China - September/October 2001


This is the diary of Jane and Graham who went on a two week tour of China.  The tour was organized by Jane with help from another Jane (Spilsbury) at Asian Journeys(now called Audley Travel) . We wanted to visit Beijing and the Great Wall, see the Terra-cotta Army at Xi'an, sail down the Three Gorges, admire the scenery at Guilin. We wanted to be met at all airports and taken to a hotel by an English speaking guide. As it was difficult to book a cruise down the Yangzi until a couple of weeks before we left our itinerary was rejigged once we had got a booking on a cruise.

Both of us had read various books on China, such a Wild Swans, Death in Shanghai, Falling Leaves, Red Dust so we thought we knew what we could expect to experience in China. How wrong could we be?

With us we took the Lonely Planet guide to China, The River at the Centre of the World, A Single Pebble, and Beyond the Wall.

The unit of currency in China is the Yuan, worth about 1/8 dollars or 1/12 pounds. It is also called RMB(Renminbi - People's Money).

Briefly, here's how we spent each day:

So now read on ...

(But first beware that all links are to photographs which may take time to load. A link from a day's title is to a full page while a link within a day is to a single photograph.   If you have any comments please let us have them by clicking here .)

Saturday, September 29th - Swanmore to Chongqing

We left home at 3:15pm and waited 1 hour at Heathrow to check in. We had a salade nicoise and boarded the Air China Boeing 747 which took off at 8:45 and landed in Beijing on Sunday at 1pm after a miserable flight. No spirits were served and only Chinese films with partially visible English subtitles were shown on a single screen. Headphones with listening tubes were provided. The food was also of poor quality. We were met at the airport by Siân (all but one of our guides used an English name) who gave us our tickets for Chongqing and showed us how to get to the domestic flight and where to wait. Whilst waiting till 3:30 we spoke to a Chinese male student who was on his way back to Shenyang(North-east of Beijing), to be with his parents for National Day which coincides this year with the mid-Autumn festival(a rare coincidence). He showed us how he keyed in Chinese script characters into his IBM Thinkpad computer. We boarded the South Western Airways Boeing 727 and appeared to be the only Caucasians. We landed on time in Chongqing at about 5:30 and were met by Romy, another young female guide. We noticed that the Chinese check airline baggage tags and we were now getting used to looking for the 'Welcome Mr & Mrs Lawrence' placard. We were driven in a minibus to the Kinglead Hotel somewhere in the centre of the city which is home to 34 million people, a similar population to Canada. We dumped our bags in our 12th floor room and went for a tour of the hotel. The bedroom is just like a Marriott's and a much higher standard than we had expected.

Our son, Stephen, would have loved the sports facilities - a 16-lane bowling alley, squash court, numerous blue table-tennis tables, saunas, snooker tables and mah-jongg and bridge rooms. Graham was invited to play table tennis which he did and after winning one point gracefully left the table to let the two occupants continue. We were also invited to join the mah-jongg game but declined.  The tennis court was on a roof outside.

We ate in the Radience Coffee Bar of the hotel where we dined on a Chinese buffet - clams, oysters, mussels, prawns, abalone, salmon and various meats washed down with beer and water - all very tasty and only 183RMB. The decorations at the front of the hotel make it look like Christmas - lots of red and lights. We retired at 10pm which was only 3pm at home. China has one time zone(GMT+7) and does not mess around with notions of day-light saving.

Monday, October 1st - The carvings at Dazu

We were awoken at 7am and went down for a buffet breakfast - bacon, sausage, omelette, orange juice and coffee plus some hot noodles, orange slices and water melon. It was very foggy outside. Romy was waiting in the lobby at 8am and we all three got into the white Toyota minibus and drove to Dazu, 160 km west of Chongqing, mainly on concreted dual carriageways punctuated by many toll booths. We passed lots of small patch worked fields, some smaller than a tennis court. They were everywhere including steep hillsides. Irrigation systems abounded. We saw lotus flower plants growing in water as well as many rice paddy fields. Some groups of people waited for buses whilst others cycled, drove motorbikes or walked their pigs to market or stood in the middle of the rode. Horns are used a lot. 1 million motorbikes per year are produced by Chongqing factories.

At Dazu we walked around lots of Buddhist carvings sculpted out of the faces of cliffs. They were carved out more than 1000 years ago and had been spared the ravages of the cultural revolution because of their remoteness. Much of their original colours is still visible. We were asked by some school girls if they could take our photograph. Tall non-black haired white skinned people are a rarity in Dazu. We felt honoured. Everyone was very friendly, many saying 'hello' and smiling.

At noon we walked back to the minibus instead of taking one of the tricycle rickshaws driven by male or female drivers. On our way back to the town of Dazu we stopped and walked along a narrow paved path between paddy fields to a village which consisted of a couple of stone houses surrounding a village square rather like a farmyard. We were invited in to one of the 300 year-old houses but declined. At Dazu we had lunch in a large tourist hotel. We ate bland Chinese food whilst our driver and guide sat at the next table and had frogs legs as well as the dishes we had. Tour guides and drivers are forbidden to eat at the same table as tourists. They are supposed to eat workers meals away from the tourists. We had moon cakes which are only eaten on National Day. They were a bit like an Eccles cake.

We got back into the minibus and returned to Chongqing where we visited an artists village set in the midst of the city close to the Jialing River. 17 artists live in the group of houses. Many of their paintings are in museums but prints were on sale. We were given a talk by one of the artists, 80 year old Mr Liu, who was forced to spend the years of the cultural revolution working on a farm. After Mr Liu's talk we visited his studio.

Next stop was the Hongxing Pavilion set in a park from where one could get a good view of the city and the Yangzi and Jialing rivers although slightly obscured by the fog that continually hangs over the city - too much coal burning. In the park we saw a long mural painted by a single artist that depicted the passage of the Jangzi through the Three Gorges. Wedding photos were being taken in the park nearby where a lady was swinging with a couple of peacocks.

After the park we were taken to the People's Palace (seating capacity of 5000) which one gets to by climbing a large flight of steps from the very large People's Square. Dusk was now approaching and we persuaded Romy and Mr Chung, the driver, to be our guests at a restaurant that served the local speciality - Chongqing Hotpot. We all sat at a round table surrounding a bowl above a burner. The bowl was divided into two - one section had a chilli soup and the other a milder version. We selected our food from another table, some strange vegetables, lots of tripe and other offal, live eels, and noodles but we avoided the chickens feet and heads and other similar items and cooked it in the pot.

After the meal we were taken to the quay where we clambered down many steps to join the boat - the Victoria Dolphin. The cabin is a bit small but has a television, air conditioning, and a bathroom with a shower. We watched a video of the Three Gorges on the TV and then went to sleep.

Tuesday, October 2nd - Chongqing to Fengdu and further downstream

We awoke just after 7am and Jane went to the fitness room for a 20 minute spin on a bicycle. It's pouring with rain. We had breakfast at 8am, left Chongqing at 9am and joined the Yangzi, clay coloured and fast flowing water. We gathered in the bar at at 9:30 for an English version of an introduction to the boat, some of the staff and the trip followed by a demonstration of Tai Chi from Doctor Su. There are about a 100 travellers and a similar number of staff. Jane then lay down and performed Egyptian PT till lunch, not having got her 'sea' legs yet. Graham conversed with the cruise director, a tall Canadian called Kevin Hart who sported a shaven head. The boat has five 'floors' and we are on the third. Lunch was an excellent buffet and beer was freely supplied. We have been put on a table with a Swiss couple from Zurich and an Australian couple from near Sydney. There is space for two more at the table. It has now stopped raining but is very misty and whilst Graham takes his apres-beer snooze, Jane is writing this.

At 3pm the boat docked at Fengdu. We walked across pontoons lined by the boat's staff and up the slipway at the top of which got on a coach with the other 27 English speaking 'independent' travellers with a guide called Sarah, wearing a red coat and waving a yellow flag. We got dropped at the bottom of a ski lift. We strolled through the 'FIT WAY IN'(Fengdu International Tourists) and got tickets for the lift. It seemed odd getting on a ski lift without planks attached to your boots but we sat in pairs and climbed up to Ghost City as the drizzle dampened our spirits. At the top we joined the thousands of other tourists and were guided around the Buddhist temples and listened to the fairy tale stories. We admired the Monkey guard as Graham as born in the year of the monkey. We did not buy any incense or paper money to burn and send to our relatives in the next world. A third of the lift would be drowned when the dam is completed in 607 days time and Ghost City will become situated atop a mountain island in a lake.

We returned to the boat having purchased 5 bottles of beer at 20RMB saving 85RMB on bar prices - that's how expensive bar drinks were on board. Half an hour later, at 6pm, we had drinks with the Chinese captain. The meal was a good Chinese selection served by our waiter Bill which we washed down with beer as no wine was offered. We were joined at the table by an American couple from Grant's Pass, Oregon. After dinner we attended a concert given by the cruise director's Chinese wife, Jennifer Chen, who played a selection of interesting and enjoyable traditional Chinese tunes on a hammer dulcimer.

Wednesday, October 3rd - Fengjie to Zigui

Jane read most of the night as we noisily sailed down the river whilst Graham slept - quite a role reversal. We had breakfast at 8am, and sailed passed Fengjie. The intended height the water will reach once the dam is completed in 2009 is marked on the banks of the river by white boards with red 135M and 175M usually sited above grey stone buildings and below sparkling white tower blocks and other newly constructed homes none of which look like the houses depicted on a willow pattern plate. 1.3 million people will move.

We entered Qutang gorge with its steep sides and one way traffic system signalled by an arrow on a pole of a river guard's building. You need a lot of imagination as the river guide, Aaron, points out the limestone features which are meant to look like lions, rhinoceros and dragons. At one point the river is only 60 metres wide but 150 metres deep.

We continued down the river to Wushan and docked. We collected a lunch box and a bottle of water and were led to a motorised sampan. Unfortunately it was full because the Chinese Americans were expected to go on the Chinese speaking sampan. We got on the Chinese speaking sampan together with Aaron, the river guide, who'd translate for us. 40 people sat four abreast in the rear motored flat-bottomed boat with a sliding roof. We were taken up the Lesser Gorges on the Daning River. Its green waters make change from the muddy Yangzi. On the left hand side are the 6-inch square holes cut into the rock face about 60 feet above the water where once ran a plank roadway running for 450 km (sorry about the mixed measurement system but metrics is what we were told and imperial is how we estimate). The boat meanders slowly up the rapids. We see wild monkeys and a hanging coffin. We beached on a length of shale and hurried to hide behind boulders to rid ourselves of body fluids and wandered around admiring the multi-coloured pebbles. It was very sunny and when we re-board it only takes 1.3 hours to travel the 35 km back to the boat.

Once everyone has got back on board, that is, all plastic pass out badges have been handed back, we motored through the 40km long Wu gorge where we see the diminutive Goddess Peak, who was not taking a bath(hidden by cloud). We leave the municipality of Chongqing, once inside the province of Sichuan, and enter Hubei Province. After another hour we dock at Zigui and after dinner we get off the boat and enter a dockside theatre where we watch a colourful hour long display of Chinese dancers interrupted by a Chinese poet who nearly sent us to sleep whilst he writes a poem in Chinese script used a finger instead of a brush. Fortunately we sat in the front row and were not put off by the very noisy and boisterous Japanese contingent behind us. We return to the boat and retire at 10pm.

Thursday, October 4th - Zigui to Yichang and further downstream

Up at 6am this morning to get on deck to see the whole of the Xiling gorge and the sun rise. Actually it was only the first part of the gorge - the second part is below the dams. We saw a suspended coffin and a monument erected to an Englishmen, Cornell Plant, who wrote a navigation guide to the gorges and gave some of the obstructive rocks their flowery names. The Red Guard tried to blow it up but could not so instead they chiselled away the inscription. We stopped at Sandouping Village where we boarded a coach and were guided by our guide Max through the new town of Mao Peng to the site of the Three Gorges Dam. First, we visited the exhibition centre and then the highest point on the island in between the locks and the boat elevator where we wandered around for 20 minutes. Below us men like ants and vehicles like Dinky toys were crawling everywhere. On the return to the boat Max told us a few jokes most of which are noteworthy as we had not heard them before and it does illustrate that the Chinese do have a sense of humour which apparently also indicates a freedom of speech which we had already noticed. Here they are: We had lunch on board, paid tickets for a lottery which was to be won by the person who guessed the time the downstream gates of the Ghezhouba dam would open, and rested in the shade waiting for the boat to pass through the lock. We were short by more than an hour but we had high hopes that our Australian friends would win as they were only 5 minutes out. We listened to a very enlightening lecture given by Kevin on the pro and cons of the Three Gorges Dam. This was followed at 6:45pm by the captain's banquet at which the winner of the lottery was announced as a Chinese person who failed to collect their winnings - half of the lottery takings; the other half going to the crew's benefit fund. Did the fund get twice what was expected?

After the dinner the crew put on a short review for us all including a rendition of the runner up entry in the national TV competition to find the best delivery of a Chinese song given by a foreigner. It was performed by Kevin in a black mandarin style gown accompanied by Jennifer on the hammer dulcimer. We went to bed at 9:30pm at the end of a very long and hot day having seen the prettiest of the gorges.

Friday, October 5th - Wuhan to Beijing

The boat continued its journey down The Long River where the flood plain widened and the mountains disappeared into the distance. At certain points where there was no sign of habitation we were reminded of our trip down the Nile including seeing water buffalo. We got up at 7am and had breakfast. We packed up and had a lesson in Chinese from Aaron. We learnt the four tones which enable you to speak the Pinyin 'ma' so that it can mean mother, horse, numb or scold and that 'ba' can mean either eight or father depending on which tone you use. In addition we learnt a couple of useful phrases which augmented a sparse Chinese, the most important being spoken as 'shay shay boo' which means 'no thank you'.

This lesson was followed by an informative talk and question and answer session on 'Life in China today' from Kevin aided by an American who works for Motorola and lives in Beijing. As a rule only one child per family is allowed but in some provinces two are permitted. A fine is imposed for having more children. Education has to be paid for as has medical aid and pensions. There is no social security for being out of work. As Kevin says, China has implemented socialism with Chinese characteristics. English is now taught in preference to Russian in schools but politics replaces religious studies. After the talk we asked Kevin how long has he been able to hold such a discussion without the Public Security Bureau being informed. Six years ago he made a joke about Chiang Kaishek which was reported back to his company, Victoria Cruises, and he was asked to be more careful. Now everyone can speak much more freely.

After lunch we disembarked at Wuhan and were met by Flix, a male guide. who allowed our Swiss fellow travellers, Sabine and Andy to join us on our tour through Wuhan to the Hubei Bonsai Tree and Rock Museum. We saw lots of very large and interesting rocks including a 7 ton piece of quartz, ink stone, jade, chrysanthemum stone, dinosaur eggs and many fossilized fishes. We were then taken to the airport where we boarded our flight to Beijing.

On our arrival we were met once again by 22 year old Siân and the driver, Mr Lu (aka Harry), who drove us in the black Audi through Tiananmen Square to the nearby Guangzhou Hotel, where we booked into room 7033. The room was a very good 4-star standard with a television that showed English programs including CNN. After unpacking we ventured out at 8:30 in search of somewhere to eat. We visited some local bargain stores and then decided to chance our luck in an all-Chinese restaurant. We pointed out what we wanted to eat as it was all displayed on a table. After 10 minutes, stir fry vegetables, rice and two fish steaks were brought to accompany the tea and beer we were already drinking. The experience cost 70RMB and they would not even accept a tip. We walked back to the hotel which is a 15 minute walk away from Tiananmen Square and phoned our daughter, Emma, on the mobile which works in China. Mobile phones are everywhere.

Saturday, October 6th - Forbidden City, Lama Temple and Summer Palace

We arose at 7am and got ready slowly, making the most of CNN and we ate the buffet breakfast at 8am. Siân met us at 9am and Harry drove us to Tiananmen Square. As it is a holiday week the square is decorated with 300000 pots of plants. We saw a group of young pioneers who stand for 1 hour in the middle of the square. There was already a long queue for Mao's mausoleum. We walked through the Tiananmen gate to go to the Forbidden City. We spent along time walking through its various gates each guarded by a pair of lions, the female with her paw over a cub stand on the left whilst the male has his paw over an orb and stands on the right. As we were passing the display of old clocks a French women complained that all the objects were covered in dust and it was the dirtiest exhibit she had seen. It was pointed out that, without the dust, the objects would not look old. At the back of the palace we walked through the Imperial Garden containing many rocks, old love trees and old Chinese scholar trees.

Harry met us and drove us to the Lama Temple which has more attractive gates and 4 temples, each of which contain a better Buddha than the previous one. The first temple contained a huge golden Buddha with a huge smile and even larger tummy. He is called the Happy Buddha. The last but one housed the tallest Buddha in the world (according to the notice outside which referred to the Guinness Book of Records, 1990). It is 23m high and made from a single piece of sandalwood - quite amazing.

Harry then drove us to lunch at the Temple of Heaven where we ate in a large tourist restaurant whilst our help ate elsewhere. Jane asked for soy sauce with which she flavoured her rice. We have since learnt that rice is often not served, and if it is, is served last and eaten only as a filler. Only children have soy sauce on their rice to encourage them to eat it all. After lunch we were taken to a tea house where we were introduced to the fascinating Chinese tea ceremony. Much washing of tea and heating of pot and handleless cups. Three sips only to down the tea. One each for health, wealth and happiness. Several different teas were served freely and then Jane bartered for our first souvenirs - 3 mugs that change their pictures with heat.

Next we went on a long drive through Beijing to the Summer Palace, constructed by the dowager Empress, Cixi. We walked around it and along the 730m corridor which is covered on the inside with more than a million hand painted pictures. We had a quick glance at Cixi's jade boat and then we got on a Dragon boat and were carried to the other side of the large lake where we were met by Harry. We'd done a lot of walking and were happy to know we were now on the return journey, during which Harry played a cassette containing numbers by Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and other examples of 'Western decadence'. We visited a pearl factory shop selling cultured pearls. Jane performed another bartering act, which she claims she does badly, and bought some earrings and we were allowed to keep the oyster shell we'd selected at the start of the tour and four of the small pearls it contained.

We got back to the hotel about 5:30 and Jane went for a swim whilst Graham, who has now got a cold, watched the TV. At 8pm we went to eat in the hotel's Cantonese Restaurant. Jane read the menu and saw items £40 and £90 and was shocked. Were we in the right restaurant? Further on in the menu were many more reasonably priced items so we did not order the shark fins, abalone or birds' nests but had a good and not too expensive meal.

Sunday, October 7th - Silk Market and Peking Opera

When we awoke Graham had lost his voice. We were nearly last for breakfast in the Green Garden Cafe in the hotel's foyer and we left at 9:30 to find the Silk Market. We decided to take the underground train. On the way we walked passed a colourlful area with plastic cacti and lots of pooted plants. We descended a set of steps to the subway, as they call the underground. It costs 3RMB to travel anywhere on the two lines - a red east/west central line and a blue loop line. The small paper ticket is torn in half by a ticket checker who sits at the entrance to the platforms. We asked someone which stop was nearest the Silk Market and which train we should get. There's one platform with a track at each side. The trains are very crowded. We travelled 5 stops. We walked down a very crowded street of stalls and bought 2 shirts and a pair of binoculars but no silk. We then retraced our steps to the Friendship Store around which we wandered without buying anything. We were not tempted by the Madonna CDs, ginseng, flavoured condoms or 300000RMB pieces of jade. We then wandered north through the Ratan park where we saw lots of flowerpot scupltures and made our way to another another market area. On the way we walked down a small Chinese residential street and ate a 50RMB lunch in a local restaurant. The market which was close to IBM and many embassies was very small and disappointing. We noticed some streets had phone booths every 20 metres. We continued our wanderings along willow and ginko lined avenues,passed the Eden club, loads of parked bicycles, and got on the subway at Denzummen. You choose the train which goes in the direction of the next stop. We returned to the hotel at 4:30 and were a little tired.

At 6pm we were met by Siân who took us off to a hotel where we had a meal with Peking Duck followed by the opera. At our request Siân ate with us as it was not part of the 'contract'. It was the first time she'd eaten with foreigners. After the meal we entered the theatre in the hotel and watched some of the artists apply their thick make up. We took our seats at a table at the front of the theatre in the hotel to watch an hour's performance of 3 plays - The Lion Inn, The Jade Bracelet and The Stealing of the Herbs from the Immortal Mountain. The dialogue is in an ancient form of Chinese unintelligible to most of the audience so intermittent words in Chinese and English were displayed on screens at the sides of the proscenium arch. There was a lot of cymbal bashing, screechy string instruments, acrobatics and excellent juggling. An hour was long enough.

Monday, October 8th - Great Wall to Xi'an

We awoke to the alarm ringing at 6am and to find that the US & UK had started bombing in Afghanistan. We were a little worried for our safety in Shanghai at the end of the week as we were to fly out a couple of days before the start of the APEC meeting which was to be attended by Dubya Bush. We had an early breakfast, checked out using Hong Kong dollars and got into the car by 7:30. The next 2 hours were spent negotiating the Beijing traffic, Harry driving us in his black Audi A4. We had a short stop at a jade factory shop where we saw some beautiful pieces but so expensive that even bartering wouldn't have helping so we left with nothing. On to Ju Yong Guan, the nearest part of the wall to Beijing, but the least visited as it is very steep. The temperature barely reached 7C and it was misty but, undeterred, we set off up the wall. Graham and Siân walked a little higher than Jane did. The steps were very steep in places. It was great to see and on a clear day it must look wonderful. Some persimmons were on sale as was a pearl oyster shell (300RMB!). There were also many persimmon trees.

As we were too early for lunch, Siân asked if we'd like to see the Ming Tombs. We thought we'd see all the stone statues but no, we went to the Chang Ling tomb. It was another interesting experience and we saw crown flowers and large-leafed oak trees. Some of the Chinglish translations of the signs was hilarious. The Chinese do not use rules when hyphenating so we often read 'the' hyphenated on to two lines with a hyphen after the 't'.

A short drive took us to a Friendship shop and a huge tourist restaurant where we had a good lunch. Jane bargained in the shop and bought a jade 'happiness' ball and a Christmas decoration. An hour or so later we arrived at Beijing main railway station and, after waiting for some time with crowds of others, we passed through the ticket gate and walked to platform 7 where we boarded the T55 Beijing to Xi'an express leaving at 15:22. We bought some water and beer on the platform which was the cheapest we'd found. Siân saw us into our cabin - 2 beds and not much else and the furthest from the loo.

Travelling through the countryside in the pouring rain we see rural areas and notice that the portions of land are larger than those around Chongqing - lots of maize. The train is due to arrive at 6am in Xi'an, a journey lasting 14.5 hours. Jane declares that some people enjoy train journeys and there are many enthusiasts travelling the world to experience different journeys but she is not one of these. At 5pm we spent an hour in the 'restaurant' car where we managed to order and eat a chicken dish with rice and soup plus a bottle of water and a can of beer - all for 53RMB. It started raining again and we stopped at a station. We think there was a change of engines as we started travelling in the opposite direction. We did our best to get some sleep under our duvets.

Tuesday, October 9th - Xi'an to Guilin

At 5am we were awoken by a railway staff lady who had difficulty explaining that the train would arrive at 5:50 in Xi'an, anyway we did. We were met by Linda and Mr Jo who took us to a hotel to eat breakfast. We were they only ones there. We abluted and ate the buffet breakfast. Linda collected us at 7:30 and we drove out of Xi'an to the Terra-cotta Army. We were too early at 8am by 30 minutes and the place was closed. However some smooth talking by Linda allowed us in so we had a very rare private viewing of the bronze and gold chariots and horses, followed by the enclosed Pit 3 where there remains a lot of excavating to perform but there is the famous statues of an archer and a general. The enclosed Pit 2 contains the headquarters for the other parts of the army from those in Pit 1 which we walked to next. Pit 1 occupies an area larger than the size of a football pitch and is under a vast roof. Here we saw our first tourists - a coach load of noisy Americans. Lots of life-size soldiers stand erect facing east and the entrance to the enclosure. The soldiers are about 2000 years old and were discovered by a peasant in 1974 while he was digging a well. The peasant now signs and sells his book in the souvenir shop. Until the peasant did his digging nobody knew of the soldiers' existence because the builders were all killed when the army was formed. There are many more sites to excavate including the tomb of the emperor but people are wary of digging up Chinese tombs, situated under vast mounds of earth, because they are all booby-trapped. By the way the Lonely Planet says visitors are not allowed to take photos unless they pay a fee or are a world leader. People who break this rule can expect to have their film confiscated. We did not pay and were not prevented from taking photos. We left Pit 1 and watched the 360° circumvision film which most visitors see first.

We returned back to the city to visit the Grand Mosque, which had no dome or minarets but had Chinese gates, halls and courtyards - all very peaceful and beautiful. Next we walked along a market street where Jane bargained for a pair of walnuts embellished with carved Buddhas.

Back into the minibus and on to the North gate. Xi'an is the 'intactest walled city in the world' proclaimed a Chinglish notice. We climbed up the wall to see the city. Next we went and took another visit to a tea ceremony where Linda stayed with us as she was thirsty. It was similar to that in Beijing but different teas were used and we did not buy any mugs as they didn't have any. Instead we surprised Linda and bought a packet of black tea and then went to the airport.

After paying the statutory 50RMB per person for airport construction fees we boarded the plane for a two-hour flight south to Guilin (pronounced 'gwayleen'). We were met by Lily and Mr Gui. Guilin derives its name from Gui (Osmanthus) and Lin(Wood) but Lily gave us a much longer and more romantic description of its naming. We were taken, at our request for food, to the Asian Pacific restaurant where Lily selected our meal with help from us from the all-Chinese menu. We selected our fish and shrimps from tanks which, after they were cooked, we ate with fresh vegetables, pork, and chicken and mushroom soup washed down with Osmanthus wine, which was our first taste of Chinese wine. It was 18% alcohol and slightly sweet. We turned down the opportunity to eat snake and turtles.

After struggling through the meal we were taken to a wharf by the river Li, close to the Liberty bridge, and onto a boat to watch the cormorant fishing. A lone fisherman stands with a long bamboo pole on a 20 x 2 ft bamboo raft with 4 cormorants sitting at its edge and 2 paraffin lamps at the bow. The birds dive off the raft, swim around and catch a fish which they cannot swallow because there is a tie around their necks. They swim back to the raft and clamber aboard. The fisherman extracts the big fish and gives a reward of a smaller fish to the cormorant. The cormorant washes out its mouth and dives back into the water to catch another fish. Apparently one cormorant can catch enough fish to feed five people per day. The cormorant is lucky, along with the water buffalo and Chinese people because they are the only animals the Chinese do not eat. After the fishing we were taken to the Park Hotel where we were glad to get to bed.

Wednesday, October 10th - Guilin to Yangshou

Another 6:30am call, breakfast and a long drive through the countryside with mother pigs and piglets walking in the road, bicycles, small farming areas and buffalo ploughing strips of fields. Lily told us that four most important features of Guilin are its caves, its green hills, its pretty rocks and its clear water. Lily also told us that the four most important features of the Li River are its crystal beauty, its fantastic scenery, its green world and its dreamy mirages. We found we had to agree with her. Eventually we arrived at the wharf to find about 20 cruise boats moored on the Li River. At 9:30 we untied and had a truly enjoyable journey for about 4 hours down the river. The limestone pinnacles (created when India crashed into Asia), water buffalo, terraced farms, and general river life were all quite enchanting. Lunch, prepared at the rear of the boat, was served on board and was very good. We had been encouraged to buy a local so we bought the cheapest (a rip-off at 50RMB) - toffee water chestnuts. They were really excellent and enough for us to share with the other 6 English travellers seated at our table. We saw some magnificent scenery and this being China, everything has its name. 4 rocks have the shape of bats in flight and they are called the Bat Rock and welcome tourists. Another is notable for its light and dark cliffs and it is the 'famous' Nine Horses Rock. When you visit China don't forget to take an extra dose of imagination.

On arrival at the the docking place at Yangshou we were met by Yuan, a 28 year old lady and her nephew. We walked for about 10 minutes carrying all our luggage and arrived at our hotel, the Paradise Resort. It was very hot but the room was pretty good and as it had air-conditioning we were happy.

After a short rest we had a shower and went for a walk around the streets of Yangshou. We walked though the street market looking at sugar cane, fish, snakes, frogs, all for sale together with lovely fresh green vegetable and fruit. Jane bought an umbrella for 15RMB (after bargaining) on the assumption that it might rain again before we left China. It didn't.

We finally returned to the hotel and watched the sunset and drank the free welcome drink beer at the bar. A wedding was taking place in the main restaurant. As the guest arrived they were given a cigarette by the groom and lit by the bride. Why does the bride in China always stand on the right? Because the women is always right. The guests give fire-crackers and money. The fire-crackers are fixed together and are set off before the start of the meal.

We wandered around and found another eating room so we went in. There seemed to be a little problem but we did not understand. Finally someone came who could speak English. They said there was to be a show of traditional Chinese dancing and if we wanted to stay it would cost us 120MB in cash. We are not on here for a rehearsal so we stayed having been told it would be better than Peking Opera. We had the set menu - soup, stuffed snails, prawns, fish cooked in beer, vegetables and Guilin noodles all washed down by beer and lit by candles that kept blowing out because of the strong air-conditioning. It was great and only cost 67RMB for the two of us. During the meal the dancing took place on the small dance floor at the front of the room, one table away from us. It consisted of dancing, juggling, unicycling and a young Chinese acrobat who could double up and fit completely inside a 1ft x 3ft cylinder. Towards the end of the meal all the other diners sang Happy Birthday in Chinese followed by a rendition in English. A man blew out the many candles and the cake was cut. We were the first to be given two large pieces. After the cake distribution the Karaoke began as did a small amount of dancing. As no English songs were chosen we left and retired to bed as we have to get up at 6am again.

Thursday, October 11th - Cycling through the countryside to Yangshou

Up at 6am, breakfast and out at 7:30. We were met by Yuan and picked up 12-geared mountain bikes (6 less gears than we have at home but the same make). We drove through the town to a bank on the Li River. The small motorized sampan arrived and we put our bikes on its rear deck. It is illegal for foreigners to travel on the river on anything other than a tourist cruise boat but our trip had been arranged by the tourist office. We then proceeded down the Li River for about 3 hours to Puli. At one point we had to hide inside the sampan to make sure we were not spotted by the river police. On the way we saw more magnificent scenery, wonderful reflections and river life in detail. We stopped at one small village where we wandered around admiring the buildings and the men playing cards but the cards were blue and about 3in x 1in covered with Chinese characters. Yuan was a bit upset that they were playing cards at that time of the morning as she said they'd probably been playing all night.

We docked close to a floating bridge at Puli. We unloaded the bikes and set off through Puli. At the edge of the town Jane and Yuan wanted the loo so Yuan took Jane off into a primary school whilst Graham stood like a lemon guarding the bikes. The pupils were all having a lecture in the school yard. The loos out the back were in a brick building which provided cover over a pit divided into 3 stalls. As the queue of small girls was quite long and the loos were a bit smelly the two cyclists relieved themselves behind a tree. We then spent a couple of hours cycling 15km, much on a dirt track, through amazing countryside - rice paddies, osmanthus trees, views of limestone pinnacles. We saw the Moon Hill, a very large hole through a pinnacle but we did not climb it. Shortly after we arrived at Yuan's house and sat down for about an hour while she cooked us lunch with her mother. Graham tried to amuse Yuan's nephew. A Chinese couple arrived led by Yuan's sister and they dined outside. Yuan lives with 7 of her relatives in a building in front of which they have built a 3 storey building containing 12 ensuite double bedrooms and a ground floor where we ate. The building was started in February this year and is not quite finished. When complete it will be another guest house in the small village. The lunch was worth waiting for - chicken with Chinese asparagus, green vegetables, rice and about 20 tiny omelettes stuffed with some pork mixture.

The sun was now out and the temperature was rising. A women took her water buffalo and calf for a stroll. The view from the top of the extension was magnificent. It was quite hot cycling the 8km back to Yangshou passed a Buddhist monastery. On returning to the hotel we had a large beer before going to our room for a well earned rest. We had a repeat of the set menu in the Chinese restaurant at the hotel where we were astonished to see and hear a group of Chinese all speaking English. They were from New Zealand and could not speak Chinese.

Friday, October 12th - Yangshou to Shanghai

Another early 6am call and we thought holidays were meant to be relaxing. We packed and had breakfast where we pointed out to the New Zealand Chinese what should make them feel at home - Anchor butter. A minibus driven by Mr Gui and Lily arrived from Guilin. Yuan was there to wave us off at 7:30. The drive to Guilin airport for our 11am flight was very interesting. Lily gave us a present of candied tiny golden tangerines - a Guilin speciality. She regaled us with lots of Chinese fairy tales and gave us the recipe for oil tea. We drove through Guilin and it became apparent that Mr Gui had problems with his vehicle. The clutch had gone or maybe it was something similar but we did make it to the airport with time to spare, despite driving very slowly.

It was sad to say goodbye to Lily who asked to call us her brother and sister and invited us to stay with her and her husband the next time we visit Guilin. The flight to Shanghai took 2 hours and we had a reasonable lunch. On arrival we were met by Lilly (2 Ls in her name) but had to wait 10 minutes for the minibus as it was stuck in traffic. The APEC meeting is here next week so everywhere is very busy.

We arrived at the 11 storey Peace Hotel on the Bund and were allocated a very nice room as there were no standard rooms left. We got the hotel to buy 2 train tickets to Suzhou for us tomorrow and for this privilege we paid 80RMB, double the cost of the tickets. We unpacked and then went for a walk down the Nanking Road, the famous shopping street and dodged all the cyclists. We bought a mahjongg set in the Hue Lai department store but could not find the other things we wanted. We walked to the People's Square and then returned on the subway almost back to the hotel. The subway is slightly more modern than that in Beijing. They use recyclable plastic credit card size tickets and mechanical ticket checkers. We wandered around the back streets and bought some beer and water. Up till now a bottle of water had cost between 3 and 6 RMB. Now it cost 1.80RMB - just shows how inflated the tourist area prices are. The beer was also the cheapest at 4.75RMB for a 640ml bottle of Tsing Tao beer.

We had dinner in the Dragon and Phoenix restaurant of the hotel overlooking the Huangpu River with all the tall buildings bedecked with colourful neon lights. The meal was very tasty if not a little pricey. We had duck with ginger, chilli chicken, mixed veg and fried rice. We also had our first bottle of red wine. The bottle of Dynasty Red cost 110RMB, about 1/3 of a factory cleaner's monthly wage. We then went out and walked the length of the Bund. It was very pretty and packed with people but did help walk off some of the food. On returning to the hotel we had a couple of very expensive beers in the Jazz bar where the Old Peace Hotel Jazz Band play every night. We'd seen on a TV program that some of the players are in their 80's. Most of them have been playing together for more than 40 years and they still play very well.

Saturday, October 13th - A day trip to Suzhou

Up at 6am, and had breakfast at 7am in the same restaurant we ate in last night. We watched the 3 Tai Chi groups exercising on the Bund besides the kite flyers. We took a taxi and arrived at the Shanghai railway station at 8:30. We found our seats (54 and 55) in carriage 10 of the T257 express train. 5 minutes before we were due to leave at 9am a Chinese picked up courage and asked us, in English, which seats had we booked. We showed him the tickets and he pointed out that one of the Chinese characters meant that we should be sitting upstairs so we moved.

At 9:39 promptly the train pulled into Suzhou station, 50 miles west of Shanghai. We made our way outside and looked around for our guide for the day. We spotted our placard-less guide wandering in our direction. We recognized him even though he wore shades. 'Welcome to Suzhou' said John Morton, a friend who lives close to us in Swanmore and who is currently residing in Suzhou where he has set up a factory in the boom city inhabited by more than 6 million people.

It seems we walked miles as we visited the Silk Museum, Suzhou Museum (once the home of Taiping leader, Li Xicheng), and the Humble Administrators Garden (a world heritage site and well worth a visit). We then made our way to lunch in a restaurant where what you eat you select from a row of counters and the price is put, using a chop, onto a card. We ate a delicious meal of snails (probably cultivated and a bit like big winkles), beans, a spicy diced beef dish, and very large prawns all washed down with beer. We then took a taxi to a blind massage place where Jane and Graham spent a wonderfully relaxing (so Jane says) 45 minutes having our backs, feet and neck massage by a blind man. The experience cost us each 30RMB. We then visited the Sheraton hotel to go to the loo and then proceeded, via a pagoda, to the Pan Men gate where we saw some Chinese gymnasts and another double-jointed young girl performing mind-boggling contortions. Nearby we clambered up the steep arch of the Wumen Qiao humpbacked bridge which crosses one of the many canals that has earned Suzhou the title of 'The Venice of China'. We then went around a enclosed market where we saw a lot of interested sites - stalls of just eggs, oyster mushrooms, and others.

We took a bus and a taxi to visit John's apartment where we revitalized ourselves on G and T - not a tipple that Graham normally drinks but it went down well. We got in a taxi to a foot reflexology clinic where John is trying to rid himself of asthma and learn some new Chinese words. We were impressed with John's command of the local tongue. The three of us were the only patients. We sat in a row of 3 armchairs and dipped our feet in very hot disinfectant for 15 minutes whilst the reflexologists smoothed out the callouses on their knuckles. After a further 30 minutes of foot torture they declared Jane to be fit but Graham had a bowel or colon problem. A notice declared that 'Your health is under your feet but your life is in your hands'. By this time it was 7:15 so we bid the lovely Chinese torturers goodbye and took a taxi to the station. John had got his secretary to buy tickets for our return to Shanghai. We said a sad farewell to John and thanked him for a wonderful, if not too short, day and caught the stopping train back to Shanghai. Only a single level for passengers so we couldn't sit in the wrong seats.

On returning to the hotel we found that a security check, similar to those at the airports, had been installed - maybe an important APEC member is staying. We ate at 9:30 in the same hotel restaurant and had almost the same food. We tried to use the Bund tourist tunnel to get to the other side of the Huangpu River but it was closed. It's only open between 10am and 10pm. We walked back to the hotel to pack and watch CNN.

Sunday, October 14th - Shanghai to Swanmore

Lilly picked us up at 9:45 and we were driven to the new Shanghai international airport in Pudong. They are building a Maglev railway from the airport to the centre of Shanghai, 26km away which will open in 2003. The Virgin Atlantic plane left on time at 12:30. We watched several English films on seatback screens and had good food and drinks - such a change from our outbound flight. We landed at Heathrow 20 minutes early at 17:30 and were met by Mary who drove us home where we found a tidy and clean house and a double bed.

During our time in China its population had grown by 600000, about 3 times the population of Southampton.