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.
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!
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…..
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!
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!
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!!
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….?
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.
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.
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.