, we pulled off the motorway. We drove along roads that were clearly being tarted up to look like the landscaped roads we’d had in Guillin. As we pulled into the car park it became obvious that what we were actually visiting was the Wuzhen Water Theme park. It was rammed with hundreds of coaches…oh this would be nice!
Luckily Annie would be here to guide us through it’s various highlights. So what was there to see in this Chinese version of Alton Towers? Well, we wandered along these rather grey alleys running alongside the rather grey canal. We poked our heads into various buildings and courtyards housing wonderous things.
First stop, and a real highlight, was the bed museum. This housed numerous wooden beds from some dynasty or other. They didn’t even belong to emperors, just rich people and Annie said they weren’t even that old!!
Then we saw where they made rice wine and where they dyed fabrics with indigo. Another highlight was the Madame Tussaud’s waxwork display of a Chinese wedding ceremony. It was very poor and what we needed to know was why Michael Jackson was in attendance (see photo below). Especially poor was the room with the glass cases with plasticine models of about Action Man size depicting different Chinese holidays. They all looked rather similar.
Really they need to work on making this place a little more interactive. Perhaps offering ‘make your own tie dye dragon’ sessions, rice wine tasting (actually they did already do this but we declined as even the smell was over-powering) and even Las Vegas style weddings ceremonies with an Emperor to help you tie the knot?
As we progressed it got busier and busier and once again it became apparent that we were the only Westerners, possibly to have ever visited. It was in amongst the hanging drapes of indigo material that we fully realised our celebrity status and had our photos taken with all sorts of Chinese families. From here on in we had an entourage who wanted to have their photo taken with us or just to shout ‘Halloooo!’ and then giggle when we responded back. We thoroughly enjoyed the attention as we really like making this contact with people even if we don’t speak each other’s language.
The most interesting thing about this village is that people do actually still live here, so in amongst the throngs there are people going about their daily lives. There was no Starbucks here for a coffee so we grabbed a couple of bags of crisps from the supermarket and then sat down in the nearest restaurant for a drink. The chef here came out in his vest to see his strange visitors and we stared at the fish tanks full of today’s lunch swimming and crawling about. It was like being in Pets at Home in Evesham.
To finish off the day we had a ride back up the canal on a little wooden boat that the nice man punted along. It was now that we realised that the place was actually quite pretty with little bridges and windows and perhaps it did start to live upto it’s name of the ‘Venice of the East’. However, we’d spent a little bit too much time in the bed museum and it was now time for the thrill seeking ride…otherwise known as the two hour drive back in the van.
That night we ate out at a restaurant that had been recommended to me by James at work. This was called ‘Lost Heaven on the Bund’ and we actually had to book in to get a table here the day before. This is despite the fact that they can serve 500 people here at one time. It’s a really dark, restaurant so we took torches to read the menu. How old are we??! The food, however, was absolutely delicious (and reasonable) as they serve specialities of the Yunnan region down near the Laos, Cambodia border. It was all really tasty and I found a new favourite in the fried pumpkin cakes which were wonderfully stodgy and tasted and smelled like popcorn. Yum.
After dinner, we had another walk along the Bund admiring the lightshow over in Pudong. But that’s the future…..

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Shanghai……something old, something new…

I was very excited about the time we would spend in Shanghai for two reasons. First of all, two people from work had visited and promised me that a visit to Shanghai would be a visit to the future. This sounded interesting and I was intrigued by exactly what they meant. Secondly, I think the name ‘Shanghai’ just sounds very evocative. It rings of mahjong and opium dens but also french influence and opulence. For some reason it also meant Nicole Kidman to me although on the latter point -I have no idea why.
We had three days and nights here to explore and find out the truth behind these myths. We met out new guide ‘Annie’ at the airport and she took us to our last hotel- The Central Hotel – in downtown Shanghai. It really was 5* and very opulent. We had a massive room with lovely air conditioning which would be a very good base for our stay.
Interestingly our days in Shanghai were split more or less into the old and the new and so my first post here will describe what we saw in terms of ‘the old’.
So first stop in terms of seeing the past was a visit to the Xianting area. This I believe is in the old French concession area so low level old buildings and alleyways now converted into lots of smart bars and restaurants. It was also the site, Annie told us, of some sort of tennis party. I assumed she meant after the recent Shanghai Masters tennis tournament. Unfortunately this would be the first of many misleading pieces of information Annie would give us, although perhaps not deliberately, it’s just that her English was very poor. It turned out later, when I read the guide book, that it was in fact the site of the first Chinese Communist party congress meeting in 1921. The French concession was an area opened up in 1842 where Europeans lived by their own laws until the 1940s, when the Japanese invaded and occupied Shanghai.
Also round here is one of the most expensive shopping streets in Shanghai -Huaihai Street- although we chose to pop into Marks and Spencer’s not Louis Vuitton. We are, after all, women of a certain age and cannot resist a trip to Per Una!!
Next stop was The Bund. This area has been transformed since the 2010 World Expo and developed really nicely. There is a raised walkway all along the river Huangpu where you get great views over to the ‘future’ (Pudong Business District) but today it was a little overcast. On our side of the river the street is lined with beautiful colonial type buildings housing lots of banks and insurance companies even today. One famous building is The Peace Hotel although when we asked Annie why it was famous she was only able to tell us that it was famous for being famous all over the world. How very informative. Again, later on, I would find out that famous people who have stayed here include Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and I’m almost certain Nicole Kidman.
Next stop for us was the Yu Gardens which were designed in the Ming Dynasty. The entrance to this place is via a sort of tourist tut bazaar. It was ridiculously busy and horrible as we found our way to the gardens via the zigzag bridge over the ponds around the tea house. Once inside, however, although busy, the gardens were quite a peaceful oasis from the madness outside. The gardens are famous for having various areas typifying the classic Chinese style of garden from this period with round gateways, pavilions, dragon walls, pretty water areas and lovely trees.
After the gardens we were then allowed to go shopping around the bazaar for one hour. Honestly, it was like something out of the Apprentice as we split into two teams to go and find the best gifts and souvenirs we could within the allotted time and budgets! Jane and I won with purchases of chopsticks, plastic bird fruit sticks and wind up Minions as well as a plastic pink pig with pop out eyes. A suitable summary of China there, in that one shopping bag!
Unfortunately Annie then kept us waiting for 15 mins and caused an international tour guide incident from which she would never recover. Oh well poor thing ..the problem really was that she didn’t want to be a tour guide, she wanted to be Nicole Kidman as featured in the massive, billboard advertisements for J’Adore perfume. She certainly spent enough time juzzhing her hair in all the shop windows….
That night we ate in a Supersteak house just around the corner from the hotel. This was an odd experience as it looked like a fast food place but was extremely opulently decorated inside with lots of gold paint. We were a bit dubious but actually they served up a decent steak although they seemed to think we wanted to eat Fries as a starter! It was interesting to see the tables turned in here, as we watched the young Chinese kids struggle to use their knives and forks to very slowly cut their steaks!

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Yangshou….can’t we stay here longer?

Our stopping point, at the end of the Li River cruise, was Yangshou. It was very busy getting off the boat and then walking up West Street, where they sell lots of tourist tat and rip off goods in the back room. However, all of this soon disappeared as we then got in our van and the driver took us along the rural lanes to our guest house for the night.
We were staying at the Tea Cosy Guest house 15mins outside Yangshou itself and we’d been looking forward to this. We knew it would be a totally different experience to the ‘could be anywhere’ hotels we’d been staying in so far.
This place is indeed a ’boutique hotel’ and it was absolutely lovely and as a result we felt like we’d arrived in heaven. It is in the middle of the countryside surrounded by the farmers fields and rice paddies and then the amazing pinnacles of the karst scenery all around us as well. It is run by really friendly, smiley people who speak really good English.
I think there are only 7 rooms and ours were on the 4th floor with just the rooftop bar and restaurant above us. The rooms are really beautiful and such a contrast to all the other bland ones. Our room was filled with lovely old furniture, antiques and art but also full of the modern amenities such as fab rainshower, Wifi, AC etc. We had a lovely balcony overlooking the scenery to the front where we sat and enjoyed a cold beer and enjoyed the late afternoon sunshine until we got too hot.
Our room also had a deep bamboo bath which had views through an open window to the rice paddies. I loved the touch of the stone lily pad steps to get into the bath!
We immediately began to wind down and we sat in the garden as the sun set and ate a lovely tasty meal made with their fresh, organic veg and some of the best tasting sweet and sour chicken we’d ever had. Whilst we were now back on the Chinese food, we couldn’t resist trying their apple crumble and ice cream. It was delicious and definitely the best meal we’ve eaten here in China.
After dinner we were collected again and taken to the Liu Sanjie light show back in Yangshou. This had been recommended by friends Phil and Maureen, back in the UK. We joined the throng of 2000 people to see the show on the river where this performance is put on twice every night! The show is just over an hour long and is spectacular. The Director of this show subsequently went on to direct the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. He certainly knew how to make the most of the dramatic scenery with lights and emotive music. It was pretty awesome and we all felt like we had just witnessed our own Olympic ceremony.
The next day we had a relaxed start and enjoyed a good breakfast at the Tea Cosy. None of the buffet style breakfast here for once. We then decided to go for a little walk from the hotel and ventured out along the road. It was nice to stroll through the peaceful village and past the farmers in their fields saying ‘Zaoshang Hao’ to people who were all very friendly back.
Enid had been wondering why lots of coaches seemed to drive down this lane and we soon realised why as we came across a stretch of river where there were hundreds of bamboo rafts which could be hired and used to punt up the river. It was a lovely colourful scene even if it did rather spoil the peace!
We watched this activity for a while before it was time to leave. We’d spent less than 24 hours in Yangshou and yet is had completely transformed us as we all felt totally relaxed. We all wished we could stay another night as there is plenty to do around here such as cycling, painting, learning Tai Chi or cookery. Shame…
However, we had to return to the Hotel Anywhere in Guilin for our last night. It took two hours (of course) to drive back and we had a quick stop at the colourful Reed Flute Caves which were impressively big and didn’t smell.
That night we went back to the restaurant the girls had been to without me before- McFounds. This is like a Chinese ‘Harvester’ only without the salad bar. The menu here is in English but they don’t speak very good English. I suspect they don’t like foreigners coming in as they all try to avoid serving us and then it takes about 3 of them to serve us as they all try to work out what it is we are going on about..’we’d like two portions of plain rice please’ Enid shouted..how hard can it be?
Anyway, the speciality of this Harvester is erm…donkey. Donkey in all its usual guises. We had a table of donkey eaters next to us. They are easy to spot as they are fatter than your average Chinese person and also they tend to be rather shouty and rude.
I think they’d ordered the spicy donkey as well as donkey jelly (like the jelly you get in a pork pie but without the benefit of the pie) and a particular delicacy…donkey tendons.
We on the other hand stuck with things we knew like cabbage and pork, greens, pancakes filled with spring onions and pork (but the pork seemed to have run out) and also beef and coriander wraps. All of this was really rather good.
Right…next stop Shanghai!

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Slow boat to Yangshou-cruising down the River Li.

Next day I felt a lot better, which proved to me it can’t have been the food. Plus I now appeared to have a new neck that could move as it should on my shoulders and was no longer locked after all the time spent hanging over a laptop at work. Wow, what good news.
Today promised to be a real highlight of the trip as we were due to go down the River Li on our boat cruise. This is said to be the most beautiful river in the world as featured in all the Classical Chinese paintings. The River Li winds its way through the stunning Karst limestone scenery which I’d heard much about from geography and geology way back at school.
We started the cruise on one of the newest boats on the River Li, which our guide assured us was purely by luck. It was very smart and we were assigned seats on the 2nd level deck.
However, as soon as we were able we were up, standing on the top deck admiring the views. Then we spent the next 4 hours nearly, standing here, as we very slowly cruised down the river. This really is a beautiful, peaceful experience as all the hustle and bustle of Guilin (and the world) just drifted away.
The river is only an average of 2m deep and we sailed along a stretch that I think is 63 kilometres between Guilin and Yangshou. As we got about 1.5 hours away from Guilin we entered the part of the river that is most scenic. The river is wonderfully clear and we were surrounded by the most incredible peaks with names like Bat Hill, Five Fingers Hill and the Painted Hill of Nine Horses. It went on for miles and it really surpassed my expectations. I must admit this has been somewhere I have always wanted to see but I was a little afraid it would be spoiled. I’m pleased to say that, despite the numbers of boats in our flotilla, it hasn’t been, as the other boats just added colour and scale to the splendour.
It is hard to describe in words but I hope Jane’s photos give you a bit of a feel for it. Mind you, all this scenery is exhausting and Joyce and Enid had a little afternoon nap before we arrived in Yangshou!!

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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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