Category Archives: China

Travelogue China 5: Xi’An

30 August 2014

Not being ones for early-to-bed, it was too tough to stick to our self-imposed 9pm bedtime and we were still pretty chuffed to make it by 10(ish).

There was something very unnatural about a 3.30 wake-up call, but we forced ourselves to get up and out and met our driver at 4am as planned for the cross-city taxi to the airport. We got to the airport in plenty of time (in fact, it wasn’t even open yet), which had us first in the queue with plenty of time to argue with the airline about our (very) overweight luggage.

We were disappointed to arrive to pelting rain in Xi’An (literally translated as “peace of the West”). While one half was trying to silver-line the “it could have been like this all holiday”, there was a definite “why today of all days?!” half bringing us down. Fortunately, our (private) tour guide, Bryan, and his sidekick, driver Charlie Wong, shared a very sunny disposition so we were soon optimistic that the day wouldn’t be a complete wash.

Another small town… of 10 million people… Xi’An has been a town of historical significance for being the birthplace and centre for many Emperors’ rule, most notably in the short but important Qin (pronounced “Chin”) Dynasty who ruled Chou (as China was then known) from 220 – 206 BC. The Qins first unified China – hence it was renamed after them – and formalised the Chinese script and currency.

Xi’An remained capital through the “Golden Age” of the Tang Dynasty some 1300 years ago, with a – very substantial, for then – population of 2 million people. The city was renown for arts and culture and sent envoys around the world to bring back artefacts from other countries, including a giraffe from Africa which had been thought to be a mythical creature!

We faced a terrible traffic jam, which extended the usual 23 minute trip to the Terracotta Warriors to almost 2 hours. A little disheartened, we suggested lunch before the Warriors tour as we’d eaten little all morning (since 3.30am and it was now after 12!) thanks to our 5* hotel packing us a very poor takeaway breakfast consisting of 4 crusty pastries, 1 coffee and an apple – to share! It was a good call, not just to avoid rushing the warriors, but also because serendipitously the hardest rain poured down while we were in our cosy local eatery slurping up a noodle soup and wolfing down a “Xi’An burger” (pulled pork in toasted pita) and portion of pork dumplings.

Spirits a little restored, we entered the Terracotta Warriors complex.

Nothing like we expected, the Warriors are being excavated in large domed warehouses with neat permanent-structure entrance halls explaining what you’re going to be seeing and where it all fits in the (real-life) Dynasty saga.

The Warriors were discovered in 1974, quite by accident by a farmer who was looking for a spot to dig a well and stumbled on some artefacty stuff, which he reported to the government. They gave him 5 Yuan (R8,75) for his efforts and, since all the land in China belongs to the government (the people only have lease on the properties they build on the land not the land itself), their excavation began. The farmer has made himself somewhat of a local celeb though, availing himself a few mornings a week to man a table in the foyer and sign coffee table books. Our morning happened to be one such and we caught a glimpse of this modern day hero in the flesh (but didn’t buy a book since they were all in Chinese).

Emperor Qin’s are located 1,5km from Emperor QinShihuang’s mausoleum, symbolising the main defending force that guarded the capital before the Emperor died (bearing in mind he started building it when he was 25 and died at 39). Their tomb was in place to protect the Emperor’s tomb and be in place for him when he returned to the after-life.

Walking into the first pit, you can’t help but catch your breath. It’s everything you heard it would be and so much more than the pictures prepare you for! 236 metres long and 62 metres wide, it’s estimated to contain 6,000 warriors and horses. Even with only about a third currently excavated, its visual overload. Rows and rows of soldiers facing forward; each one hand crafted with a unique outfit and face, not a single one moulded or duplicated. Unbelievably sophisticated sculpture on such a large scale for now, let alone 2 millennia ago!

Closer inspection reveals the exquisite detail. Hair styles, headwear, shoes and other detail indicate rank (remember this is an army, after all). Each soldier has fingernails and even palmprints! Most of the soldiers’ expressions are sombre or sad, likely reflecting the feelings of the artists who were forced to create them (all Chinese men were subject to one month a year conscription to perform such projects for the Emperor); the bellies of the higher ranked officers are slightly bloated to reflect their pre-battle “liquid courage” indulgence.

The soldiers were made, hollow around a clay coil, off-site and transferred to their positions down the ramps found in each corner of the pit, dug to about 5 metres below ground level. They were placed – interspersed with a few warhorses and chariots (which were made of wood, but can be seen in the fossilised remains) – in rows of 4, each soldier on their own tile stand, on a road made of bricks that are still in tact (2,200 years later!) and bear the imprint signature of their producer! The corridors are divided by clay walls that supported the huge wooden pole rafters covered with mats, earth fill and tilled earth that sealed the Warriors’ tomb and completely concealed them from above.

Sadly: enemies at the time looted the pits for their bronze weapons; the pits collapsed and crushed lots of the soldiers; over time the local people had been using the ground above for burial plots and tombs; and the initial excavation had revealed painted soldiers, but exposure to the light and air made the paint peel within a fortnight… so much of the history is lost to us forever.

… but…

The archeologists have done an incredible job of puzzle-piecing the remnants together (and maintaining the integrity of the pieces in their repair jobs) so it’s still a very worthwhile excursion AND they have stopped unearthing more soldiers until they get a handle on how to preserve the paint, so there’s something to look forward to in the future when they get that right.

Pit 2 is just as interesting – if not just much less spoken-about. Located 20 metres from Pit 1, Pit 2 is in an L shape, 124 x 98 metres, covering 6,000 square metres. The contents are a mixture of the military forces – archers, war chariots, cavalrymen and infantrymen – who appear independently, but could presumably assemble to constitute a complete battle formation when required, as was the distinct style of the Qin military strategy.

While the soldiers were slightly larger than life (to appear stronger and more powerful), the other objects are only proportions of real-life since they believed at that time that the Emperor would come back half size in the next life. So, Pit 2 was a collection of half-size horses and carriages. Or maybe, my sceptical nature says, the half-size superstition suited the frugal Emperor as he made the soldiers from cheap terracotta, but the carriages and horse accessories were all bronze, silver, gold, alloys…

Pit 3 is a 520 square metre U shape 29 metres long by 25 metres wide. From its contents, it’s surmised that this was the army’s Command Centre. Sadly, it was badly destroyed in history, so reveals only 68 pottery figures, 1 chariot and 34 bronze weapons. Swords had chrome plating with a thickness of 10 to 15 micron to act as a protective cover, which is interesting seeing as the Germans and Americans only “invented” chrome plating in 1937 and 1950!

The last thing to visit is the Emperors Mausoleum, with its 81 satellite pits with all sorts of treasures and resources. Offsite (but only 10 minutes away) the Mausoleum Museum is a bit lacklustre after the Warrior pits (which is probably why it only costs 90 Yuan and the Warriors cost 150).

The view in the pits is from above, through glass floors, which is kinda cool, but the lighting is very low (ostensibly to preserve the artefacts) so you can’t see as well as you can in the Warrior pits. There are lots of very well laid-out glass case exhibits, but the artefacts are quite unexciting (crockery, decor, tools, stamps etc) as compared.

It’s estimated that the population of China back then, 2200 years ago, was about 30 million people. 1 million were soldiers and of the rest, about 700,000 people’s national duty conscription was dedicated to this project… which is estimated to have cost as much as one third of the country’s GDP. He had a fully manned and functional palace above the ground – even after his death, with servants continuing their duties and serving food to his empty seat at the royal table “feeding his soul” – and an impressive ready-for-action battalion below the ground. The Emperor does seem (from today’s pragmatic perspective) to have been a bit cooked, allocating all that time and resources to setting everything up for his next life. But thank goodness he did – it’s a spectacular worthy of its arguable title as “8th Wonder of the World”.

It’s a pity that the rain and the traffic jam cost us seeing the other sights of Xi’An from our original tour plan. I don’t think it counts that we saw lovely pictures of the bell and drum towers, city walls, Big Goose Pagoda, Muslim Quarters etc from a delightfully detailed pictorial article in the inflight magazine on our way back to Beijing! Almost a good enough reason to go back and spend another day with our friendly tour guide, Bryan Bai, and his affable driver, Charlie Wong.

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Travelogue China 4: Shanghai

28-29 August 2014

With a name translating to “high sea” for its coastal positioning, Shanghai is a city of 26 million people (bigger than Beijing) concentrated on 80,000 square km (the size of Suzhou) so very crowded. Driving into the city from our 3 hour commute from Hangzhou, we could see right away that Shanghai is very different to the other cities we’d seen.

Having a long and mottled history all of its own, Shanghai had been one of the 4 dragons of China (alongside Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore) for economic and trade reasons during wartime, where neutrality was important for continued prosperity. This sustained external interaction has left Shanghai with a dialect all of its own, Shangainese, influenced by Japanese and English, but most of the local people speak Shanghainese and Mandarin (like the rest of China).

Predictably, first order of business on arrival was lunch, which we enjoyed at a stunning traditional restaurant on The Bund (waterfront of sorts), with very tasty food that was very flavourful with seasoning.

Having little perspective, we didn’t realise how well located our restaurant was until after lunch when we had free time to explore and take pictures. Directly above the restaurant was the People’s Heroes column, which was also the perfect vantage point to view across the bay at the skyline that included the distinctive dusky pink Pearl of the Orient Tower and, to me at least, looked like a much bigger version of Hong Kong.

The cool thing was that the next item on the agenda was to head over to that side of the river and go up one of the skyscraper towers to see the exact reverse panorama! The buildings are so so tall that many of then disappear into the clouds! We took the 45 second elevator ride to the 88th floor and could see for miles through the ceiling to floor glass walls. A nice touch was a voucher for a commemorative item – a pearl that was shelled right in front of us. Mine and Mother’s were almost identical (and completely different to our tourmates’!), so I gave mine to her to make a matched set of earrings.

We then had an hour or 2 to wander around the Shanghai Museum, which had some awesome exhibits on jewellery, traditional dress, currency and seals… but, disappointingly, the calligraphy exhibits were closed for renovation and I think these might have been the highlight.

Having not eaten for a whole four hours, we were rushed off to dinner (at 5.30!), in advance of our river cruise from Qin Huang Dao Road Wharf. We were well in time and waiting patiently with our tickets in hand when the gates were opened to let us right to the boat. Bizarrely, there was a mad rush and seemingly disproportionate jostling to squeeze through the turnstile. I had an old biddy with her elbows in my back (my very lower back as she couldn’t have been taller than my armpit), who sprinted off (relatively speaking) after she cleared the ticket check. All only became clear once we were on the boat – the oldies were rushing for a window seat in the cabin! If only they’d said – we had no interest in being inside with the spectacular views and photo opps on the upper deck.

Mr Lee told us that Shanghai is like a lady,who dresses up and puts on all her make up at night to look her absolute best. Well, it must take a lot of electricity to power the commitment to neon that makes this lady pretty! But the effect is well worth it – the taller than tall buildings and distinctive landmarks make for a stunning backdrop for our photobook!

It was well after 9pm when we checked into our hotel, the Four Points Sheraton, which was just as palatial and lovely as we’d been experiencing on the rest of the tour.

… and had the best breakfast buffet by far.

… to fuel us for the lightest itinerary (for some) so far, just shopping.

Fortunately, it was a later start as I’d gone to the bar across the road (the Blue Frog) with some of our tourmates and we’d nattered away until 1 in the morning (not hard to do since we’d only gotten out after 10). And very fortunate that Mother and I are dab hands at shopping (practice does make perfect after all!) so could operate on instinct while in (mental) energy-saving mode.

This shopping expedition was to AP Plaza. Although indoors like the Beijing markets, this one was all on one level. Mr Lee led us into the market to a central hub, where he set us free with a meeting place and time. Rows of shops tentacled from the hub and the centre was as huge as to be expected and followed a similar inventory pattern as the others (handbags, watches, luggage, souvenirs etc), which made it very confusing to retain direction as everything looked the same.

Miraculously we not only fulfilled our list – and stuck only to our list! – but we also managed to find our way back to the central hub… where we found several of our tourmates already waiting. We’d all managed to get this far, but nobody knew how to get from here to the bus! We moved together, set off splinter scout group, left people as markers… everything! But 10 minutes later we were no closer to the exit! Of course, it was as soon as we called Mr Lee to come and retrieve us that we stumbled across the right path.

The next (shopping) experience was more conventional. A downtown CBD, with wide pedestrian paths flanked by tall buildings housing every brand name store imaginable, this was less of the experience that we were looking for on our Chinese adventure, so we skipped the stores completely and (unintentionally) walked the length to get to the station where the slowly snaking trolley bus (decorated as a train, even with a soft “choo choo” periodically) to just soak in the vibe and do some people watching. We were fascinated by a series of really long queues, moving painfully slowly. On closer inspection, these queues were for shop windows selling ‘moon cakes’. Those must be something really special to warrant the wait, which must’ve been well over an hour for the people at the back.

The rest of the afternoon was at leisure, so we attempted to use the hotel business centre to do online check-in for the next day’s flights (unsuccessfully) and buy excess luggage allowance (successfully)… and then faced the daunting task of packing, strategically so that our (substantial) luggage fitted into the total and per-bag weight and size limits.

All packed and ready, we nipped across the road into the mega shopping complex to look for something light for dinner. We popped our heads in at a few places, but ended up with the most unlikely of choices – take away moon cakes from the supermarket. Wow! What a great choice! So so good, with a pork centre similar to a sausage roll in a crispy flaky pastry casing. No wonder all those people were queuing like their lives depended on it!

Travelogue China 3: Hangzhou

27 August 2014

With the tour itinerary getting lighter, we were able to sleep in a bit and still have plenty of time for our breakfast buffet (including ice-cream!) before the 9.30 departure for the day’s activities.

We settled in our tour bus for the 3 hours of travel from Suzhou to Hangzhou (pronounced “hung-joe”), which passed easily now that the busload was interacting as one group abuzz with exchanges about home and the tour (from the Jenkins kids, if nobody else).

The first stop was lunch at a tea farm. Although it felt like we were perpetually en route to a meal (quite routine 8, 12.30 and 6) and the format of each meal was the same (8-10 courses on a lazy susan), the dishes themselves and the variety of locations kept the mealtimes interesting enough.

We opted not to take the presentation at the tea farm since we’d already had a tea ceremony in Suzhou and figured that since it’s all supposedly strictly traditional, you seen one, you seen ’em all. That might have been a bit dismissive as the locals are so passionate about their tea that they eat, drink and cook with it.

This meant we were on course for West Lake, the big drawcard for the area. Our route took us through the magical bamboo forest where the iconic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed.

The time at West Lake was free time to walk around and admire the scenery. It’s a series of loched manmade lakes, with beautiful thick trees on the banks, large clusters of wild Lotus flowers on the water and a path all the way around so that you can amble along. There were lots of benches and decks to sit and admire the view, mostly under the shade of gorgeous overhanging willow trees. Pretty bridges made for other scenic vantage points and lovely backdrops for photos.

As with everywhere else there were so many people – some even with dogs, of which we’d seen precious few on our trip, and always little chocolate brown miniature poodles. And as with everywhere else, lots of requests to have pictures taken with us.

We would be returning to West Lake for the evening’s entertainment, so there was no objection to moving on to get our hotel. The Courtyard Marriott. Wow. What a grand hotel! Breathtaking lobby, beautiful rooms, astounding facilities. Yet another pleasant surprise on our “bargain package”!

Dinner was at the Lily Hotel and quite different to previous. Same format of course, but much tastier. Hard to tell if this was the restaurant – which did seem much nicer than some of the previous, which had typically understated decor – or the palate of the region.

Then back to West Lake for the show, Impression West Lake which was conceived and directed by Zhang Yimou who is famed for doing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Using the lake, surroundings and an underwater steel stage as props the show is an hour of hundreds of performers and clever usage of lights and sound to create a dazzling epic masterpiece that tells the stories of the classical myths and legends of West Lake. The invisible stage makes it seems as if the dancers are gliding on the water and the mammoth cast is paled by the magnitude of their stage!

We had the best seats in the house (not to be confused with the paraplegic toilets, which we’d taken to seeking out as they were always “proper” toilets) – front row seats on the water’s edge – and couldn’t help but be moved by the triumphant soundtrack… even if we couldn’t quite get a handle on the story.

Travelogue China 2: Suzhou

26-27 August 2014

Monday morning started even earlier than the previous few, reason being that we had to catch the bullet train from Beijing to Suzhou and, as Mr Lee impressed upon us several times, the train waits for nobody!

So there we were, bleary-eyed but well fed, on the bus at 06h50 to cross town from our hotel’s position in the north-east to the station in the south west. As dumb luck would have it, the traffic was on our side and we got to the station with an hour to kill. Rather an hour too soon than an hour too late though.

Mr Lee had prepared us for the getting on and off the train which, in well-oiled-machine Chinese style, was a mere 2 minute window. That’s just 2 minutes at each station for passengers to alight and board! And the train never runs late and never waits for anyone! Miraculously, we Sloth Africans managed to pull it together and get the lot of us and our ever-increasing flock of luggage on board with time to spare.

The train is very comfortable with 15 or so rows of seats in each carriage, 3 to the left and 2 to the right of the aisle. There is a little dedicated luggage space in the front of each carriage and deceptively accommodating shelving overhead, which was more than ample for our carriage’s needs (thankfully our co-passengers were travelling light!). The seats reclined far enough to allow for easy napping and, mercifully, both the toilets that served our carriage had seats and toilet paper. The entire train was pristinely clean and a cleaner still did regular rounds, offering use of her bin bag to clear our garbage and swishing about sweeping as the train hurtled along smoothly and silently at over 300 kilometers per hour.

In 5 hours we covered the 1,400km journey south, to the relaxing part of the tour.

Already the pace had slowed as once we checked into our hotel, the Pan Pacific, we had free time right until dinner. What a relief – the pace had been quite hectic in Beijing!

Our hotel was again top class; quite different to Traders which was a big modern block, Pan Pacific was a beautiful sprawling mega-villa laced around ponds and gardens. An absolute maze on the inside, with our drop-off (and future meeting point) on the 1st floor, our room on the 2nd floor and the lobby seemingly nonsensically on the 3rd floor.

With 2 hours to kill until dinner we popped out the meeting point entrance to see who our neighbours were. No joy from across the road – a greengrocer and dodgy (closed) pub called BlackJack – so we tried heading right.

A bizarre assortment of very functional shops; the only one of any interest was Holiland bakery. Lured in by the pretty cakes and secured by the soft-serve machine, we endured the cacophony of shoppers and store attendants as well as the painstakingly slow-moving queue – thanks to the cashier also being the packer and the store policy requiring each item to be individually packed in little baggies that stuck to each other and resisted opening – for one reason. Fresh sugar cones.

There was an attendant dedicated to the soft-serve machine, armed with a waffle-maker that she was using to make fresh sugar cones. She had a pre-made batter, thin and runny like a pancake batter, that she was spooning onto the heated waffle iron and spreading thinly. A few seconds of cooking and she’d wrap the toasty flat result tightly around a conical wooden mould. Voila! Fresh sugar cone! It felt the time had stood still… she did it soooo slowly… but it was worth it. The product was a still-warm cone that tasted a bit like Boudoir biscuit, with silky soft ice-cream poured inside and twisted to a peak on top. Yum!

We ambled back to hotel and had a lovely sit before having to meet for dinner.

Quite used to the format now, the only adjustment was to being a smaller group now that splinter groups had gone elsewhere. Being just 13 people (which we were assured was not a bad thing in China as their unlucky number is 4 because it had some connotation with death, which is pretty unlucky) we now fitted around a single table and in the small private dining room at our restaurant which, like all the others, shall remain nameless as the signage was all in Chinese only.

Another lovely meal – getting the hang of chopsticks, getting adept at dishing off a constantly swivelling lazy suzie, getting used to one glass of Coke / beer per meal, getting accustomed to no salt / pepper / serviettes, getting to know the company. Having a feast and having a laugh. All good.

We finally got to have the first bit of a lie-in this holiday, only having to wake up at 8 in order to make our 9.30 meeting time.

The plan for the day was a city tour of Suzhou (pronounced “sue-joe”), which is known as the Chinese Venice because it has over 1,400 canals. It is considered to be a smaller city, with a mere 15 million population so had Mr Lee more relaxed, saying that “it nosso busy so don’t have to walk like sticky rice.”

The bus took us to the famous Lingering Gardens. One of 4 most famous gardens in China, it was built in 1593 and belonged to a series of owners since then, accumulating cultivated gardens, quaint buildings and scenic pathways between interesting relics.

There are exhibits of classic calligraphy and paintings of the national flowers – plum (Summer), chrysanthemum (Autumn), lotus (Winter), Chinese rose (Spring) – which can be seen in the gardens. As we walked into the garden, we were greeted by the lotus flowers in bloom on the pond. They are much bigger than expected with great big round leaves. Stark contrast to the controlled miniatures in abundance in the bonsai garden.

Wandering around gardens is not normally our sort of thing, so we did a once-round and buffered the extra time by going to the shop stalls across the road and buying some real bargain souvenirs.

Next up was the embroidery factory. This was no ordinary embroidery! The Masters (and there are only 4 of them) are able to do double-sided embroidery, meaning they can embroider the picture on the top (and I’m talking better-than-photo quality stuff) AND simultaneously create a (different) embroidery on the reverse side! Really amazing stuff!

We got to watch a Master at work. This old lady is 75 years old and has been working at the same factory every day for more than half a century and she only embroiders fish. All day, every day for 57 years and just fish. They are spectacular! She does the most realistic vibrant fish using the finest of stitching (splitting a single thread into 1/24 so you can barely see it), an expert deft hand and a mirror on her lap to monitor the back picture. Unbelievable. Comes at a pretty price too – since it can take years to finish a detailed piece, it can fetch Y500,000 (ZAR 875,000) or more.

From there we went on the Grand Canal tour. This canal runs all the way from Beijing and through Suzhou, with a total length of 1,800km (9x Suez and 20x Panama Canal). Construction was started in 221BC, intending the canal be for military use and merchant trading (silk and tea). It is the second longest, only behind the Yangzhou River; but it’s far from the deepest being mostly only 2 metres deep in Suzhou, nor the fastest since boats may only go at 20kmph.

The canal tour took us through the oldest parts of Suzhou, where the houses back onto the canal and there are steps from their back doors right into the water. Mr Lee got the boat to stop so that we could jump off and nip down an alleyway into the “high street” to see the hustle-bustle of the narrow, noisy, smelly market.

Mr Lee also pointed out Shantang street (“mountain water” street) as a good place to come in the evening for dinner (for once not included in the package). The area had previously been the city’s red light district, but now all that remained of its dodgy history was the red Chinese lanterns, which are now emblazoned with street names in lieu of conventional signage.

The deal was sealed. We returned to the hotel intent on having a rest and then heading back to Shantang for the evening. We got a little sidetracked though since the maids wanted to clean our room shortly after we arrived back (they seem to clean perpetually, not concerned about what time they do what rooms), so we went for a walk in the opposite direction as the previous night.

The walk (or possibly a debilitating luckless visit to a shoe store) sapped mom’s last energy, so she bowed out of the plan and I went ahead and shared a cab to Shantang with our groupmate as planned.

As always, the city looked very different by night and the journey into town seemed much quicker by cab. The cab fare was cheap too, at Y15 (ZAR 26), which like many other coutries makes it viable to outsource transport, not like at home where the cab fare is more than the night out!

We were deposited at the gate to Shantang, since being ancient and very much pre-car it’s a pedestrian-only precinct. It was so pretty with a big glowing arch entrance and a view down the lively street with all the shops open and marked with red Chinese lanterns.

We’d been given a recommended restaurant by Mr Lee, which our hotel concierge had written in Chinese on a hotel business card to help us to find it. It became a sort of treasure hunt looking for “tent-stroke-kappie-square” which is how we remembered what the first (of four!) characters of the restaurant’s name looked like. We wandered down the first of the side roads – a narrower version of the entrance road, now parallel to the canal – and found the restaurant! It was really busy and the hostess managed to communicate that there was a half hour wait. No mind, lots to see and do, so we said we’d come back.

We took a wander down the canal and over a bridge to circle back on the other side. We encountered a lively looking pub, so decided to stop in for a beer to pass the time waiting for the restaurant. We ordered Tsingtaos and listened to the locals warble on the karaoke. Perusing the menu, it looked really good so we decided to go back to our restaurant and check their menu before deciding where to eat.

The original restaurant was ready for us when we returned, but a brief flip through the menu showed that, while the food looked good, it was much the same as the lunches and dinners we’d been having, so we decided to go back to the pub to have a beer and a snack and repeat the process to make a bit of a pub crawl out of dinner.

It was a good call and we enjoyed delicious chicken pops and wokfried pepper beef at the pub. Then the challenge began. We walked around and about, up one street and down the other and couldn’t find another pub! Try as we might, there simply wasn’t another option.

We were not so desperate as to try a karaoke house, easily located by the wailing and caterwalling coming from them. Strange format, the karaoke houses have small roadlevel reception areas and the hostesses escort you to your own private lounge, dark and kitted with comfy couches around the walls, all facing a large screen and all with easy access to microphones. Even assuming they have some sort of soundproofing, the participants are so enthusiastically loud and proud that the result is cacophonic!

We did get to see the whole of the downtown area though and did stop to enjoy street food at some of the many vendors. The highlight was the mini lobsters although, admittedly, I did think they were cockroaches at first glance!

The streets were a hive of activity – and all very very clean. We wandered around, looking at shops and street vendors, buying the odd beer at the local 711 equivalent, and ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, ending on a 23,000 step day!

Travelogue China 1: Beijing

21-24 August 2014

We were greeted, as planned, at the airport by our driver from Merry Travel, which was a relief since the last thing we needed after 2 long flights with a 4-hour transit in Dubai in between was to cause an international incident at PEK being lost and tired-grumpy. Risk averted, we met our first tour mates – a lovely Kiwi couple – and climbed into our very comfortable people-carrier, for the commute to who knows where.

First impression of China? It’s hot. Very hot. And humid. Very very humid!

Traffic was (initially) not as bad as expected – it’s much worse at home! The drive is prettier though, with willow-like trees lining the wide highways, and not a spot of litter anywhere in sight.

Although the driver said that our hotel is very close to the airport, apparently it’s all relative since the city is 16,800 square km with 24 million people.

This – if we’d done our homework – should have come as no surprise. The enormity hasn’t sprung out of nowhere; Beijing had its first walled city from 11th to 7th century BC, has been a prominent city for millenia and been the capital of China for almost 8 centuries. It was first on a site called Peking Man, and has only been called Beijing since 1919. The name Peking is Cantonese; Beijing is Mandarin.

We did experience patches of traffic (nothing unmanageable, especially since it was rush hour) and it was marginally more of a liability to us getting to the hotel than the driver’s commitment to driving at 60; likely a legal requirement seeing as we weren’t being overtaken. Eventually we pulled up at the Traders East Side hotel and checked in quickly and easily. The hotel was *very* nice, far exceding our expectations!

Our 7th floor room was spacious with impeccable decor, twin beds with billowy soft white linen and a large new and lovely ensuite bathroom. The enormous bay window overlook the hotel gardens framed by a public walkway along a riverbank with the cityscape beyond.

The room didn’t hold our attention for long though and we were soon off to find out what our little slice of Beijing had to offer.

We got a city map from the concierge, which was daunting and confirmed that the enormity we’d felt from the car was a reality – what we’d seen was a tiny fraction of this city!

We decided to ditch the map and follow the concierge’s advice to walk through the gardens and onto the walkway (which we’d seen from our room) where we’d find activity around the corner.

We did. And kept ourselves entertained with blissfully light-concentration activities like wandering around supermarkets and eating delicious fried egg salad sandwiches rolled and wrapped in bacon (clearly not traditional Chinese fare, but we figured we’d get enough of that on the tour itself).

Friday morning started early, with a 6.30 wake-up call. Not so bad when there’s a hotel breakfast up for grabs. And this one was complicated! All things to all people, there was a buffet corner for every taste; an omelette station, a stir fry station, a waffle and pancake station; a salad valley, with smoked chicken and duck; a cereal bar with unfathomable yoghurt flavours. So much choice! But beef sausages and turkey bacon, so not necessarily winning.

We met our tour group in the foyer at 8am: mainly Saffas, with 2 Kiwi couples and an Aussie bloke (who turned out to actually be a Frenchman living in Manley). Our tour guide, Mr Lee, took charge and turned out to be a helluva nice guy, who speaks a spot of Zulu from a stint working for the Ackerman family of Pick n Pay fame. He shared his (fascinating) lifestory of being raised by his grandfather who died 2 months ago at 101 years old, having spent a life practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine, which he’d passed down to his many sons and couldn’t undestand why this grandson insisted on as flaky a career-choice as being a tour guide… which must be quite demoralising since our Mr Lee had to study 4 years in university for the pleasure of qualifying to guide our tour! I suspect there must be much of this generation, like our Mr Lee, born after the population curbing policy so being only child brings more pressure to succeed the elders.

First stop was Tian’anmen Square; the largest square in the world at 44,000 square metres (880×500), which can host a million people at a time! We started at the Front City Gate (one of nine city gates) and admired the traditional Oriental pagoda with mosaic roof tiles that looks onto the Square.

We passed Chairman Mao’s Mauseleum, but were advised that the queues are too long to be practical for our tour – 2 hour queue for a 20 second viewing where you can’t even stop or take pictures! But there are enough pictures of the Chairman nonetheless, austere portraits though they may be (not a peace sign in sight in any of them!), eg at Tian’anmen Gate, the building famed for being where Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic and which is most familiar from always being the backdrop on TV reports when there are happenings on the Square.

We took a few snaps of the Monument of Heroes (erected 1958) with the National History and National Revolution Museums in the background, and moved on.

… into the Forbidden City (or Gugong, as it’s known in Chinese), built from 1406-1421 for the Imperial Chinese power of 2 dynasties over 500 years of tumultuous history, spans over 72 hectares surrounded by large walls and a wide moat. It housed the royal family only (the Emperor, his family and his concubines) and is gigantic – mostly out of necessity to house the huge families the Emperors had, which came with the territory of having anywhere from 35 to 1000 wives (depending on physical and economic capacity), all the children that came with that gaggle (the first son becomes the succeeding Emperor and his mother the current Empress) and housing many generations together at one time, eg the most well-known, the Ming Dynasty.

The dwelling is a legitimate city because it has all the self-containment and utilities of a city (in a labyrinth of courts, halls, gardens, rooms and allies) and, with 9,728 rooms, it would take 28 years to stay in each of them. Unlike European palaces, Gugong links art and architecture in subtle forms based on philosophy, harmony and circles of power and influence. The layout of the entire complex and all of its buildings is strictly in accordance with the principles of feng shui – dictating which way things face, what should be next to and apart from what and with such things as lion and lionness statues as gatekeepers – with other more practical infrastructural strategies like the 15 layer city square floor to prevent attacks from enemies tunneling through from below. Equal parts superstition and caution; clearly the yin and yang way.

With only royalty, Generals, bureaucrats, concubines and eunichs allowed inside – ruling all known civilisation – the goings-on in Gugong were a fascinating mystery to the common people. Now the City is a national heritage site marked for the public, but only to enjoy the gardens and admire the buildings, not for concerts or private events etc.

We couldn’t help but admire all the jade which, since it ostensibly wards off evil spirits, was used jade to make anything and everything. It is traditional to wear a jade bangle on left arm (because it’s close to the heart) and many women still wear them, apparently often sentimentally handed down from older generations.

Crystal symbolises loyalty and faithfulness; ironic since the Emperors placed huge crystals in their wives’ camps… while they were off philandering with their concubines!

All the walking had us very ready for our (optional) Hutong tour; optional because it wasn’t strictly mandatory… but hardly a choice after Mr Lee’s charming hard sell and bargain bundle package offer.

Hutong is a Mongolian word describing the narrow street and alleys (in some places only wide enough to walk one-wide) – or neighborhoods thereof – formed by rows of traditional courtyard residences. The name comes from the times of Kubla Khan (Ghenghis’s grandfather), who introduced the necessity of waterwells in the town. These waterwells were called Hutong in Mongolian language so these collections of houses adopted the name.

These hutong housed the lower end of society in the very status-driven dynastic period, but today represent the true heart of Beijing. The areas are very intimate because most families live in the same place for 200 or 300 years. Even though the old houses are being renovated and renewed, the powers that be are trying to pull down the hutongs to replace them with practical and space economical apartments – to the detriment of the residents since, while they own the houses they live in, all land belongs to the government so they can do what they want. The government thus pays for the house, but this is only enough money for the resident to move very far out of the inner city. It’s working too – what was about 2300 hutongs in Beijing now counts only about 220 left.

Our visit to the Hutong included a rickshaw ride through the narrow alleys and a lunch in a local home. Being our first official foray into local cuisine, we had no idea what to expect.

Our group was seated at 3 round tables: 2 in what looked like the main bedroom (the usual fittings – and family members – were, quite insubtly, stashed behind a sheer curtain in the room) and our table in the living room entrance into the small house. Each seating was set with a small saucer and set of chopsticks as placekeepers and each table had a large lazy susan in the middle.

Soon after arrival, our host placed a large bowl of rice, a plate of mini drumsticks and a plate with green cyclindrical stalky veg with chicken strips. While tasty, we were morbidly fascinated by the small lunch and tiny portions allowed by the saucer-sized servings.

Then the plate of beef with onions and peppers arrived. And the boiled spicy cabbage. And the celery with chicken. And the carrots and cabbage stalks. It was a multi-course feast!

We should have expected such good fortune seeing as the house was feng shui: A north house (facing south). This was traditionally so that the south house, which is coldest, is for the servants; the east side for boys and west for girls in accordance with yin yang (girls are yang). There are no bathrooms or showers in the house, requiring use of (particularly disturbing) ablution blocks (with all squat toilets and no cubicles or doors). No wonder that younger people prefer apartments!
The oldies from the Hutong take their pet birds in cages to the park for tai chi in the morning; back to the park in arvie for mah jong, cards or Chinese chess. It’s a full life really (but must be bloody cold in Beijing’s gruelling winters).

The Temple of Heaven is not a religious temple, but where Emperors went twice annually for rituals of prayer and sacrifice to ensure good harvest for the people and thus retain his mandate from heaven to be ruler of China. It was also constructed between 1406 and 1420, with architectural layout to represent spatially the relationship between Earth and Heaven, with the Emperors in between. The complex spans 274 hectares (a square mile) of park, which is 4x the size of the Forbidden City and 7x Tian’Anmen Square! It contains a palace for preparation and halls and altars for the sacrifice.

It also contains the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – a main symbol of Beijing, often on cover of tourist books. It is one of three buildings built in the Mingdang style – entirely of wood with no nails – but is the only existing example of this ancient architectural style. Built in 1420, the original hall was rectangular and used to worship heaven and earth. It was later rebuilt in 1545 into a round building topped by triple eaved roof with glazed tiles symbolising heaven, earth and the mortal world. It was again reconstructed in 1751 to become the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, supported by 4 immense pillars representing the four Seasons and the twelve months of the year.

After 1939, the complex was converted into a public park, with several portraits and exhibits to show the traditions and rutuals.

It was in this courtyard that Mr Lee began our Tai Chi instruction. He explained that your Chi is your air and blood and showed us how to do a selection of the core movements, slowly and purposefully. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that my Dachshund has been doing it for years!

Cultural matters in order, it was time for a spot of commerce. We were taken to a silk factory where we were taken in “Chinglish” (what the locals call what we Westerners call “Engrish”) through the metamorphosis of moth-eggs-caterpillar-moth and what this means for silk production. With 1,300 metres of silk thread coming from a single cocoon, the biology lesson seemed a bit disrespectfully abridged!

We were also treated to a hands-on demo of how the silk thread is transformed into pillows and quilts and all the goodies that cover them. Really indulgent stuff! So soft and smooth and, well, silky.

Closing the day was a live theatre show of Kung Fu Panda, threading an unlikely story of 2 of the world’s most lovable panda bears and their journey to find the masters of Kung Fu, with some pretty impressive displays of fighting styles and traditional weapon (batons, nunchucks etc) control. The Kung Fu performers were all from the martial arts school which spawned legends like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and a neon screen introduced each set of performers as they took the stage, including details of their qualifications and accolades.

Not usually our scene, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Last order of business at the end of a very long first day was a(nother) multi-course / lazy susan / tiny saucer / chopsticks feast, with the now seemingly customary bottle of Coke and 2 quarts of beer for the table to share. Pot of tea to start and finish, but not a whiff of dessert in sight. No wonder the Chinese are so skinny!

Due to what would seem to be poor planning on the part of the tour organisers, the Great Wall excursion was planned for a Saturday… which we were told meant a particularly early start in order to cope with the weekend traffic of people leaving the city to visit their homes / family / friends in the countryside. You’d think they’d have factored that in and started the tour earlier in the week! No mind, we had an excellent sleep in our very comfy accommodation, a lush breakfast (with every Eastern and Western option imaginable) and Mr Lee rocking the mic in the bus and entertaining us with endless stories and facts.

Serendipitously, the “best jade factory in Beijing” was directly en route to our Great Wall excursion so we were able to stop off and have a gander… which we’d already learnt meant a tutorial, a tour and a per person salesperson shadow, ready to pounce at the slightest hint of interest. Again, we were told this was a government factory, which “guarantees the best quality at the best prices”. Delivered with enthusiasm, to a skeptical audience.

Getting to the Great Wall gathered a busload of excitement. One doesn’t need to know the ins and outs of the Wall’s history and function to know that something that can be seen from out of space is stellar up close and personal!

There are obviously many places from which you can access the Wall, but ours was everything i expected: entrance through a grand stone gate, up the stairs to the walkway atop the wall, and wall as far as the eye can see in either direction.

Being in a valley, we had to ascend the Wall. We opted for the right hand side as it seemed like an easier route. If it was easier, it certainly still wasn’t easy! The searing 30-something heat with the hectic humidity and the steep and uneven stone steps made for quite a mission indeed. So so worth it though. What a view! What an experience!

What was also nice was having bonded with our group from the first day and catching familiar faces along the route, sharing hints and tips on things to see and best photo opp spots. Lots of requests for photos with Chinese people, who were unashamedly fascinated with us Westerners and seemed to prioritise us over the historical masterpiece on which we were all standing!

We rationalised this as being because with 1,4 billion relatively homogenous-looking Chinese people, concentrated as 24 million in Beijing alone, and with almost all of the many tour busses even being Chinese people, perhaps the 21 of us were a bit fish out of water. We’d also been asked a few times where we’re from and the blank result of our responding “Johannesburg… South Africa… Africa?” indicates that either the language barrier is bigger than imagined, or possibly China is very much a land of Chinese focus.

Brick walls aside, it’s really quite something to think that we’ve done something so momentous! Such a pity that so much of the Wall has been destroyed or removed (for people building using the materials to build their homes), but hopefully enough of the remains will be preserved for future generations to appreciate.

We’d built up a healthy appetite, so were very ready for… another lazy susan feast. The monotony of the repetitive meal format was staved (for most people anyway; one of the Kiwis had already resorted to making sandwiches at breakfast to eat for lunch on the bus!) by 3 things: the variation of the dishes served, the disbelief that all of these meals are included in our bargain package and the venues where the meals were served. This lunch was in an enamel outlet.

Cloisonne enamelware originated in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty and was typically called “Blue of Jingtai” as blue was the dominant colour used. The enamelware was only used for royal families and was a symbol of authority and status.

The enamel-inlayed jewellery and ornaments were very pretty and, of course this was a government factory, which guarantees the best quality at the best prices…

Back to the tour, we visited the Olympic Green, laid out along a straight promenade (called the Olympic Axis), creating a natural path along which to discover the features and buildings on the parkland. We walked as far as the National Stadium (nicknamed the Bird’s Nest for its distinctive design) and the Beijing Aquatics Centre (a.k.a the Water Cube because of its facade constructed out of thousands of ultrathin plastic pillows, creating a distinct look resembling bubbles).

After a day of much walking, the last stop was quite welcome. We were treated to a relaxing footbath and reflexology (lecture and) session at the Chinese Traditional Medicine centre, where the ancient art is instructed and practiced.

The massage (executed by a student) was pleasant if not a bit pedestrian, but the real highlight turned out to be a “free” consultation with a TCM Doctor. There was lots of diagnosis of high blood pressure and cholesterol, with indecipherable prescriptions written in Chinese, and all the medicines – conveniently for the doctor – coincidentally coming at a 700 Yuan (ZAR 1050) pricetag for a 30 day course… but, naturally, a course is more effective if followed for at least 90 days.

Mom was prescribed 3 different meds, promising to cure everything from swollen legs (thanks to the heat and the Great Wall walk, no doubt) to sleep issues (that would be the just-before-bed coffee) to weightloss (no prizes for guessing this one). I was given a clean bill of health (probably because the doctor spotted my pedometer). Needless to say, we walked out with nothing.

Next event was the acrobats show. Wow! What those people can do with hoops (varying heights, tumbling and backflipping through), umbrellas (whizzing and balancing on toes), bicycles (sit, stand, headstand, grandstand, human pyramid) and the simple human body (crazy contortionist who could lie on her chest on the ground and have her legs run full circles around her head)! Sheesh – what a show!

There was much excitement for the last event of the day – Peking duck dinner!

Mr Lee shuttled us off to a very authentic-looking place (ie there was no English anywhere), and we were soon seated and sipping on a tasty chicken broth. Several courses later, the star of the evening arrived – a golden brown crispy duck that had been spatchcocked and neatly sliced into many delicate slices. The hostess came to the table and demonstrated how to prepare little pancake parcels of duck with sprouts and cucumber and a brown condiment sauce of sorts.
The evening closed with… dessert! Watermelon. What an anti-climax! Although, it could have been worse – in winter the dessert is cucumber!


The highlight of the tour (for me anyway) was the first agenda item on Sunday morning, the outing to Beijing Zoo to visit the panda bears!

It had rained overnight, so the sky was clear and (uncharacteristically) blue. You don’t realise how subliminally the perpetually smoggy greyness dampens spirits… until it lifts, taking the atmosphere on the bus with it!

Mr Lee gave us a precis on panda bears and their habits, preparing us for the zoo visit. Slothly creatures, they are very antisocial and spend on average 14 hours a day hunting bamboo (not a very energetic exercise since it’s everywhere) and eating it… and the rest sleeping. They have no interest in company nor altering their routine. Apparently there can be some sparring of potential suitors at mating time, but even that seems to be a largely could-take-it-or-leave it affair.

Even though the panda bears are found in the wild in Sichuan – suited because of its rainy climate which provides an abundance of bamboo – the Beijing Zoo is world famous for its collection of panda bears and efforts in preservation. The animals are a species of national pride for the Chinese and, while they are happy to ship off pandas to (qualifying) zoos around the world, it is on the understanding that they are on loan, still belong to China and can be recalled at any time.

The main panda enclosure has 5 adult bears and we were very lucky that all of them happened to be awake at the same time, so we saw all of them! No mean feat since, clearly, they don’t fret about early rising and we’d caught their “morning rush” (all were sitting or lying flat on their back and slowly shoveling bamboo into their mouth) before naptime and a busy afternoon of doing more nothing.

Big beautiful creatures and a wonderment to see them in real-life!

The panda experience overshadowed the ensuing pearl factory visit somewhat. Following the same routine as the other manufacturer tours, we started with an introductory talk, from a very charming hostess called Michelle. I commented to her afterwards on the serendipitous appropriateness of her name and it turned out to be less than coincidence as she’d chosen her English name (lending from a model on a poster on the wall of the store) when she got her job there.

Michelle told us all we needed to know about the 4 colours pearls come in (white, lavender, gold and black) and where what can be found (seawater vs freshwater). It was a very interactive show-and-tell, including the most useful bit – telling real from fakes by rubbing them together and assessing the white residue.
We bought a few obligatory real sale bargains… but nothing compared to our tourmate, Rosemarie, who was a bit of a pearl fiend – already draped in 2 enormous pearl necklaces clasping a large pearl pendant with a pearl brooch the size of my palm to match, 3 or 4 pearl bracelets and 2 large pearl rings. She, of course, had gone big and bought for herself and her giftlist.

Pooped already, it was good to have a chilled traditional Tea Ceremony next. With over 4,000 years of tea drinking, the Chinese have finessed this to a fine art and our hostess did a great job of explaining everything to us.

Tea-making is an exact science that requires not only the right pot (since all tea is made from leaves, not bags) but also the right temperature water, so as to maximise the expressing of the tea from the leaves. To measure the water temperature they use an ingenious little ceramic model called a Pee Boy because the water comes out as a jet – as if the boy is peeing – if it is the right temperature; if not, it doesn’t come out at all.

She expertly scooped, boiled, swirled and poured us a few flavours to try, starting with Jasmine tea which is known as a morning or work tea. The leaves have so much flavour that you can use them up to 4 times over 24 hours.

Next was Oolong tea, which is also known as dragon tea, since it is said to hold the power of the dragon. This tea is served in little cups with a black dragon on the outside. As the hot twa is poured into the cups, the dragon turns red. Oolong is supposed to be slurped, allowing the air taken in with the sip to unlock the flavour of the tea. Oolong is said to be good for circulation, metabolism and iron. But probably not good for your popularity, if slurping away in the open plan at the office.

We also tried Puer tea, which is the national tea in China, as well as the fruit tea which can be served hot or cold.

All tea is supposed to aid digestion, so it is served before and after meals. The tea awaiting us at the table when we got to lunch was nowhere near as fancy as the tea house’s offering though.

The group all knew each other quite well by now, so there was much excited exchanging of stories from the morning’s experiences – and strategies for the afternoon’s excursion… shopping in Silk Alley.

China had an indelible reputation for big brand shopping, which constitutes a combination of products liberated from the factories (originals swiped by workers), factory rejects, copies (fakes) and downright rip-offs. The secret is being able to tell the difference between them!

Mr Lee has lost credibility on guaranteeing us the “best deals” from our inkling suspicion that perhaps the dealers might be chosen per kickback! He is an excellent showman though and spun a good yarn about getting us on the inside of the (very) limited access “red button” backroom in the top shops in Silk Alley to buy electronics, jewellery, leatherware, accessories, luggage, you name it!

Our experience in the red button room was short-lived, thanks to my salesperson getting unwarrantedly hysterical and pushing my buttons (red and otherwise) within a minute of our arrival. Being as spoilt for choice as the 7 floors of shops (peddling the same merch) allowed, my capacity for the banshee was exactly zero, and we were soon on our own mission and haggling and bargaining up a storm! … and managed to secure an excellent deal on the genuine leather (Chinese brand) luggage set we’d spotted in our hotel shop and been hankering after.

The bargaining for the luggage had been a long and tedious process, leaving little time for other shopping in Silk Alley, which worked out in our favour as the next stop was also a shopping excursion at another multi-storey factory outlet mall. The second mall was cheaper than Silk Alley presumably because it was a more informal so avoided the fixed costs associated with the formal shop set-up.

We had a whale of a time in the factory outlet! Surprisingly, Mother bought very little, but I more than made up for that and, never being ones to give up, we passed on the return journey to the hotel, opting instead to stay and shop. We made plans with some of our friends to meet at 5, then again at 6 when we still had a full floor to go,and ended up leaving closer to 7, having exhausted the will to shop and committed to the idea of foraging for dinner.

In an effort to keep it simple, we broke convention and had a not-very-traditional McDonald’s, but it was made ever more complicated by a ridiculous out of stock of bacon, lettuce and chicken situation. Double cheeseburger meals were fine though and gave our slimmed-down little group of 5 a chance to roundtable on the day’s achievements and the evening’s plan.

We decided to walk back along the main road we’d come along on in the bus to try and find the famous gigantic TV screen. Relying on memory, we thought it to be only a few blocks away. When we were a few more than a few blocks away, we realised we must be on the wrong track. We managed to flag down a cab (not mean feat on the very wide roads with fast-moving traffic), but the car would only take 4 people, so we sent Mother with Rosemarie and Johan, leaving Nelson and I to see the rest of the city on foot with a good walk back to the hotel.

It took a good hour or so, and pushed it to an 18,000+ step day, more even than the Great Wall day which was only 16,000! Slept like a baby after all that!