I'm still playing catch up with my blog, but am now getting there...slowly! I have tried putting pictures on honestly, but am having great difficulty with this and may need to put aside a whole day in an internet cafe to get this done.
I last left off in Xian where the first section of my Dragoman truck tour had just finished and we'd had some terrible weather for a couple of weeks. Therefore we left Xian in an extremely damp and smelly truck with wet seats, water dripping onto your head and feeling like you could have the same experience in England for free!
Although I was sad to be losing some of my friends, some nice new people joined the tour and some other nice people stayed. In particular I had a couple of friends Katie and Tracy to have a laugh with and who were essential in helping me to keep my sanity whilst dealing with the more annoying of the group members (I am not able to mention names as some of them may read this).
The first day was a long boring drive in the rain with a few near misses on the hill roads with hair pin bends. We spent the night in a small town where we had dinner in one of the many outside stall type restaraunts that they call street food here. Basically someone with a burner and a couple of woks and a deep fat fryer will cook you various types of kebab meat on sticks, huge crayfish and some veggies. We were sitting in the centre of the town next to their square and despite it being filled with women doing a dance class that was a cross between ballroom, salsa and disco - as usal we ended up being the entertainment and drew a huge crowd to watch the foreigners eat!
We then travelled to the incredible Wudan Shan mountain, which is where 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' was filmed. It was indeed stunning and I am not surprised it is one of the places used for film sets or paintings. It is a huge national park area and there are a couple of high peaks completely covered with lush green forests and narrow winding roads snaking their way up the hillsides and across old bridges. There are local buses to get around, but you can also walk up paths or take a cable car to one of the peaks.
It rained quite heavily for some of the time we were there, but this did not stop us going exploring. There was also really heavy shifting mist blowing across the mountain and sometimes you could barely see fifteen metres in front of you, but then a gap would appear and you suddenly realise there was a building there or would briefly catch a glimpse of the forests disappearing into the clouds.
There are some little clusters of houses and various monastaries and kung fu schools. Indeed we were staying right next to the Wusho Art Kung Fu Academy which is meant to be the best place to study and is a founding school of Tai Chi. You could hear the students practising with their shouts and also the sound of clashing swords. We visited the school and saw some of the classes with the young men practising punches and flying kicks, but also using weapons such as bamboo poles and swords. It was funny to see some boys messing around and when their teacher was not looking one of them got whacked in the face with a sword (they are only thin to practice with but he nevertheless gave his friend a good kick to the stomach in return!)
Some of the Masters put on a special display of the various forms of martial art they teach here and that was amazing. Both the men and women have really long hair that is tied up in a bun on top of their heads and the men wear a blue satin outfit, whilst the women wear an identical pink one complete with little pumps on their feet and white knee high socks.
The men took it in turns to do a sequence with their weapon of choice which included num chuks (spelling?), bamboo cane, spade, sword and a ball and chain implement. The man with the chain was incredible and did this move where he lay on his back and then span it around underneath his body whilst bouncing off the floor. There were metal sparks flying everywhere. The noise of the implements could be really loud and the speed at which they used it was unbelievable. You just hoped they had a good grip as if they had let go and it hit you then you probably would never get up again!
The women demonstated Tai Chi and were incredibly slow and graceful in their movments. One of them was absolutely stunning and looked like she could be an actress in a kung fu movie.
The men also showed some sparring with the various weapons and how to attack your oponents using them. They were incredibly agile and fast doing flying kicks to each others heads before balancing in the air on their weapons. It made me regret having given up karate as it would be fantastic to be able to do some of those moves.
We also visited the Purple Cloud Monastary, which is a really stunning monastary over a number of levels up on the mountainside with a moat, dragon sculptures, bright paintings of sea monsters and other mythical creatures along with Taoist Gods with huge heads and fangs. The mist made the place look really mysterious as you could not see from one section to the next and as people walked off into the mist they looked like ghosts.
We also went up to the peak and caught the little cable car steeply up the mountainside. The journey was quite spooky as the fog was so dense that you could not see anything above, below or around you and it was a little disorientating. However, you could hear the sound of waterfalls as you passed by, but just not see them and due to the echoes around the mountain you had no idea from which direction they came. On the way down I managed to get a great picture of the cable cars slowing disappearing upwards into the clouds and it looks really strange.
From the cable car it was another walk up many flights of stone steps to the temples on the peak. The various temples we passed had vivid green tiled roofing with upturned corners and I got some good pictures of these next to the fog and forests. The walls leading up the side of the steps were covered with gold padlocks and there must have been thousands of them. Apparently people put them here for good luck and they look really pretty lining the steps and gave some more good photo opportunities when the fog cleared to get them with the forests appearing out of the mist behind.
On the day we left, the fog lifted and we were finally able to see clearly across the mountains and forests, however, the fog had given the place a really ethereal atmosphere and this is what the woman in the Crouching Tiger film had thrown herself from the bridge into.
We then travelled to Yichang, which is a pleasant city next to the Yangtse River and had my first experience of the spicy Sichuan food. I spent most of the evening crying, sneezing and blowing my nose from my chicken with chilli peppers and peppercorns, side vegetables with chilli pepper and the extra chilli pepper on the side in case it had not been quite nuclear enough for your tastebuds.
The walk down by the riverside was interesting with lots of boats, food stalls and the little outdoor gyms you see in the towns here, where adults will go on what looks like a children's playground and swing their legs back and forth or spin wheels around to exercise their arms. I also had my first sight of the containers of live scary looking marine life that is eaten here and much of which I could not recognise. They kill the large fish by grabbing them and smacking their heads hard against the pavement with a huge thwack! I have still not been able to eat anything that I had seen whilst it was still alive.
From there we drove to the extremely unexciting (at least for me) Three Gorges Dam. This is a huge concrete dam with a garden next to it and which appears to be a tourist attraction. However, for me the best part of it was being able to find some stamps to send my postcards.
That night we jumped on the ferry boat that we were to spend the next three nights on whilst cruising up the Yangtse River. I had expected this to be a really beautiful and romantic cruise, but unfortunately it was not so. I shared a tiny cabin with four women on a four storey ferry with a big ballroom, dining room, games room and upper deck. All of the other guests on the ferry were Chinese and as I was to find out, the Chinese on holiday like to have fun Chinese style, which basically means either playing mah jong whilst chain smoking, drinking heavily and eating at breakneck speed, talking abnormally loudly or most cruelly subjecting the world to kareoke (starting at about 8.00 in the morning).
The ferry floor was made of metal and would buckle underneath you as you stepped on certain parts causing a huge bang. The children obviously found this great fun and also liked to run down the corridoors. Unfortunately for me my cabin was on the level directly below the ballroom and so bore the brunt of the footsteps, floor buckle bangs and kareoke that even the best earplugs in the world could not drown out.
On the first day we had all got up early for what was the highlight of the cruise by catching a smaller boat into the tributories and chugging through the narrow gorges admiring the limestone scenery and watching the locals go by in their little fishing boats.
We also caught smaller rowing boats into an even narrower part of the river where two extremely wiry little men from a local ethnic group rowed us with long oars upstream whilst our guide who sounded and looked like a little cat meowed her way through a number of local songs on her little and wholly unecessary microphone.
The men puffed and panted and sweated buckets whilst rowing us and decided to try and have a bit of a race with some of their collegues who were pulling Chinese tourists in other boats. However, one of our oars cracked and we lost to the cheers of the chanting Chinese. The rowers then disembarked and recreated their custom of pulling the boats against the current. On our tickets it said the tradition was for them to do this naked, but having seen the men I was glad that they did not subject us to this. Eventually the men jumped into the boat and we span around back into the fast flowing stream giving the men a well earned break.
We were all looking forward to having a peaceful afternoon on the ferry, but the kareoke kicked in and it all went downhill as the high pitched cat strangulation noises to tinny music blared loudly. One of the women on the trip was Chinese and said that they had been singing some songs from the Cultural Revolution alongside (alleged) love songs and the occasional Chinese translation of a Lionel Richie song! It was truly painful!
The other stop on the ferry that day was to a temple with some paintings and sculptures on a hillside before sitting in the square and trying to get some relief from the now unbelievable humidity that left you drenched in sweat, even if you were not moving. That evening some of us played cards in the game room with the door firmly closed to block out the singing (and I mean that in its broadest terms!)
The next day we were awoken to the... you've guessed it... more kareoke. My room mate Katie just said 'they are pure evil!' and covered her head with her pillow. When one particularly older gent began apparently weeping down the microphone, I felt that I either needed to hold a pillow permanently over my own face until I stopped moving or just get up and go and put on my Ipod extremely loudly. So, I chose the latter.
There was only one 'attraction' that day, which was a trip to the Fendu Ghost Town. This was apparently meant to have some cultural significance after being cleared out and used as an internment camp by the Government years ago to deal with any protesters and leaving it like a ghost town with just a few older people remaining. You would think this would have a cemetary, museum or suchlike. However, to our surprise it was a small theme park based roughly an old fable and had a (probably less than) ten second ghost ride past a wobbly turquoise rubber hand and a statue of a skeleton. If that was not scary enough there was loud 'scary music' to accompany it. The rest of the park had statues of monsters, freaks, gargoyles, bats and the usual array of tat for sale, but unusually including metal koshes if you wanted one as for a present for your child!
There was a temple on another hill with some nice buildings and pagodas and gave a good view across the river after you had walked up to it. However, as you may be guessing I was feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the whole Yangtse River experience.
Therefore, when the ferry docked the next morning I leapt off in relief and had a couple of hours to try and catch up on the sleep I had missed, before setting off to explore the town of Chongqing. There was a thousand year old monastary slap bang in the middle of a load of modern high rise tower blocks with them almost touching it. I guess town planning has a different meaning in China.
However, that night the main square near our hotel was the scene for a cultural festival and had a string orchestra playing lots of well known classical music whilst the night sky was lit up with a huge laser show. We sat down by the riverside and enjoyed the atmosphere and had beer and chips.
The next day we left to visit the Baoding Shan Caves. which were some incredible caves set into the hillside within a huge garden complex. The caves had statues of Buddhas and mythical creatures as well as quite scary looking scenes of hell and included quite specific versions of hell such as 'knee chopping hell' with people duly having their knees chopped off or someone appearing to have their innards scooped out by a man with a hippo for a head weilding a spoon (what a way to spend eternity!). There was also a huge golden shrine with hundreds of golden hands appearing out of a large Buddha and my first sight of the now familiar Christmas tree of minature Buddhas in fairy lights that seem to be a feature of many of the temples. Apparently for a donation you can have your name put into one.
That night we arrived in the large city of Chengdu to the accompaniment of some horrific storms with torrential rain and winds that were blowing roofing off some of the buildings. However, the next day all was calm and I went off to explore the city and enjoy having some home comforts such as Starbucks coffee! I went to a large antiques market that was interesting to walk around and saw lots of old book stores selling copies of Mao's Little Red Book as well as other communist memorabilia, old pieces of jade, ivory and furniture.
If I had not learnt my lesson about spicy Sichuan food, then a trip to the Sichuan hotpot that evening certainly brought it home. With this you have to cook your own food in a bubbling cauldren of usually water and herbs or in this case oil and chilli peppers, or perhaps it should be chilli peppers with a drop of oil! As per usual I finished many tissues crying my way through the meal.
We also went to the Sichuan Opera whilst in the town and saw this incredible performance with elaborate and ornate costumes, dancing and acrobatics, mask changing, fire eating, shadow puppets and ordinary puppet show. The costumes are bright coloured silk and decorated with patterns of flowers or dragong and full of glittering jewels. They wear jewel encrusted crowns or headpieces with huge plumes of feathers and dramatic make up. Then to finish it off the outfits have brightly coloured silk high platform shoes, which they manage to dance and do acrobatics in.
The singing takes a bit of getting used to as it is extremely high pitched and accompanied with instruments similar to violins but only more high pitched, cymbals and drums. However, the show was to demonstrate the various forms of opera and so included big ensemble numbers, two dancers with teapots with incredibly long spouts who could somersault and then pour the tea perfectly into a cup without spilling a drop and a comedy number between an annoyed wife and her drunk husband. However, one of the most impressive pieces were the dancers who flick a fan, click fingers or turn their head and change a mask on their face to a different one in a flash. I have absolutely no idea how they do this as just as I thought I had worked it out, but they took them all off and then put one back on again, blowing my theory that they were thin pieces of elastic and could ping off their faces and up their sleeves.
The puppets were really great too as they are really gracefuly in how they are made to dance and can even catch and throw flowers. One man did a shadow puppet show that I had assumed would be the usual lame rabbit or seagull. However, he managed to do things like a dog eating a rabbit with his hands and a great owl perching on his head that I have tried to recreate myself but with little success.
The next day we went to one of the highlights of coming to China, namely to see the pandas. We went to the main Panda breeding centre and it was absolutely wonderful. There were big sunken enclosures for the pandas of different ages to roam around in and do their favourite activities of sleeping and eating. I reckon even if the enclosures were not surrounded by a pit with a wall, they probably would still not move as life is just too easy there for them!
We saw an enclosure with some young adults who were very active and extremely funny. They would sit behind a bamboo bush and straddle it with their legs so you could only see their feet before pulling it into their mouths and just munching until you could actually see their faces again. Another one had an extreme case of an itchy bottom and kept rubbing it up against trees to everyone's amusement.
The adolescents were true to form and passed out asleep and only moved to scratch or turn over. There were some older ones who were really big, but not as bouncy and furry as the younger ones. However, the funniest were the toddler age ones who I could have sat and watched all day. There were about seven of them in a large enclosure built like a childrens playground complete with a climbing frame, tree house and slide. One of them really loved going down the slide and did it on his belly, sitting up, upside down etc. Another seemed to like swinging around on the climbing frame and would hang upside down. There were two who must be brothers as they were joined at the hip and constantly teased each other and play wrestled rolling around on the floor. Another one was asleep in a very comfortable crook of a tree. However a larger one had other ideas and just climbed up the branch, steppedover him and sprawled himself on top until he wriggled out from being squashed. I could have sat and watched them all day.
Some people were having their picture taken with a panda on a log. However, it seemed to be a bit of a circus and so I did not do this. Instead I found the extremely cute baby faced fox like red panda who was relaxing on his bed but looked up when I came over. Then by chance I went to the baby section and looked through the glass window to see some doctors appearing to be carrying out an operation on a baby panda. The baby was translucent orange pink in colour and wriggling his arms, legs and tail whilst one doctor tried to hold him and another was stitching him up. It was only later that I discovered he had only been born a couple of hours before and was the first panda born this year. I was the only person from my group to have seen him and so felt very lucky.
We left the panda's and went to a town called Leshan. Unfortunately our guides were having one of many days when they just could not find the right way, so what was meant to be a reasonable journey took hours. Fortunately some of the scenery we were passing through was absolutely fantastic and the Chinese rural scenes that you see on paintings with rows of stepped paddy fields, rolling green hills, rivers and quaint little villages full of wooden houses. The people here were farmers and still regularly use the old fashioned wooden stick carried over their shoulders with balanced goods hanging off either side.
Leshan is famous for having the tallest seated Buddha in the world and is situated next to a river that it was built in the hope of protecting boats from sinking in. As it turned out by having used local rocks the flow of the river was slowed down and so indeed the Buddha did what it was supposed to. Whilst we were there we heard cheers coming from the river and saw lots of dots flying along. We then saw a flag and realised that they were people who were floating along swimming, attached to inflatable devices or just doing their own thing. The river looks wider than the Thames, as dirty and probably faster flowing, so God knows why they were doing this, however, they were clearly enjoying themselves in the process!
The Buddha is set in large grounds with lots of pagodas, ponds full of carp, waterfalls, towers and orchards and is a very peaceful place. You can also scale the side of the cliffside on the narrow stone steps to see the Buddha from the bottom too. Unfortunately there was a massive bottleneck trying to get through the exit tunnel and it was starting to turn into a bit of a scrum. Therefore, we took our chances and went the wrong way back up the one way steps. This was a bit stressful as there was barely enough room to get one person through never mind two, however with much sweating and pushing we managed it.
The next day was another long drive day but through more of the pretty green countryside. We made a stop at a traditional Miaow village. The Miaow are a local ethnic group in south China who still retain much of their traditions. The women have the most amazing hair that is so long it can reach their knees and they wear it tied up in elaborate bows that you initially think is a hairpiece, but is actually their hair tied into an enormous bow. They wear brightly coloured skirts, side buttoned jackets and carry their babies in richly embroidered baby carriers on their backs. The men wear the traditional coolie hat and loose fitting top and trousers. We went to one of their villages on market day and saw whilst still alive, the various things they eat in baskets. This includes cute little bunny rabbits, pigs, frogs, turtles and cats!
The next day was another long drive through the villages and on extremely bumpy roads to a town called Kaili in the centre of the Miaow ethnic group area. Although I have been surprised by how open the prostitution is in China, the hotel we stayed in here really took the biscuit as there was a brothel on our corridoor! However, the villages around the area were certainly very pretty and we saw more markets, although I tried to go vegetarian there just in case!
The next day was a stunning drive through more hills, valleys, villages and following the river. They have had rain here recently and we started to see some of the effects of this with landslides on the roads that you had to wait for the locals to clear. If the terrain was still bumpy we walked across whilst the leaders drove the truck over. We arrived in a town called Rongjiang which had some lovely little villages on the outskirts and we walked around them. The local culture there is for wooden drum and bell towers which were meant to signal warnings for the village. The towers are incredibly ornately carved wooden structures with paintings inside and an open space underneath that forms the centre for the local community to congragate and is usually occupied by men playing mah jong or sleeping and children playing card games that they slap down onto the ground to win.
Unfortunately I was not having much luck with hotels and my room mate Tracy and I had very little sleep that night due to being terrorised by a rat in the room who we realised had his home in the large armchair.
The following day was another stunning drive through the countryside to a fantastic little town called Zhaoxing, which is within the Dong ethnic group area and was all wooden buildings, tiny alleyways, traditional wind and rain bridges and a river running through it. It is surrounded by paddy fields and incredibly tranquil. It was really pretty and has been preserved as a heritage sight but is still lived in by locals some of whom wear traditional brightly coloured embroidered clothing but some who do not. It was a lovely place to go wandering around and see the locals going about their daily lives including the numerous little boys who were having a whale of a time jumping naked off the bridges into the river.
The following day we drove through the pretty countryside and the increasingly poor roads which had been badly affected by landslides. We saw a lorry in a river that had been caused by the road collapsing underneath it. Indeed when our truck drove over the same spot the ground could be seen shifting underneath it and a local man starting shouting wildly to move quickly. We had to get out of the truck at least three times today for landslides on the road.
However, we were rewarded with arriving in another great town called Yangshuo, which is situated on the Li River. It has incredibly pretty countryside with lots of little green pointed hills dotted everywhere that has been caused by movements in the earth many thousands of years ago. I went cycling around the countryside with a couple of the girls from my group and admired the views. We also decided to go on the bamboo rafts that are poled down the river. Each raft has a couple of seats under an umbrella and the owner takes you through each section of the river until you reach a concrete break which he will push you over and you swoosh down into the next part.
The Chinese tourists were all out in force with microphones and water guns so it was not quite as relaxing as we had hoped but nevertheless it was a nice way to explore the area before cycling back into town again.
The town itself is quite a backpacker area and has lots of nice giftshops, restaurants and cafes, so it was a good place to travel around and relax in for a while. The next day we all went on a boat trip up the Li River to look at the scenery a bit further towards the town of Guilin. It included more of the hills, seeing the locals out in their fishing boats and some other money making locals posing for pictures riding on a water buffalo or carrying some cormoronts on a pole. That evening we also went on a nightcruise to watch how the traditional cormoront fishing is done. The fishermen here have a team of trained cormoronts who they allow to take the hassle out of fishing by getting them to swim along and dive and catch the fish in their beaks. The cormoront then swallows the fish but is prevented from completely doing so by a cord tied around their throats. Therefore, their throat swells with the fish and the fisherman scoops them out, opens their bills and they regurgitate the fish into the basket. It is quite ingenious, but also a bit revolting and I did not eat any fish in the town!
The next day was another long drive, but a fairly boring one along motorways up to Guanzhou/Canton, which is where we had a farewell meal to say goodbye to the group as we would take a train to arrive in Hong Kong the next day. I was extremely excited about arriving in Hong Kong and looking forward to having some free time as I had been on the truck trip for seven and a half weeks.
Anyway, will update more about Hong Kong soon.