Our Trip To China
Those of you who've met me will understand when I say that I have never, ever seen myself as a Tourist Attraction!! However, in China, which we visited in January, Irene & I were just that!! Let me explain.
The vast majority of tourists at the major sites in China are Chinese from other parts of their vast country, all on organised tours, following their flag carrying Tour Leader. White Caucasian folk like us are rarities. Because of this, if we were asked to have our picture taken with members of their families or tour group, we were asked 50 times. It was all good fun, though, and did no harm for international relations between us and real Chinese folk.
Which is rather more than can be said about our dealings with Chinese Officialdom. From the spies and security cameras on Tiananmen Square, to the prescribed Government "factories" and restaurants, our experiences with them helped to convince us that the Chinese Government is really not interested in us being there at all, which is sad, but a fact of life.
However, all that was just a small part of our glorious 22 days adventure behind the Silk Curtain, during which we ticked a lot of things off our personal "must-see" list. This was Irene's second trip to China & my third – last time in 2002, we cruised on the Yangtze before they closed the dam gates & flooded the 3 Gorges.
2012's trip, though, got off to a great start in Beijing. Tiananmen Square was really impressive (in the snow) especially as we heard so much about it over the years, what with their troubles and all that. Right next door, the Forbidden City is, as you'd expect, majestic in its scale, though never the most comfortable place for the Imperial Family to have lived I am sure. Their Summer Palace, just outside the city was magnificent too, and would have been even more so were we not there in the middle of winter. I find it hard to imagine the logistics involved in the moving of the Emperor's family & entourage from the one to the other though, such a thing would be a major undertaking even today with all our modern transport, let alone back then.
Beijing is also home to the Pandas, which were really quite active during our visit, gadding about in their enclosures, clambering on their climbing frames and even rocking in their chair. We even managed to persuade our driver to take a small diversion past the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium and to pause the bus long enough for us to get out and get a photo or two. Not far outside the city is, of course, The Great Wall. Let me say that whilst the legend that it is the only man-made object you can see from space is not true, it is every bit as grand and great as you imagine it to be. We had a glorious morning hiking along a steep section of it and, as a reward, while we were enjoying a coffee, a man walked past with his camel!!
On then to Xian, to see the awesome Terracotta Warriors. Before that, though, we were introduced to the lesser known Han Warriors, a second Mausoleum where the serried ranks of warriors and other folk are just 2 feet tall. These Emperors certainly liked their guards in the afterlife but this particular Han Emperor was the first to decide to make his army of pottery rather than have real guards and soldiers and animals buried alive, the practice that pertained until that time.
The scale of the excavation at Xian has simply to be seen to be believed, as has the magnitude of what they still have to unearth. The Main Pit, Pit One is equal in area to, I think, a half dozen football pitches, with the other 3 pits opened so far all a bit smaller. They estimate however that what they've uncovered so far, is but a single figure percentage of the total site.
In Xian, our lovely guide, Susan, took some time out to teach me how to say "thank you" properly in Mandarin. It is spelt; Xie xie and pronounced "seeyay seeyay". Get this right and folk are really impressed because most of we foreigners say "Shay shay", which means "Wash, wash" I also learnt how to say "please" – quing (pronounced cheeung), "yes" – shi (one of the few words that said as it looks!) and to ask for my beloved Soy Sauce – jiang you (pronounced sheeang yow). I was getting on famously from here on in.
From Xian it was off to Shanghai and the Suzhou, both of which we'd visited back in 2002. The highlight for us was, once again, the Shanghai Acrobats, a superb show, it must be said. Our trip into Shanghai from the airport took some beating too, as we used the Maglev Train which gets up to a staggering 286 mph!! In Shanghai, as well as other cities, Irene & I often took to strolling on our own, round the alleyways & byeways, mingling with the locals in their markets and seeing things that others didn't, like the Steam Engine & the Union Flag Scooter. Nowhere, however, did we feel in any way threatened, we just drew enquiring stares and glances from smiling locals.
At a mere 180 mph, the Bullet Train from Shanghai to Suzhou was decidedly pedestrian by comparison with the Maglev, but we were whisked to the "City of Canals" in just over an hour – so much quicker than by bus! The old part of Suzhou is pretty much as it has been for centuries, tiny rabbit warrens of homes, set waterside, with the canals used for everything – washing, waste disposal, transport, swimming, cooking – you name it.
Suzhou is also famous for its 2 world class traditional Chinese Gardens – The Humble Administrator's Garden, with its superb visual trickeries and optical illusions, making it seem so much larger than it is, and the Lingering Garden, which houses one of the world's best collections of Bonsai, some of which are into their hundreds of years old.
I also risked having my hair cut in Suzhou, becoming, for a short time, a celebrity again. The entire salon came to a standstill, with the staff and other customers watching enthralled as the guy used his clippers & cut-throat razor to raze back my locks to their usual smart length. There were even some folk outside, with their noses pressed to the windows!! Everyone is famous for 15 minutes, or so they say – my time in that chair was part of my 15 minutes!!
Our penultimate stop was at the ancient capital of Nanjing, a city that has been the capital a number of times through history, most notably perhaps, the very first capital of the People's Republic after the Last Emperor stood down and handed power to Dr Sun Yat Sen. Another sprawling city, but with a delightful centre to walk round, Nanjing is home to the longest bridge in China, complete with armed guards who march ceremonially to & from their posts. Preparation for Chinese New Year were well underway when we were there, so business was brisk for a lot of local entrepreneurs, such as lantern sellers!
Sadly, Nanjing also has a high degree of notoriety as the place where, during the Sino Japanese conflict that preceded the 2nd World War, the Japanese Army buried alive some 600,000 residents of the city – it makes me shudder just to think of it.
On then from Nanjing, way, way up north, all the way to Harbin – next stop Vladivostock in Russia. Home to the world famous and outstanding Ice Festival each year, Harbin also has a 4-storey high branch of Walmart, the Siberian Tigers Sanctuary and the worst food on our trip.
Let's deal with that food first, shall we? It was, I think, the chicken's head, complete with comb, floating to the top of the bowl of lukewarm broth, that convinced us to...... We'll say no more except that the branch of Walmart was a life-saver that evening!! Getting our fried eggs cooked the next morning, in the entirely inappropriately named Friendship Hotel, was a real fun affair involving an lot of pantomime & laughter on both sides – the eggs were great, by the way.
Suitably fortified, we set off for the river bank where some very hardy folk take a swim in a pool cut into the 4 feet thick ice of the river (Brrrr), then on to the Siberian Tiger Sanctuary, where they tend for and raise these precious creatures for release, where possible, back into the wild. Magnificent doesn't quite cover what we all felt about these superb beasts, they are far, far bigger that I ever thought, way taller than me when up on their hind legs. Even rarer and more endangered than the Siberian Tigers, we got (quite) up close & personal with a White Tiger and even a White Lioness. I didn't even know they existed.
That afternoon, with the temperature starting its headlong descent to minus 30, we visited Sun Island (honest) to see the stunning, glorious snow sculptures and, that evening, the Ice City itself – everything built from blocks of ice cut from the river. The festival is a masterpiece of inspiration and excellent execution and whoever dreamed up the idea deserves a medal!
Despite the numbing cold, this, our last destination, was a very fitting end to our superb trip. Lots of things ticked off our Bucket List and a great, great way to remember my Dad, a part of who's legacy paid for our trip. Thanks Dad. RIP.
For more photos of our China Trip, visit our Photo Gallery.