Monday, September 29, 2008

Briefly in Chongqing

We debarked this morning--the 29th here, Monday--and found our way to the Chongqing Holiday Inn Yangzi, which offers free in-room internet. (The connection aboard the Century Star was the slowest I've ever experienced; we gave up after one try.) In Chongqing we plan to visit Carrefour's or the Walmart (their world headquarters?) and possibly the Stillwell Museum. We'll pass on the Three Gorges Museum, being now quite gorged-out. We'll be just a short time in this huge city. We fly to Chengdu early tomorrow morning, our last stop in China.
Spending less, living better, in China

At a Mao restaurant in Chonqing (a chain?)
(what would Mao think?)

Last Day of Yangzi Cruise

Our last afternoon on the Yangzte Cruise, September 28. It has been quite enjoyable—3 nice excursions (just like field trips only I didn't have to be the one counting noses). The food has been Westernized Chinese—with English labels, so one needn't eat the duck lungs by mistake, along with both Western and Chinese breakfast. We have had lots of free time just to loaf and look out our sliding glass doors or sit out on the little balcony. The weather was cloudy the first two days and some sun this morning—but not too hot. In fact last night there was a beautiful pink sunset in the gorge with the mountains piling up in shades of gray and the breeze and evening were what I would call 'soft' and just about perfect. We disembark at 9 am tomorrow and our last few days in China will be relatively easy—Holiday Inn and Sheraton and air tickets all booked. This is very good, as day after tomorrow is the National Holiday which means everything, everywhere will be completely booked up. When you have to compete with 1.3 billion others plus visitors, you have to plan ahead. Details of where we have been are on Mark's improved blog. Vicki

Our major excursion today was the Snow Jade Cave near Feng Du. (OK, I was wrong about Feng Du's location last night). 200 steps up off the river to tour buses, then a 30 minute ride out into the mountains. The cave was actually quite nice. Not as extensive as some we have seen in the states, but the various features, stalactites, etc., were very much intact and growing, plus a lot of other types of spelio-features we have never seen before. We spent the afternoon lazing around, packing, repairing, marveling at the passing scenery, now bucolic, now mountainous, now urban. Fuling looked humongous; one assumes it is another 5-10 year old city. Two huge bridges spanning the river, both under construction. The city seemed to go on for miles, 8-20 stories high as far as the eye could see.

Later in the afternoon I attended a Sichuan cooking class on board. All the usual ingredients, a chicken/peanut dish and a tofu dish, both zesty and wonderful. The first meal we had on board, ordered from the menu Thursday night, was also wonderful, Chongqing cuisine, which must be closely related to Sichuan. All the cruise meals since, although quite varied, have been extremely bland, dumbed down for the clientele, I suppose. I have tried nearly everything, although I did draw the line at “backed beans” for breakfast this morning. I must share with Viking Cruises the August Moon recipe for Sichuan cucumbers—far superior to the three kinds of cucumber salad they have served so far. Mark

Further note. The Century Star draws about two meters (according to the scale on the bow). It is 7 decks high. The rolling is fairly pronounced, IMHO. A degree of rudder produces 3-4 degrees of roll. I have experience in these matters, as I steered the smaller ferry yesterday a bit. Well, ten minutes, until they saw I was not going to be a big tipper. This puppy, the Century Star, is very top-heavy. I wonder whether we should sleep in our life jackets.

Further, further note. The engine vibration aft is really pronounced. I don't see how those poor people can sleep.

Familiar Gorge scene, printed on the 5 yuan note
Further, further, further note to Viking Cruise photographers: head-shots only. Aging, obese Canadian-Americans are not flattered otherwise. But we did buy the cruise DVD. Vicki was a major star. Mark

As show to Vicki by the cruise director and Australian friend

Two Days Before the Mast

Our first full day aboard ship, September 26, was interesting and fun. We got underway a bit later than scheduled, saw the first gorge, Xiling, and arrived at the Three Gorges Dam site by late morning. Buses took us first to the demo area and a peek at the locks, then on up to the main viewing area, done up in full contemporary Chinese fashion, huge, beautifully landscaped, monuments, fountains, observation towers, and the rest. Despite all the criticism, one can't help being impressed by the monumental scale of the undertaking. I took a picture of the provincial water resources management commission monument for my sister Carole, who works in water resource management in south Florida. Now this is a dam, Carole. After lunch, family-style with our group of independent travelers (non-tour folks), two Australian couples, one Chinese-American couple, and us, we went through the system of five locks, each raising us and three other ships about 30m at a time. It was awesome (really, awesome) watching the huge doors close and open, the rise (about a foot every 7 seconds), and so on. I guess I've just never been around anything so big..... By nightfall, we were on top, celebrating with a variety of pix from our cabin. Before dinner we attended the captain's welcome cocktail party, then dinner, then the crew talent show, including a good bit of traditional numbers. The Sichuan face-changing was particularly interesting. Our dining group is interesting and agreeable. One of the Australian couples works for Volvo in Beijing and is quite knowledgeable about China and the rest of Asia. Of course, much of the conversation bore on the ongoing financial melt-down, the American election, and so on. Everyone's watching CNN/Asia.

This morning, September 27, we cruised the middle gorge, the Wu, and then transferred to a smaller boat, and finally to motorized sampans, for exploration of the Lesser Three Gorges of the Daning River. Particularly interesting were the coffins perched high on the cliffs (well, the few the Cultural Revolution couldn't get to...), and (finally) the monkeys. By late morning the clouds had dispersed and we had a fine day, not at all warm. The Daning comes into the the Yangzi right at Wushan, a five-year-old city of 80,000. Much construction, buildings, bridges (bye-bye and hello bridges), roads, embankments, still going on. Seems like everything in China is either ancient or brand new, equally interesting, equally impressive.175m markers all over the place—marking where the river eventually will rise to...we are currently at 146m (above sea level; and perhaps 300-400 miles inland). Next was the Qutang Gorge, highest but shortest of them. After the Qutang, I got a haircut and beard-trim. Through an unfortunate miscommunication, it came out somewhat shorter than wanted. But for $7 I can wait for it to grow back. Next, and just before nightfall, came the Ghost City (abandoned now prior to the rising water) and Fengdu. We watched the sunset from the top deck and then repaired to dinner with our new friends.

The terrain through which we are passing—apart from the river, the gorges, the mountains (most under 1000m), is intensely agricultural. Terraces everywhere, groves, steps leading from the river to the tops of mountains, verdant everywhere except exposed rock (of which there is plenty). The Yangzi is impressive too—deep, wide, fast-flowing, muddy at this time of year. It is easy to see why it has been the backbone of commerce in China, and also why it has been such a killer river.

We are really enjoying the cruise—nice people, good food, great scenery—and most of all the opportunity to slow down and take it easy, particularly realizing that we will be in Nepal in just a week, in greatly changed circumstances.
Bridge construction over the Yangste

Three Gorges Dam

Packing cruise ships and others into one of the several locks

And yet another bridge under construction

Train Ride, Then--Avast!--Boat Ride

Well, today was a hoot, a day of contrasts. We departed the Minnan International Hotel at 8:30, following a two-fried egg breakfast, taxied to the humongous Zhangjiajie train station, and awaited our train, #1474 to Yichang. Conversation with a young woman in the waiting area revealed that our tickets were not for “hard seats” but rather for “standing room only.” The train was several minutes late, giving us additional time to ponder the prospect of standing all six hours to Yichang. (These were 24 yuan tickets, about $3.50 each, evidently all that was available, but about which the Minnan “travel agent” was less than straightforward).

We had our folding stools (veteran groundlings that we are) with us, but never needed them. The car we were instructed to board had plenty of sitting room, although most of the passengers attempted to take as much room as possible. We sat all the way to Yishang, although there were anxious moments at the various stops when we thought the “conductor” might figure us out and ask for our tickets. (Twenty-years' “re-education” in one of the autonomous regions.) Clearly this was a car-load of real people, relatively impoverished, no tourists, Chinese or other. But they were generous and patient; very mixed age-wise, some women with small children. Americans on trains are rare enough, I assume, and Americans in the hard seat cars probably unheard of. We needn't have worried about being questioned.

The car itself was old, not very clean, but the hard seats were actually vinyl-upholstered and not uncomfortable. Scarcely a minute passed without some concessionaire or other passing by, hawking fruit, drinks, toys, snacks, hot meals, etc. The smoking was a bit much. Vicki's description of the sanitary facilities in the preceding post was a vile slander: you could not see the tracks below. (Although a little ventilation would have been welcome).

The countryside through which we passed was mountain/valley, 99% rural and agricultural, dotted with small towns, and about six stops. Farming here is very different from what we see in the states. It is impossible to tell one “spread” from another. Plots are typically an acre or less, never anything more than a few acres, much of it too hilly or rocky to farm. Most of what we saw in the valleys was either rice or citrus, mostly the green oranges we have been enjoying, some cotton, occasional lotus, and frequent ponds for fish (or crab?) farming. In 500 km or so, we saw two tractors. Everything else was hand-tilled, an occasional water buffalo pulling the plow. There were many, many people out working the plots. Clearly, the valleys we traveled were very old and very fertile, with a very high water table: the Yangzi and its tributaries. Perhaps tractors don't work so well in the mush.

We arrived in Yishang on time, aided in our disembarcation by the conductor and fellow passengers. We waded through the touts, found a metered taxi and drove to the cruise ship dock west of town. (Yishang is 3.9 million according to our 2006 guidebook). Although we were an hour or more early, the crew let us board and settle in our cabin, #321 aboard the Century Star, on the port side, forward, sort of. Neither abaft the beam nor before the mast.

After exploring and provisioning ashore, we enjoyed a pretty good meal on-board: a tomato egg-drop soup, fried rice, for Vicki, sweet and sour pork, for me, chicken and peanuts, both done Chongqing-style (spicy!), with more sliced green onions than we have ever seen before. This is our first “cruise” ever, and we are particularly impressed to have our own balcony. We get underway at 6 AM tomorrow morning for this, the splurge part of our China trip. Today didn't start out that way.
The Century Star, our home for three days on the Yangtse

Ships under construction, waiting for the water to rise...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Captives in Zhangjiajie

Water fights while rafting on an artificial white water course, south of the Park

Me, the next day, sipping green tea aboard the train to Yishang (see next post)

We thought we had been captured by the Communists for a while. After many semi-intelligible conversations with our tour guide, his boss, hotel desk people etc., over a period of 5 hours yesterday, we found out that they hadn't bought our train tickets, and none were available for today. (But we could sign up for another tour today--right!) Combing the Internet we found that we could only fly from here to Shanghai or Beijing and then to Yichang and the Yangzte river cruise. Not very direct, very expensive, and probably not available with the national holiday approaching. But after only 5 more hours of similar phone calls and conversations this morning, we have in hand two tickets for tomorrow's train—very cheap at only $5 each for 6 hours of travel. Bad news is that the very cheap seats were the only ones available—foreigners never travel that way as the cars are not air conditioned, the toilet is a hole in the floor where you can see the tracks and you are packed in like sardines. I can't wait.

We don't yet have the cruise tickets either. We had wanted to wait until the last minute to get a lower price—but didn't realize how much the national holiday next week would impact this week. So I am writing this while waiting for an answer from a China travel agency working on that issue. The first tickets they wanted to sell me were a good buy on an American owned cruise line--but the agency didn't realize we were Americans. Americans have to pay $75 more each than Europeans. That is the cruise line's policy—I intend to write them to complain. So much for buying American.

For some more little tidbits, the oranges here all have green skins, orange insides, and no seeds, and they are delicious. The hotels we have been staying in all have central room-controlled electricity. You put your room card key in a slot in the room and the power comes on. In the nicest hotels you get two keys and that way you can leave the air conditioning on while away. In the Chinese hotels you are only allowed one keycard. The room lights are all controlled by switches in the headboard of the bed or the nightstand. Some are master switches, some only dim, some turn off a certain circuit, others one light, most are not labeled. So even turning on and off the lights is an adventure every time. Mark calls it the "command and control center." Vicki

PS. 5 PM. We now have the cruise tickets and confirmation, so life is good, assuming the train runs on time. We visited the main Bank of China office here this afternoon and exchanged dollars for yuans without difficulty. Apparently it was largely a matter of finding the main bank. We walked the mile or so back to the hotel, observing much of everyday life on this main street. Zhangjiajie is definitely off the beaten track for US tourists, and so here one can see a bit of China as it is, not dressed up either by government or touts. People stare at us, of course, but there is also an unending stream of "hellos," "how are you's," and "enjoy your stay." We passed by an elementary schoolyard. The kids saw us, initially backed off, then run up to squeal "hellos." Downtown Zhangjiajie is a no-horn zone--so the traffic signs say--of course no one pays the slightest attention! Mark

Stranded in Zhangjiajie

The town we were in last night was Wulingyuan itself, the town, not the scenic area. A nearby stream from the dam a few km away has been reworked to provides rapids, white water, and yesterday afternoon we enjoyed watching a dozen or so rafts float by, engaged mostly in water-fights. The rafts themselves were smaller than what we see in Montana/Idaho, and brightly colored. The stream's name was Suoxi.

Tuesday had its thrills. First was the 326m ride up the Bailong Lift (to the top in 118 seconds), recognized by Guiness at the world's highest outdoor elevator. From there we hiked the Yuanjajie walkways among the karst summits, a steel bridge, the world's highest natural bridge (so it said), Tiansheng Qiao. Today was mistier and hazier than yesterday, but still gave the karsts off to good effect—more “authentic” it seemed. Yesterday we saw them bottom-up; today more top-down. Fascinating either way. After the hike, we boarded a curiously smaller bus. We soon discovered why: a 45 minute thrill-ride, faster, tighter turns, narrower road, exposure everywhere. Vicki had befriended a Tasmanian couple--part of a somewhat larger UK/AU group—and conversation distracted her from the thrill-ride. (The only Anglos we've seen here; and hardly any Americans anywhere). I should mention that Wulingyuan NP is strictly internal bus transportation, no private vehicles at all. There are some queues, but the longest we had to wait was perhaps 15 minutes (compare the hour-long taxi queue at Shanghai's Hongshou airport).

So, you ask, how do the Chinese drive when there are only tour-buses on the road? Still at warp-factor speed, I would say, but with obviously collegial deference to fellow drivers and buses.

The bus deposited us at the summit of Tianzi Mountain (Tianzi Shan), the highest point in the park, and a short walk took us to a Buddhist pagoda, excellent vistas, and the enormous but impressive monument to He Long. He Long was one of Mao's lieutenants, from the Long March in 1935 onward. Both were from Hunan, and, Josh said, the Long March actually started from Zhuangjiajie.

The day's final thrill was the cable car ride back down to the valley. These were high-speed six-person cars that took you right up next to the karts all around. Another bus ride returned us to Wulingyuan (the town), our driver, and another half hour ride back to Zhangjiajie. We're eating light tonight—noodles—but enjoying the fresh green oranges we bought on the mountain top. Yes, oranges: orange on the inside, but with green skin on the outside. And quite good too.

Tomorrow would have begun a new adventure, negotiating the train to Yichang, where we have no reservations, and booking the Yangzi cruise to Chongqing. But the train was sold out for tomorrow (we were told), and now we are looking for any way to get out of Zhangjiajie to Yichang. We'll be in Zhangjiajie another day, Wednesday, but at least we have an internet connection. Zhangjiajie is tiny hamlet--a mere 1.6 million in the metro area. But not a word of English anywhere.


Entrance to Wulingyuan National Park; karsts beyond

Giant karsts; some of the trails are in the valleys, others follow the ridges

Us; pretty much the only non-Chinese there

We made our fourth trip by plane in China Sunday. I don't think I've mentioned that every plane was full, took off early, and on each flight we had a complete meal. Free beer, too. A lot different from the States right now. We arrived in Zhangjiajie on a plane where we were the only Euro-Americans. Monday in Wulingyuan National Park we spent about 8 hours and saw thousands of people—4 “English.” This is really off the beaten track for non-Chinese tourists. We hired a guide for two days since no one speaks English, and there are hardly any signs in English—at least outside the park. Though expensive at about $70 a day, “Josh” speaks pretty good English and was immensely helpful in getting our money changed. We had no problems until today—just put the card in the ATM, punch in the pin, out comes the Chinese money. After 3 banks this morning and a manager's help (via Josh) we learned that only certain ATMs take foreigners cash cards and their 4 number pins—those are all in big cities only. The rest of the country uses 6 digit pins. So we tried to exchange our $100 bills—not crisp enough to be read by the counterfeit machine! With humidity at over 90%, crisp is not really an option. Two banks wouldn't take the American Express traveler's checks, but the third finally did. It was a little shaky there wondering what we were going to do for money other than to fly back to Shanghai. Rural areas like these—a city of 1.6 million—don't take credit cards not issued by Chinese banks! Mark will fill you in on our lovely, though beastly hot, day in the park. Whole grilled fish on a stick for snacks anyone? Vicki.

Wulingyuan NP is China's first national park, established in 1982, and is noted for its mountainous terrain, forests, streams, etc., and, in particular, its somewhat different version of the Chinese karsts. Here they are more layered, metamorphic rock, rising perhaps a couple thousand feet above the gorges. They are similar yet very different from the Li River karsts, which are softer, rounder, higher. Wulingyuan still is fairly awesome. In the Park itself today we did two major things: a cable-car ride to one of the high karsts with splendid 360 panorama. The morning mist burned off and visibility was good. There was a beautiful small garden of tea bushes along one of the high paths. After an interesting Hunan lunch (some like it mild), we walked Jinbian Stream—three gorgeous hours in the gorge. The clear stream itself and the luxuriant vegetation were so pleasant (not to mention the labels on every tree, rocks, etc., and the continual reminders to live in harmony with nature), I had to remind myself to look up at the ever-changing karst ceiling. The path through the gorge was even more crowded than the Great Wall, but people were good-natured, all suffering the same atrocious heat and humidity. These end-of summer hot days are known as the “autumn tiger,” and the tiger has made us miserable at times ever since Xian. Fortunately, we have found air-conditioned hotels fairly readily, including tonight's Yu Bi Feng Hotel, which is brand-new and pretty nice. Unfortunately, we haven't a clue as to what town it is in. Josh and the driver will pick us up tomorrow morning at 8:30 for our next adventure. Mark

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Zhouzhuang, Suzhou, and more Shanghai

In Suzhou, a bridge over the Grand Canal

In the Lingering Garden in Suzhou

High-rise housing on the road from Shanghai to Suzhou, mile after mile of these

Shanghai acrobats


Knife-throwing at Shanghai acrobats, and a volunteer from the audience...

September 20, 2008, Shanghai, Saturday

Several days for which to account...

The 18th, Thursday, we took Line 1 to People's Park, then transferred to Line 2 to get to Fuxong Park and the French Concession. Fuxong Park was a hoot--hundreds of oldsters (and others) dancing, doing tai chai, playing badmitton, singing, playing traditional instrumental music, and so on. Something we have seen in several parks but always a treat. Also the Marx/Engels monument. We crossed over the park and commenced our walking tour of the tree-lined and now very fashionable French Concession. Highlights included the Sun Yat-Sen house, the Cathay Theatre (first talkies in China), the Okura Garden Hotel (grand ballroom; more wedding photos), the 1928 (name?) high-rise that was the first such structure here. We had lunch at very nice Chinese restaurant, no English name noted, and shared steamed dumplings, mushroom/pork dish, rice, and tea. After this we repaired back to the hotel to rest up for the acrobats show at the Shanghai Center Theatre. This is not something I generally go in for, but it was most entertaining, daring feats, but also some humor. Delays in catching a taxi almost got us there late. The Ritz Carlton complex where the theatre was located also contained a Tony Roma's, where we had a post-acrobatic snack.

The 19th, Friday, we booked ourselves onto a tour of the water village, Zhouzhuang, and Suzhou. The tour bus carried six people: driver, tour guide, a retiree from Vail, a kindergarten teacher from Finland, and us. The guide, Frances, an international relations student, was great, doing all the history and culture but also a good bit of manners and customs. Zhouzhuang was interesting--sort of a miniature Venice; lots of lakes about (he- and she- crab production) and a very high water table--but not worth the 25 minute hike (and back) in searing heat. The bus drove us on to Suzhou.

In the travel videos of Hangzhou and Sushou you get the impression of walled-in old cities, lots of ancient stone, water features, gardens. In reality, Suzhou is about the same size or larger than Shanghai, in area, with about 8 million people. Imagine all the research and high-tech parks you have ever seen, put them all in one county, throw in a few thousand (!) 20-30 story high-rises, supporting commerce, and a sprinkling of World Heritage destination sites, and there you have Suzhou. (I suppose I'll get over the massive thing soon).

We stopped first first at Choyers' Suzhou #1 Silk Mill and had a decent family-style meal there, 6 or 8 dishes for the 4 of us. Then a tour of the silk mill, which was both historical and technical in nature. Started with mulberry leaves and silkworm larvae, chewinbg their way through them. Proceeded to sorting and boiling of cocoons, threading, weaving, etc. Actually, it was very interesting, looking at both the newer automatic looms and the historical models. I've always been curious how the cocoons became thread. Then to the massive showroom, of course, where Vicki bought 2 beautiful (light-weight) scarves.

Our next stop was the real highlight for me: the Grand Canal. It was dug in the 6th and 7th centuries, and runs from Hangzhou to Beijing, more than 1000 kilometers. At Suzhouz it is wide enough for barge traffic, crossed by beauitful old bridges.

Last, we visited the Lingering Garden in Suzhou, a garden estate that dates from Ming times and is among the World Heritage sites. Chinese gardens, I gather, are more about rock and water than plants, and especially about the re-creation of larger scenes. The variety of halls, courtyards, and so on, were impressive. Traffic delayed our return to Shanghai until 6 PM. We got off at the river and took a Huangpu River cruise, an hour-long cruise past the Bund on the western shore and Pudong--new Shanghai--on the east.

Today, Saturday, we had a change of plans. We had originally intended to ride the train to Hangzhou and spend the day there. But the train was sold out, and so we got to see more of Shanghai...a walk on the Bund, Gushong Park, and then old Shanghai, the markets, and then lunch at a restraurant our tour guide had recommended at "most Shanghainese," Lu Balong. I had dim sum, Vicki had lemon chicken. The heat was incredible, the humidity worse. Early in the morning the humidity haze was so thick you could hardly see across the river.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Looking across the river to Pudong

Dancing in the Park

Interesting above-ground wiring matrix

Our first full day in Shanghai took us to the Shanghai Museum in the People's Park. Though relatively small, it is a spendid national museum. (The real National Museum in Beijing is closed for renovations). The exhibits are very well done, beautifully laid out, much high tech, much English. The organization is by type of artifact--painting, calligraphy, bronze, ceramics, coins, minorities' artifacts, furniture--and then chronological within type of artefact, many very ancient. It's in fact a national museum because Shanghai really has little history. 150 years ago it was a mere fishing village. We had lunch at the museum and then walked to the Bund to see a travel agent. The walk was a bit inadvertent. Igt was rush-hour, and no taxis were interested in a short haul. Much of the Bund was under conxstruction of one sort or another, but we'll get back tomorrow.

Much of the evening was spent in revising the website and this new blog site. Hopefully, I'll upload photos tomorrow or the next day.

I thought it would be cool to get take-out Chinese while in China, so I wandered downstairs to the adjacent shopping mall and found a Chinese fast-food place (right next to the KFC). Of course, they appeared surprised to see a Euro-Am, but promptly produced an English menu and someone to explain things to me. I got spareribs, rice, steamed vegetables, and a soup, all for 18 yuan.

Randoms: near the Bund, a great photo of 4-story bamboo scaffolding on an older building, coils of disused streetcar cable hanging in the air, the skyscrapers of Pudong in the background. Old and new Shanghai. Hope it turns out!

Improved New Blog

Due to popular demand, we have started a "real" blog, "The Road Goes Ever On," at The old blog, maintained mostly by Vicki, will continue as before.

Impressions Liu Sanjie; thanks, Millie


Slow day at the Mao shoppe, Yangshou

Bamboo rafting on one of the Li's tributaries


Impressions Liu Sanjie

Cast of hundreds...many hundreds

September 16, 2008, Shanghai, Tuesday
Last night we indeed saw the Impressions Liu Sanjie in Yangshuo. It was created by Zhang Yimou, a filmmaker who also did the Olympics opening ceremonies. From the Impressions, created in 2004, I think, it is easy to see why he was chosen to do the Olympics. Impressions featured a stunning mega-setting (ever more so than the Bird's Nest), cast of hundreds (six hundred; plus six cormorants and two water buffalo)(for the Olympics he had 15,000, but no water buffalo), incredible fire/light/sound effects, much traditional as well as contemporary material, great integral music. Of course, Vicki and I understood not a word of it, even less the narrative flow. Be that as it may, it was yet another unforgettable Li River experience. The setting is the river itself, on an inlet of it, perhaps 300 meters deep and 150 meters wide, bounded on either side by karsts, giant bamboo, banyan. Everything was performed on or near the near shore, but mostly on the water, on movable piers, boats, and the like. The visual effect, at night, was something else. The backdrop was five or so karsts in the distance beyond the river, softly lit. A bonus for last night's audience was a beautiful full moon rising between the karsts. There were a few individual song numbers, but mostly large numbers of dancers and other such, apparently depicting the history and culture of the region. (We picked up on the bamboo punts, the fishing, the cormorants, the water buffalo, etc.). A dazzling variety of scene and costume changes. Yimou is a mega-magician, and one of the things I like about the two performances I have seen is that, occasionally, at the end of a scene, he shows you how he did the trick. I can't imagine a more rewarding experience for the 140 yuan (including transportation) we paid—about 20 bucks.Got to see his films when I can.

On the shuttle to the show we befriended a young woman from Guilin, Millie, who led us about, explained things, and, most importantly, helped us find the shuttle after it was over. Thanks, Millie!

Today was a transit day, a harrowing 90 minute taxi ride from Yangshuo to Guilin airport; then a Shanghai Airline flight to Shanghai, then another taxi ride from Honshuo airport to the downtown Holiday Inn where we are staying. On the plane we befriended a lady from Devon whose tour guide was kind enough to write “Holiday Inn Downtown” for us in Chinese. The "kindness of strangers" bit is real. Shanghai, from what we saw coming in, dwarfs Beijing, utterly. It's not as beastly hot and humid here as it was in Guilin and Yangshuo, both way further south. We spent the afternoon unpacking, reorganizing, researching arrangements for the next (and more adventurous) stages of our China trip. After a decent Chinese breakfast and meal on the plane, we dined at Maison d'Mickey's, then walked around the nearby blocks, including the central train and bus stations. Also another big department store and mall.

On the basis of today's experience, we have further refined our observations about taxi drivers and driving. The “Five Ways” of taxi driving in China are
  • get your clients to their destination and collect their payment
  • pass anything and everything on the road, from hand-pulled carts to tour buses, including police cars
  • fear only on-coming tour buses
  • make sure the seat cover precludes client use of seat belts
  • do not charge for the thrills
Internet is costing us here, so we may not post much the next few days. We'll be in Shanghai and environs through the 20th, departing Pudong airport on the afternoon of the 21st for Dayong and Wulingyuan National Park.

Yes, we 're watching the financial meltdown from here, on CNN International and MSNBC. Also pretty harrowing. Mark

Cruising Among the Karsts

Scenes on the River Li


The galley on another cruise

Cruise parade; popular since the 6th century

Cruising the karsts

September 15, 2008, Yangshou, Monday A very interesting two days, Sunday and Monday. Yesterday we checked out of the Sheraton/Guilin and took the tour booked through the hotel on the boat down the Li River. Our boat held around 100 people basically on two semi air conditioned levels with an open third deck for picture taking. There are literally dozens of these boats taking off every morning for the 4 hour trip to Yangshou. We had a lunch buffet aboard ship—I recognized the french fries and the bananas. I did have some very good rice noodles also. We are spending two nights in Yangshou as the guidebook recommended for its slow pace. Only 30,000 people live here—with 10 million visitors per year. Last night was the Moon Festival—autumn harvest festival that is big in this part of China. Everything was packed even more than usual. When leaving the boat you literally had to run a gauntlet of shops and stands and sellers. Hundreds—we had so much luggage that all our hands were occupied, but that only deferred the less determined ones.

Staying at the Sheratons for free (we are using Starwood points we earned on our credit card) is really spoiling us—so far 9 nights. They are extremely nice, with robes, slippers, marble baths, every toiletry and amenity you can think of, including American style mattresses. Last night was our second Chinese International Hotel—which cater to mid range tourists. They feature the favored Chinese hard mattresses, of which they are quite proud. They feel exactly like concrete. The room here with breakfast is 300 yuan—or about $45. If we hadn't booked through the concierge at the Sheraton we would have probably done better. Posted charge is about twice that. Breakfast was interesting. Orange juice, which isn't safe to drink, noodles, stuff for on the noodles, hard boiled eggs (no salt or pepper), steamed buns, fried bread, two kinds of sweet rolls—not a South Beach diet kind of place, though 98% of the Chinese are thin. Most are not as short as I expected, but the lack of anyone really overweight is really striking.

The heat here is oppressive—even for a couple of Miami natives. I would say 95 degrees and 99% humidity. The karst mountains always look hazy in all the pictures because of the very high humidity. You are dripping wet from head to toe after 15 minutes outside even at 9 am—there is no cool down in the evening or overnight—or if there is it is like Dallas—maybe 4-5 degrees.

The Yangshou area with the karst mountain (humped) scenary has been a tourist area for about 1500 years—so they know every trick in the book and they have everything for sale. I would love to window shop but that is impossible—if you even look at an item from afar the salesperson comes out into the street to grab you. Mark learned “no, thank you” from our guide today, but I am quite sure they all know what “no” in English means—it just doesn't have any effect. Vicki

The karst landscape is unique, and it is why this part of China has been in the tourism business for so many centuries—and why it traditionally has been a magnet for artists, poets, philosophers, and other aesthetes. From the boat, the karsts seemed to come in clumps. In Yangshou, you are surrounded by them. They rise anywhere from several hundred to several thousand feet above the flat valley floor. So many different shapes, sizes, so many different images suggested by them (camel, moon, etc.).

This morning (Monday) we arranged our own mini-tour, with a young student (studying English) in a sort of open-air bus-let. The tour was out into the countryside, around the karsts, down the Dragon River a bit, a stop at Yangshou Mountain Resort, over to views of Moon Hill, and back into town. The river conveys quite a rafting business—bamboo punts (five or so large bamboo lashed together, with seats and umbrella for tourists), so many it seems crowded at times. Even in the nearby rural areas (Yangshou is about 30,000) there is evidence of de-population, homes half-built and abandoned, residents moved to the city.

The Li River is quite clean-looking, clear, not terribly deep, but relatively swift. The scenery along the way, cormorant-fishing, water buffalo, traditional river trade and transportation, wedding photos, cell towers, the haze, and, of course, the karsts, was unforgettable.

I have eaten pretty well the last few days. (OK, the meal on the boat was not to rave about, but at least there were serving utensils and free beer). Saturday night in Guilin, at Gu Long restaurant, I had steamed vegetables, rice, and mixed grill (duck, pork, beef, fish). Vicki nibbled. I very much like the local Li Quan beer, especially the 600 ml bottles. And I surprised myself with my chopsticks facility. Last night we ate at a nearby air-conditioned place, and I had the local specialty, Li River “beer fish” and snails. All this was done in beer, presented on a platter with scallions, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, snails, and an anise flavoring. Very interesting but for all the tiny fish bones. One gets at the river snails in their shells with toothpicks. Earlier in the afternoon we had watched live fish being delivered by bicycle. Vicki had a very tasty lemon chicken dish.

We are in our room now, 3 in the afternoon, at the Imperial Palace Hotel overlooking the market, the quay, the river, and the karsts. Vicki is watching TV and asked me to mention the infomercial for the “Magic Bullet,” a Vegematic-like device being demonstrated by a young couple, which, if you order right now, can be yours for only 200 yuan. This, folks, is full capitalism. But wait, there's more.

Tonight, we are seeing “Impressions Liu Sanjie,” the outdoor theatrical extravaganza concocted by Zhang Yimou, whose most recent credit was the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. Needless to say, my expectations are pretty high, even if I don't understand a word of it.

Last night, we did some photo down-loading and editing, so soon, I promise, there will be pictures.

Randoms: “more to see, visit Inner Mongolia” (on TV). Bamboo scaffolding at construction sites, 3-4 stories high. Watching Ike (and US gas price gouging) on CNN. Paper-cut portrait of me. Fireworks outside our windows during the Moon celebration last night. Moon cakes everywhere (I bought a tiny one in Guilin, very tasty.). My 1968 copy of Chairman Mao's quotations, acquired Saturday night at a market in Guilin. Bu yao, xie xie. And posted from Jimmy's Cafe. Mark

Five Star Seven Star Park

The Camel, in the Seven Star Park, Guilin

It is considered very bad luck to drop one's chopsticks; how bad can it be if you break one?

September 13, 2008, Guilin, Saturday

This morning we booked a cruise on the River Li (for tomorrow) and a removal to Yangshou, down-river, less hustle/bustle, hotel there for two nights, the river sound and light show, etc. Today we will walk Guilin, the 7 Star Park, some of the hills. Hopefully, somewhere in the next three days, I will find time to edit and incorporate some pix.

The Star Park was very nice. A little bit of everything among the small karsts in the city. We saw a cave, the zoo (panda!), the stone forest, the river, the stone museum, and the stone store, where we bought a few items (gifts). We are now rampantly violating the "take only pix" rule, but at least they're small and light-weight things. Tonight, dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and work on the pix and gadgets. And some rest. It is very warm here, 92 degrees, and muggy. But very nice and ever interesting. The lady who sold us the stone objects treated us to tea in the store and a long conversation about China and America. Later, a couple of teenage girls accosted us, obviously wanting to practice their English. This occurs often, and we try to oblige. It's pretty easy to tell the ones who are students versus the ones who have quit school and are devoted to their MSN texting while doing menial jobs. Not unlike home, I guess. A little English goes a long way here, unlike the foreign language situation in America.

Random observations: the fusion restaurant here in the hotel--Peking duck quesadillas! And, electric motor scooters...very quiet! About half the scooters in Guilin are electric, and even the internal combustion cycles are relatively quiet.

Forest of Stones

September 12, 2008, Xian/Guilin, Friday afternoon
We are sitting in a coffee bar at the Xi'an airport. Mark having an expensive Bud—no soft drinks here—only bar drinks or coffee and tea. For me it is too hot for tea. Mark is not too happy that we have been eating a lot of American fast food—of course, he doesn't like it even at home. Me, I love having at least something familiar to put in my stomach. I haven't been really sick yet—but my cast iron tummy has not been too happy most of the last ten days. So far we have eaten KFC, McDonalds, Subway, Dairy Queen and have seen outlets for Burger King and Pizza Hut and Haagen Das. Of course Starbucks is everywhere—even inside the Forbidden City. Mostly when we have had fast food it has been a time issue rather than a deliberate choice to avoid the real thing. Fast Chinese food means a street vendor cooking a pot of something or offering you a skewer of something—usually mutton, if there is a label. Many of the food vendors in Beijing and Xi'an have been Muslim—don't know why.

This morning we got in some yoga and then went to the old city wall—quite impressive. Big enough on top for many cars to drive—though only official ones allowed. But bicycle rentals, pedicabs and even an electric mini bus for tourists. It takes about 1 ½ hrs to bicycle the full way round. 4 main huge gates, many smaller ones and 98 guard posts that jut out from the main wall. Large moat and between the wall and the moat a beautifully landscaped city park with trails, boats to rent for pedaling the moat, exercise equipment, etc. The wall is the largest and oldest extant in the world, dating from the sixth century, renovated in the 15th. It is huge. I will let Mark describe the street of the calligraphers and the Stele Museum.

At the south gate to the walled city is a university of traditional arts and many streets and arcades of calligraphy shops, both art works and equipment. There is also the Forest of Steles, or the Forest of Stones, the oldest and largest collection of stone tablets in China. They are all huge, over 2 meters high. All the classics of ancient China, Analects, Confucius, Mencius, et al. We got some pix of Confucius (on a tablet) and also bought a rubbing of a mountain in western China we liked.

Then a mad dash back to the hotel, packing, on to the travel agent (no deal), shopping for a camera filter, a aquick non-Chinese lunch, and the bus ride to the aifrport. Unfortunately there was no time for the Muslim quarter nor the Grand Mosque. We got on the plane just fine and enjoyed the 2 hour flight south to Guilin, via China Air--nice Chinese meal, choice of fish and ruice or spicy beef and noodles, salad, beer, tea, fruit, dessert--then the usual 40 km shuttle ride from the airport to town, then an easy taxi transfer, thanks to a young woman who wrote "Sheraton" for us in Chinese (also Mark's resourcefulness). We are at the Sheraton/Guilin, on the Li River.

Terra Cotta Worriers

Big Wild Goose Pagoda, one of the earliest Buddhist structures in China

In the huge neolithic center, Banpo

Infantry in Pit #1

Closer up


A general, in the command/cavalry building

September 11, 2008, Xian, Thursday

For those of you wondering if Vicki is on this trip, I am. Mark is going out hunting for a beer and an Olympic t-shirt. I have had to spend any computer time I've had trying to figure out hotel reservations we didn't have, and generally trying to get all the things done that I didn't finish before leaving Missoula. We still have vast gaps in the planning--for instance, no place to stay for the next four nights. However, the travel agent who arranged our day tour today said she could help with that tomorrow morning.

Our day today was pretty close to perfect. We were part of a group of 10 on a mini bus with English speaking Chinese guide. We visited the first Buddist pagoda built in China--1100 years old, then to an archeological site of the oldest villiage--about 4000 BC. Both sites had wonderful signs in English, information displays, dioramas, etc., which along with our guide, made it all very nice. We did stop at the obligatory factory store--but at least this one was "high class." The only factory allowed to make reproduction Terra Cotta warriors from the clay quarries used 2,200 years ago. We learned the whole process--30 days in a kiln to fire one of the life size ones. They also had craftsmen making laquered and jade inlaid furniture, cut paper work, etc. Not being able to buy anything is sometimes a blessing. I did get one of the smallest warriors as my one China souvenir.

Then we had an amazing Chinese family style meal--at least 12 dishes and 2 soups and the waitresses actually told you what most of them were in English. A little vague--chicken, pork (turned out to be a very sweet, smoky ham), fried winter melon (no idea--the woman from New Zealand said she thought it was bean curd), sweet/sour pork, the regional noodles, an orange flavored fruit with a green skin, etc. Mark and I would both eat there again in an instant--we had Dairy Queen blizzards for supper--though not the green tea or sesame seed flavors.
After lunch we had 3 hours at the Warriors site. There is really no way to describe it--none of pictures or videos I've seen begin to do it justice. The guide described it as the eighth wonder of the world and I do not think it an exaggeration. Mark and I have been to historical and archeological sites all over Europe, Mexico and America--the Chinese do it best. I would have dearly loved to buy the newest book-- being signed right there by one of the farmers who made the discovery in the 1970's, but our luggage is at the limit we can manage and also for Asia flights. You are allowed 44 lbs total including your carry-ons! That is not much when you're going to be gone over 6 months and visiting every climate from the Himilayas to the tropics. Right now we would dearly love to ditch the down mummy bags and jackets but I know we won't feel that way in Nepal.

Last comments from me on a philosophical note. I have been continually struck these past 9 days that China is the future. The high school across from our hotel in Beijing began class at 7:30 and ended at 6--plus homework and weekend exam practice sessions. These people are not kidding. They are moving forward at a breakneck pace, they are young, and they see the world as their oyster. If you were impressed by the Olympics--multiply that accomplishment as far as the eye can see for ten days--and we haven't been to Shanghai--which is not only the largest city but the economic center of China. It is truly impressive in a way our travels to Europe and elsewhere have never been. Hope we will have Internet the next few days. Internet cafes are not that common and most we have seen have had only 2 or 3 computers, so we are relying on hotel connections. In Guilin we plan to stay in slightly less expensive places which may not have connections. Vicki

Ditto to the above. The pagoda was the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The gardens and stones were particularly interesting, as well as the three-wall jade depiction of events in the Buddha's life. The neolithic village was Banpo, an extensive facility, several large buildings housing the excavations. Neolithic things are pretty rare. We have visited several in Europe, but Banpo was perhaps the best we have seen, especially of one site. The Chinese appear to be taking extraordinary care of these things, exercising great patience. We saw ever more of this with the Terra Cotta "Worriers" (as the signs outside Xian proclaimed), where, amazingly, only a small percentage appears actually excavated. In the case of Qin himself, his tomb's whereabouts are well known, but the Chinese are willing to wait for technology to appear that will enable exploration without sacrificing preservation. As Vicki said, full employment for Chinese archeologist for generations to come! Mark

Pedometering in Xian

Shopping center, traffic, from the Bell Tower, ground zero,

New pedometerAdd caption

September 10, 2008, Xian, Wednesday
Today we decamped, bidding farewell the luxurious Sheraton Four Points/Haidian, taxied to the airport, and, with only a little e-ticket difficulty, flew to Xian, the ancient capital. The trip was made ever more pleasurable and informative by a fellow passenger, Mr. Jim Kim, sales manager/Asia for InfoTrust Group. He travels frequently to the US, speaks superb English, and was able to answer the 1,001 questions we have been formulating about contemporary China. Lunch aboard the Air China flight was a treat (not pretzels, to say the least). The terrain we flew over was largely mountainous, dry, then later very green, with terraces, rivers, gorges, and, finally, the fertile plain we are now on in Xian. The 40 km shuttle ride from the airport featured massive bucolic scenes—lots of corn—dotted with ancient imperial burial mounds, most as yet unexcavated. At length, we arrived in the central city, within the ancient walls, and found our hotel, the Prince International. (It apparently goes by many names). It's plenty nice enough.

Xian is a sleepy little Chinese town of 8 million. About the size of NYC or LA, I guess. We walked the downtown a bit, booked our tour of the Terra Cotta Army tomorrow, and visited the 14th century Bell Tower, which is ground zero in Xian. The view from the Tower enabled us to gain greater perspective on Chinese traffic phenomena and driving behaviors. We have formulated the following hypotheses:

Pedestrians have no rights, no priority, whatever.
Wheeled vehicles have rights and priorities in accordance with their size. Even bicycles outrank pedestrians. Buses have great priority. Taxis, however, appear to be bound by no rules nor priorities.
Everyone drives pretty slow. In10 days in China, we have seen only two wrecks, both very minor, both today (one in Beijing, one here). Top speed on the freeways we have observed is 80 km/hr. We have seen some pretty close calls, however, and were involved in one with our pedicab ride last week.
We believe the entire country is engaged in a massive game of “chicken.” Tour buses and taxis rule.

After the Bell Tower, we decided to check out a massive department store nearby. It was comparable to anything we ever saw in Dallas, with every upscale brand of every conceivable article. We were about to head for the food court/epicurean market in the basement when there, at the foot of the escalator, was a huge counter of Omron products. My beloved Omron pedometer had ceased to function properly back in Missoula, after going through the wash and most of the dry cycle; I had borrowed Rebecca's, but neglected to pack it for the trip, and had been missing it for days, especially with all the walking we're doing. So I am now the proud owner of a new Omron pedometer (as seen on the You docs). It's China-red, has Chinese language markings, weighs me in kilos (76 currently), calculates my mileage in kilometers, but counts steps just like the old one. It was meant to be.

After an unremarkable dinner, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we will do the Terra Cotta Army and associated tombs and sites. We leave late Friday afternoon for Guilin, so will see more of Xian Friday, hoping to use the evenings catching up on photos, blog, learning our various gadgets, including camera.

Maosoleum and Olympics

Maosoleum, in T-Square

Olympic Torch

The Bird's Nest, 2008 Olympics, Beijing

September 9, 2008, Beijing, Tuesday

Vicki spent the morning packing and reorganizing the reorganization. I was determined to visit the Maosoleum and the Mao relics, so I took the taxi/subway, checked the camera, and got in line. It was 9:30 in the morning, but already there were a couple thousand people lined up. The mood was very different from the Wall. No exuberance; mostly reverence and evident pride and joy at being there. It was a cheek-to-cheek line, gentle pushing and shoving, but general order, especially once in the great Hall. Perhaps a third of those in line bought flowers to present, with a bow. Mao himself was as presented in the photos I have seen. Utter silence in the chamber as the thousands passed by. The relics area and the Chou and Deng rooms were closed, evidently (or maybe I just didn't notice them), and I proceed on to the next chamber, the gift shop, very tasteful and affordable memorabilia, but, still, a gift shop. Oh well. My own impressions of Mao are complex, and getting more complex. Like all the great figures of history, perhaps, his flaws nearly matched his achievements. If there is contempt for him in China, I have seen no evidence of it.

Our afternoon was spent in journeying to the Olympic zone, a special subway, all kinds of security, throngs and throngs. We had tickets for the Paralympics but were there mostly because we wanted to see the Cube, the National Indoor Stadium, the Bird's Nest, and all the rest. It was all overwhelming, especailly the Bird's Nest, where wer spent the next several hours about 20 rows up from the ground, in section A. When we arrived, the place was nearly empty, but as the afternoon turned to evening, it filled, literally, as 90,000 Chinese and a few foreginers cheered on the Paralympic shot-putters, javelin-throwers, 100 and 400 meter runners, wheel-chair relay race, and more. We were moved by the athletes, their achidevements and the obstacles they have overcome. But it was hard not to be more impressed with the Olympic facilities, the architecture, lighting, sound, scale, organization, and so on. The Bird's Nest is unlike any other stadium I have ever seen, especially the architecture, the comfort, and the technology.

The Great Wall

On the Great Wall, north of Beijing

September 8, 2008, Beijing, Monday
Today, the Great Wall! We actually finally slept-in (til 7), then did the now familiar Wukesong/Metro route to T-square, walked its western periphery to the "Tour Bus Dispatch Center" (west), where we bought tickets for the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Finally, after all these years of ridiculing people on tour buses, we are riding one. (I stand by the ridicule). The bus was full, we were on the back row with three eastern European men. There were two German women from Cologne, the rest (50) Chinese. The ride through the northern half of Beijing was something. A mega-city of high rises, mile after mile, five-story shopping malls, sky-scrapers. Many kilometers beyond the 5th Ring Road, it began to thin, even to turn briefly buccolic (fruit orchards mostly). Then we turned into the dreaded jade factory/showroom. It was interesting to see the exhibits about jade, and also interesting to watch our travel companions shop. Our rule on this long/lite trip, is "take only photos, leave only footprints," so we didn't buy anything. The family-style lunch (soup and 8 dishes) was not enticing, and neither of us pigged-out exactly. The more we saw (and heard) the less we ate.

The Great Wall itself was about what you see in the documentaries. Today was exceptionally cloudy, low-cloudy, and there were no distant vistas. Lush, mostly deciduous vegetation everywhere, mountains to 5,000-6,000 feet by my estimation. After the obligatory sliding car ride up, we climbed about the various towers and walls, took some pix, and descended back to the car/bus park, feeding the bears along the way. (Bears in concrete pens whom you can toss apples to for 3 yuan). I bought a small bottle of rice "wine" (50 proof) for the ride back, but couldn't figure out how to open it. (I did later). The tawdry, commercial aspect of the car park was comparable to Cherokee, NC.

So what to make of the Great Wall? Impressive for sure. The experience is somewhat numbed by the masses. This is the world's most popular tourist site, and, in order not to be trampled by exuberant picture-snapping Chinese, you don't have much time for contemplation. But it is truly wondrous, even the few miles (of the 4,000) you can see, obligatory, and we're happy we did it. Been there, done that. Might do a different section next time.

We got back to the Sheraton early (for us). I did some shopping at the Lotus (giant supermarket in the giant mall four blocks away). Take-out Chinese for dinner. More travel research.