Journey to the East – April 2011

My journey begins – Thursday 14th April 2011

Armed with 3 bursting-at-the-sides-and-unnecessarily-heavy-bags, I left my flat in Highgate – rather comically, I might add – sporting bags on all accessible areas – front, back and sides.

In my defence, I was trying, in true girl-guide style, to ‘be prepared’, wanting to ensure that every eventuality was covered and taken care of. I may well have overdone the preparation somewhat.

Having made it to the airport safe and sound it was time for my adventure to really begin.

First stop check-in.

Second stop departures.

Third, and most importantly, Starbucks.

Oh, how I will miss my daily dose(s) of hazelnut cappuccino, swapping this instead for Black, Jasmine and green tea, which whilst infinitely healthier I am sure, just doesn’t quite cut it for me 😉

Refreshed, reenergized and revitalised, I headed to the shops as one does in these places. It was here that I bumped into the legendary Jeremy Keith – a fellow IT dude and one of whom I have had the pleasure of being taught the fundamentals of HTML5 from. Stay with me all you technophobes 😉

Turns out he was on the same flight to Shanghai as me, though, naturally, as one of his calibre would, flying business class – unlike me!

Whilst passing Jeremy in his nice comfy ‘chair’ – I use the word loosely as it looked more like a sofa for two to me – drinking his nice cold glass of champagne with a, to be quite honest, understandably large grin on his face – on the way to my own seat in ‘cattle’ class – I made a quick mental note – I say quick as I was half-walking half-running at the time – of where he was located, secretly promising myself to send a quick message direct to him using the power of seat-to-seat messaging and letting my inner geek out as one can on a virgin flight.

For those of you that are wondering, may I just clarify here, that this wasn’t the ‘sole’ reason for booking Virgin airlines 😉 …the impeccable safety record, seemingly endless movies and free blanket, toothbrush, toothpaste – little touches – enticed me too 😉

Sadly, I got the wrong seat number and a rather displeased message back shortly after. Ah well, don’t think I will be trying that again anytime soon!

As is standard on long haul flights, dinner was served alongside drinks. Unfortunately, given I had only just had my second of three rabies vaccinations a couple of hours earlier, I was off alcohol – the first one taught me well 😉 settling for a rather sweet tasting apple juice instead

Food was fairly standard and what one would expect on a plane – luke warm, tasteless, though strangely satisfying all the same.

I am writing this 6 hours in, having – according to i-map (Virgins interactive guide to the planes location at any given moment) – just flown over what appears to be Dubai at approximately 9:23pm Greenwich meridian time.

My current mood is ‘calm’ probably as a result of listening to ‘flying without fear’, a meditative and reassuring audio tape that seems to be working a treat (I should probably add that this all came about after hitting a nasty bout of turbulence over Russia and dropping, without wishing to exaggerate at all … at least a couple of 1000 feet. It sure as hell felt like that to me and, for the purposes of this story, is all that counts .. but yes in truth it was perhaps, at a guess, 10.

Given how many flights I am to be taking in China (7 in total on some really dare-I-say-it rather ropey airlines) as well as some of the locations which I will be visiting, I felt much more relaxed than I think I have ever felt upon boarding a plane. I am even finding the ‘extreme’ turbulence (and I use that word with caution) on this rather rollicky flight seemingly ok.

Thus far, of course. It is, by no means, over yet.

Whilst I must say that I am really rather impressed with the wide range of choices given in all areas of entertainment whilst on board, for the most part I have had my head deeply engrossed in my new book ‘Learn how to say it right in Chinese’, memorising a few ‘key’ phrases such as:

Wo mi lu le – I’m lost

Wo bu dong – I don’t understand

Ni hun jiang ying yun ma? – Do you speak english?

Ni neng bang mang wo ma – Can you help me?

Wo xi yao mi bang mang – I need your help

And of course

Bang mang mi ma – Help me! (I truly hope I can do this whilst maintaining a serious look on my face!)

I took some time to watch ‘The fighter’ and was very much engaged throughout its entirety.

Right. Time to listen to ‘Falling asleep’ (its true – they really do have this!) and get some shut eye me thinks before I land in what is now around 5 hours time.

I bid you adieu, or rather, Wan an (goodnight).

Stay classy London

 

Friday 15th April 2011

It is now 2:30pm and I am about to take off on a plane headed for the yellow mountains.. or Hangshuan, to give it its proper name.

I arrived safe and sound in Shanghai at around 0945 hundred hours (give or take ;)) and, after clearing customs, went through the doors of arrival to find my first guide, Tony.

Tony is a local Shanghaiarian (is that even a word?!) who works as a tour guide helping foreigners around the city. Given how many people speak English to a high level here, this is not something I feel the need for, though I was very appreciative of him driving me to Hongqiam – the former international airport in Shanghai now used primarily for domestic flights and where my flight on Shanghai airlines (who have a thus far incident-free track record) is now about to depart.

Tony also gave me his email and contact number in case I need any help or information as well as a list of recommendations of things to do both in and around the city.

Having failed to get any sleep on the plane – no word of a lie, each and every time I came close to dozing we hit turbulence – I am dog-tired and feeling very much out of sorts with jet lag. I am determined to stay awake till at least 9pm tonight, though my eyes and my body are making this increasingly more difficult for me!

*Time passes*

Hey. So the coolest thing EVER happened earlier. And. Check this out. Not just one either. Three!

Yup. THREE WHOLE COOLEST THINGS EVER!.. imagine my surprise 😉

It’s true! I am one lucky girl 🙂

For those of you that know me well, you may be thinking that this is just a normal, typical day in my life where some mediocre thing (at best ;)) happens and I go on and on and on about how great it is. But this is different. Trust me.

First one. Ready? Well here goes

*drum roll followed by sound of trumpets* – it so deserves this 😉

So, completely out of the blue, I found a Starbucks at the airport! I was so happy – I tell you!

Well.. until I tried it that is. Yup people. This does not have a happy ending.

The coffee tasted.. umm.. how can I say this nicely.. nope.. can’t do it I am afraid, I am just gonna have to tell it like it was.

It tasted like an old piece of leather – and not good quality leather either (cos at least that would be somethin’ right?!) …nope, this was the old and manky tasting type (in case you are wondering.. don’t even go there ;))

However, that’s not what the coolest thing ever was. It was the finding of Starbucks when I had resigned myself to being without it for 3 weeks. BEFORE I tasted the coffee I was as happy as a lamb (and I hear lambs are SUPER happy – probably becoss they are nice and warm and cozy I reckon). Yeah.

But let this be a lesson to you. If you go to Shanghai.. avoid Starbucks like.. well, Rabies… Dengue fever.. and Japanese Encephalitis.

Just my personal opinon is all.

Moving swiftly on to the second coolest thing EVER.

Granted, I’ve almost certainly lowered your expectations after the first one.. and.. well.. perhaps that’s nay such a bad thing as for this one you kinda need to be a wee bit of a geek to truly appreciate just how cool this is – Gisky, Si, Mark, JJ, Nige, Juan.. you’d understand.. the rest of you.. lets see 😉

So anyway. There is this super cool and free app which is out for both the Android and iPhone – possibly others – that enables people to check-in to places and collect stamps and pins and items along the way. It works in a similar way to foursquare, ‘cept it’s way cooler ;). Cooler cos not many peeps use it, whereas foursquare, everyone and their mother does. It also doesn’t favour users who check in to a location multiple times, but rather rewards those that go exploring.

Anyway.. to cut a long story short I… wait for it.. earned my ‘China’ pin today.. and.. that’s not all..

*me takes a deep breath in and exhales slowly trying to contain my excitement*

..today I earned my GLOBETROTTER pin too

*me looks very smug and proud*

If you knew how cool Gowalla is, you’d understand, trust me 😉

Thirdly. I think this is cool even if no one else does. I’ve been really lucky with all the people I’ve met so far on my journey.

See! That’s cool, right?!

Tony – who, as well as offering me help should I need it on my return also gave me ideas about places to visit and taught me some more phrases in chinese like Shee Shee (phonetically) which means thank you. People at the airport who helped me find the right places to go – this is really rather confusing when everything is in Chinese! And a really sweet and very friendly couple from Canterbury in Kent who were on both my flight to Shanghai from London as well as my flight now to Hangshuan. To give you a wee bit more information, their names are Timothy and Margaret and they are teachers. Tim is an IT teacher and check this out.. he needs a website doing and potentially wants me to help him to do this. Crazy. no?! You come on holiday and find work. What are the chances?! 😉

So now hopefully you will see how cool things have been thus far.

Oh. And I am still alive! Given how nervous I was before coming here, this is something I am grateful for. This particular flight was one I was dreading but it looks like we are about to make the descent just now so I guess I may well make it to the mountain after all 🙂

 

Friday evening – 15th April 2011

Having checked into my hotel and resisted the temptation to fall asleep, I decided to go and explore the local area.

The place where I am staying tonight is called the Tunxi lodge and is located along a beautiful road named ‘Old Street’ in Hangshuan.

Old street, unlike the area in London which shares it’s name, is a place you to go to step back in time – my guide, Feya, who was there to meet me at the airport when I arrived, tells me that the architecture is from the Song dynasty.

It is a very long and fairly narrow street made up of a multitude of shops with a few bars/cafes and restaurants mixed in.

There appear to be 3 main things sold here – calligraphy brushes, clothes and tea (the green and black varieties of which it is apparently famous for)

Ever seen the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Well check this out. Apparently it was filmed just an hour away from here in an ancient village called Hongcun – a place I am to visit on Monday. If you have seen the film mebbes you will remember a bit where the main dude is writing with a calligraphy brush the size of a teenage boy – that’s the kinda thing you can buy here on Old Street – it’s crazy!

I don’t pass any other westerners on my travels though people regularly stop me and ask that my photo be taken alongside their loved ones. When I say ask, this is not a verbal form of communication and tends to take the form of a tap or pull on my shoulder before a camera is pointed in my face. Westerners do not generally come to these parts and to some at least, I must look like an alien from another world.

People, for the most part at least, seem to be very welcoming here. There are a few cultural differences that I am unsure I will ever want or be able to get used to, but I do not let them bother me, rather I note them and move on. Spitting, squatting to use the toilet and people constantly staring are three I do not like so much

There are many dark, tiny alleyways which, though I am quite sure should probably not be traversed down, I find myself drawn to 😉

In one of these I find a woman washing clothes outside her house – something both unfamiliar and humbling to me.

Whilst walking, I note people’s clothes hanging out to dry from balconies and the shapes of the buildings in the area. I also note a number of small, fluffy dogs – mainly Shiatsus and Pekinese – and whilst I am sure they are probably harmless enough, I ensure I am aware of their whereabouts at each and every turn.

Old street is long and windy and is best described in photos, of which I have taken many, some of which i intend to edit and post soon.

At the end of one of it’s sections I come to a clearing and out onto the side of a river.

Within this is a perfect reflection of the land surrounding it and I stop for a while to admire its beauty and take some photos.

I notice a number of bats and think it best not to stay too long, deciding instead to head back on to Old Street in search of food.

At the very end of this street is an arch and just to the left of this is a very beautiful looking and popular eaterie which I decide to go in to in search of refreshment.

A man dressed in a very ornate robe approaches me and places a pen and paper in my hand before pushing me in the general direction of the kitchen area where food is laid out and being prepared.

I notice a number of other people with similar pens that appear to be walking around inspecting dishes laid out with food. Given the complete language barrier, I observe both closely and quietly their behavior and try to follow suit. Numbers corresponding to dishes are jotted down before being handed to one of the fancily dressed dudes walking around. At this time they are given a card with another number on it and shown to a table.

Having frequented Ping Pong, a chain restaurant in London, a number of times I make the assumption that this is more or less the same thing using visual rather than written cues. Given that I have absolutely no idea what Chinese characters mean, this way of doing things works a treat.

Rather than order a meat dish and risk eating something undercooked or unappetizing, I opt instead for some really rather tasty looking mushrooms. I give my order to the waiter who shows me to a table and I wait patiently for my food to arrive.

Having only had breakfast whilst on the plane this morning, I realize that I am actually quite hungry and grateful for the chance of some food.

The mushrooms arrive on a portable burning stove. They are tasty and I eat until I am full.

Upon leaving one of the waiters offers to take my photo.

My entire body is now begging for sleep and whilst I would prefer to at least type up some of my thoughts and experiences of the day, I opt instead for a shower and a snooze.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but I never made it to that shower – waking instead at around 12 , fully clothed, notebook and pen still clutched in my hand.

Feeling drugged I remove my clothing and get into bed where I sleep for a further two hours. I wake up feeling refreshed and decide upon typing up my notes and transferring the photos I have taken thus far to my laptop for editing. I work for another two hours and then, once again, I sleep.

 

Saturday 16th April – The Journey to Hangshuan Mountain

Today, Saturday, is mild and rainy. Though the rain doesn’t bother me, a feeling of nausea does. I sit quietly, breathing slowly and evenly, unsure as to whether I will be in any fit state to make it through this day.

The drive to the mountain takes around an hour and a half. It is beautiful here.

We pass by tea gardens and scenery the likes of which I have never seen.

Small triangular hill mounds cover long stretches of the journey, nothing lays flat, trees and flowers grow on terraced ground.

Lush greens in varying shades as far as the eye can see are dotted with patches of pastel pinks, light lilacs and sunshine yellows.

Streams and rivers weave through its stillness.

It is so tranquil here and I allow this feeling of peacefulness to wash over me, turning my sickness to a long gone distant memory.

I am both dumbfounded and moved by the landscapes incomparable beauty, acutely aware of how lacking I am with words in which to describe its majesty – words fail me.

This is a land of legend and lore, of history and heritage.

As we approach the mountain I reflect on my life in London and note how many worlds apart from there I am.

 

Saturday 16th April – Hangshuan Mountain Day 1

My adventure on Hangshuan mountain – supposedly the greatest mountain in China upon which Pandora in Avatar (the film) was supposedly based, begins with a cable car ride. It is small, fitting only 6 people, and to my surprise, quiet, moving us at great speed to new and ever increasing altitudes.

My ears pop almost constantly as we elevate higher and higher and upon looking out of the window to the sheer drop below, I feel a wave of both fear and excitement move through my body.

The rain has now cleared and in its place and in its place a sea of cloud sits in the canyon below.

Our first stop is ‘Beginning to believe peak’.

It is said, my guide informs me, that only upon climbing this peak that can one really start to believe the immense beauty of this mountain as one of Chinas finest.

It is a sight to behold.

Whilst on the peak i randomly bump into Timothy and Margaret where we take some time to swop stories of our adventures from the night before. We part ways agreeing to stay in touch when back in the uk, though to what end has yet to be unraveled. Perhaps we will be facebook friends.

Just a short walk away from the peak stands a pine known as ‘Dragons claw’. It has exposed roots and I see clearly how it earned the name by which it is now known.

Throughout the day, Feya recalls stories passed down through generations. Fantastical tales of Buddha’s and goddesses, monkeys and dragons, for which China is renowned.

This is a truly fairytale place and I love it!

Having lived in the area her whole life, Feya points out landmarks and is an endless source of knowledge and wisdom.

I feel grateful for having her as both my teacher and guide here.

Given the amount of pictures and video footage which I have taken, I think it best to let these describe the views and sights here, though there are a couple of things that I would like to share with you.

There are two pine trees worthy of a mention and it is these that I will tell you about now.

Whilst here on Hangshuan mountain today, I saw possibly the most beautiful thing and heard the most beautiful tale. Ever. And that’s a fact 😉

Shortly before lunch, I came upon a bridge over which stood two pine trees side by side. These pines, known collectively as ‘Lover Pines’, though independent from one another, grow from the same roots, connected together forever and always, as one.

It was an amazing sight to see, an even more amazing concept and it is one which touches me to my very core.

The bridge I mentioned earlier stands in their shadow and is covered with locks left here by couples as a symbol of their love and commitment to one another.

If there is, as some believe there might be, a life after death, I hope I come back as one of these.

Hangshuan is, indeed, a magical place full of fascinating and inspiring vistas, canyons and ravines, of waterfalls and wildlife. A place of contemplation and of awe.

I spend the night on the mountain in a small hotel known as the Xi hai hotel. My guide advises that I rest as I will need my strength tomorrow.

We are to meet at 8:30am and hike up the mountain to a place known as ‘the heavenly sea’. From there we will traverse the highest peak in Hangshuan – the Lotus Peak – standing 884 meters above sea level. I am not sure I am fit enough to make it but the thought of it thrills me and, whilst I know it will be a challenging day, I can’t wait for morning to come.

I leave Feya and head to my room where I find a coat and a torch. I take a short walk before bed, observing the nighttime sounds and lights which illuminate the landscape of this enchanting place.

 

Sunday 17th April – Hangshuan Mountain Day 2

Sleep comes thick and fast and for the first time on this trip I manage to sleep through.

My alarm wakes me at 5am and, having being informed the day before of a peak close to my hotel where sunrise can be seen, I set out on my way.

To my surprise there are a number of Chinese people on the path ahead of me with the same destination in mind.

I feel as though I am on a pilgrimage, about to witness some kind of life-changing event.

Whilst I would have preferred to make the journey alone I, at least, feel reassured that I am going the right way 😉

I find a place to sit in a clearing on the rocks of the mountain and, trying hard not to look down at the sheer drop ahead of me, crawl over to it on all fours.

I settle and along with the rest of my new found friends, sit and wait.

The sun rises at approximately 5:39am and whilst the majority of people up and leave moments after the event has taken place, I sit and watch and savor my time here whilst the appearance of the mountain, previously shrouded in darkness, gradually unfolds piece by piece in front of my eyes.

It is around 6:30am when I head back to my hotel for some breakfast and a shower before meeting Feya and beginning our next adventure.

The walk to ‘the heavenly sea’ – at the centre of Hangshuan mountain – whilst grueling and tiring, is one filled with some of the most amazing sights I have ever seen (a phrase I feel sure I will be using a number of times on this trip).

We are lucky enough to be alone for the majority of the way, giving me time to sit and appreciate the stillness and to breathe in the full essence and beauty of Hangshuan.

It is a glorious day.

Crystal clear blue skies with views as far and as wide as the eye can see.

Feya informs me that there are only 70 days of sunshine here a year and that the last two times that she has come here, nothing, save for a thick blanket of fog, could be seen.

She tells me that I am lucky and I feel it.

The weather, whilst slightly grey yesterday, enabled me to appreciate the mountain in a different light, a contrasting one, but no worse from today.

Whilst it was not sunny, the view was clear and the sea of cloud, now missing from the canyon, added a touch of magic and wonder to the experience.

I could write pages about the views and spend hours trying to discuss in detail what I saw there on Hangshuan, but to be completely honest with you, words don’t do it justice. I am hoping that pictures will go some way to saying what words cannot.

We walked until around 2pm before finally arriving at another hotel on the mountain for a buffet lunch. From here we traversed the so-called ‘path of happiness’ to the top of Lotus peak before leaving the mountain and taking a cable car back down into civilization.

The drive back is one of contemplation and awe.

I feel spoilt by the divine sights I have witnessed and try hard to commit these to memories, that I can hold close and keep frozen for all time.

The land ahead bends and curves, peaks and troughs.

The lakes and streams twinkle and sparkle in the distance.

We arrive back at the Tunxi lodge where I will once again spend a night and it is here that my guide leaves me once more.

Before she goes she tells me of a local performance of dance and theatre. A fantastical show which tells a story of love and of the mountain of Hangshuan. She recommends it highly, and with nothing else to do that night, I decide to go along.

The show starts at 8pm and lasts approximately an hour and a half.
It is a dazzling performance, and one that keeps me transfixed throughout. Costumes and trapeze acts, comparable only to Cirque du Soleil, with lasers and projections to intensify the experience. It is a story based on fantasy and myth – a tale of love and loss, hope and happiness.

It blows my mind.

I return back to the hotel at around 10pm, taking one final stroll along Old street before retiring to my room to sleep.

 

Monday 18th April – Hongcun village

Hongcun is an ancient village surrounded entirely by water. It was built in the Ming dynasty and populated entirely, up until around 30 years ago, by the Wan family.

It was the location used for the film ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ and it is a place where art students flock from all over in order to capture its immense beauty.

It is my last day, both in Hangshuan and with my guide, and whilst she explains the history of the village to me, I feel a touch of sadness that this may well be the last time that our two paths will meet.

Feya has become a friend on my journey, and though our time together was brief, I have grown fond of her. I admire qualities in her which I, myself, do not possess.

She is patient and mindful, peaceful and calm. She has no desire to seek out new adventures, nor to live a city life.

The village is feng shuied to f***.

Mirrors sit at specific designated places in each of the rooms along with Ming vases and statues of Buddha.

Ornate oudan taverns adorn the ceilings walls; everything is in its rightful place.

It is a place full of history and, within its walls, I learn what I can.

Lunch is served on a balcony overlooking a small pond. The chinese characters for happiness are painted above it and, taking in the atmosphere here, I understand why.

We go on one last walk around the village and its ponds before it is time for me to leave and take my flight to Chengdu.

Feya takes me back and it is here, at the airport, that she gives me a Chinese name; Ni Ni, which apparently carries the meaning of cute. We say our goodbyes and I depart.

 

Tuesday 19th April – Chengdu

Chengdu, to give you all a wee bit of background information, was, at one time, China’s capital city, and, the first place in the world to print money.

It was here that I arrived on Monday night and here too that I met my third guide – a sweet and bubbly young woman named Nicole.

Nicole is basically a mini, manic me – she is tiny – almost half my size and talks incessantly at a speed of no less than a gazillion miles. Per second.

She is highly excitable and I instantly feel I’ve found my twin. Of sorts, anyway.

Her verbal communication skills in English are second to none. She has a wide range of vocabulary and a good understanding of the grammar.

We drove to the hotel where I was to be staying the night and, after arranging to meet early in the morning, Nicole went on her way.

I was here for just under 24 hours and there was a lot to get through.

Our first stop the following day is the panda breeding and research center, where I go to see the giant panda for the first time.

In the enclosure in which I saw them there were three. A fully grown, and dare I say it slightly tubby one, and two very graceful and seemingly more svelte adolescents.

The adult – unsurprisingly, given its ‘astronomical’ size – did nothing but eat, whilst the other two sat lazily in the branches of a tree, playing and dozing in equal measure. As I watched, I imagined them partaking in some kind of ‘Tough Guy’ equivalent mere moments before our arrival – an enduring test of skill and speed and strength, thus rendering them in the state in which we now find them.

‘Tough Panda’ I shall call it for the purposes of this story.

I smile at the scene that plays out in my head – accepting that they are just plain lazy.. and greedy too,  just isn’t half as much fun.

Given my love of and for the red panda, and, upon finding that they reside in this place also, I pay them a quick visit before moving swiftly on to our next stop of the day, Da fu’s thatched cottage.

For those of you that, like me prior to my visit, don’t have a clue who Da Fu was, let me fill you in on some details now.

According to Nicole, Da Fu was the most celebrated and important poet in the Tang dynasty, the equivalent of our Keats or Shakespeare. He arrived in Chengdu during a nationwide uprising in 759 AD and spent the next 5 years living in poverty in a tumble down thatched cottage on the outskirts of the city. Here he wrote around 240 poems which, I am told, compare the forces of nature with the turmoil of contemporary life – to be honest with you.. it’s all Chinese to me 😉

I appreciate Nicole’s enthusiasm for absolutely everything – it is contagious and I feel sure that, should she ever need to, she could make an ink cartridge seem intriguing and a fromage frais fascinating. That’s a real talent.

The cottage itself has been rebuilt and sits in a large area of land containing pools, bridges and pavilions. The gardens are filled with Bonsai trees and pretty flowers.

Walking around and learning about Da Fu from Nicole as I go, I soon understand why he chose this place for his residence.

Birds chirp in the trees, butterflies of all colors flitter in the gardens and the hustle and bustle of the world outside feels many moons away.

We go for lunch at a typical Szechuan restaurant, on a street named Jin Li, where I am given a variety of small dishes with which to sample the traditional food.

Food here is somewhat different to that in the UK, especially breakfast. Though eggs seem to be rather a big deal, other typical food stuffs are more reminiscent of lunches and dinners. Pork fried with vegetables, dumplings, rice and noodles are pretty much the norm. On occasion there are western alternatives on offer such as pancakes, sausages and cereal, but for the most part I stick to local cuisine – when in Rome and all that 😉

Jin Li was once a commercial center during the kingdom of Shu (one of the Three Kingdoms at that time, the other two I learn being Wu and Wei). It is pretty, full of character and history, and we walk along it on our way to another nearby historical site, the ‘Wu Hou temple’.

The Wu Hou temple is a renowned temple commemorating Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD), thought by most Chinese to be one of the most outstanding military strategists in Chinese history. The temple itself is filled with statuary’s of three kingdoms characters all guarding Liu Bei’s tomb – Liu Bei being the king of the Shu kingdom.

From the Wu Hou temple it is time for us to make our way to the airport where I am to catch a flight to my next destination, Juizhaigou.

Though our time together, as my visit to Chengdu itself, was very brief, i was extremely grateful for pleasure of Nicole’s company and her seemingly eternally happy and optimistic personality. We part ways swapping email addresses and agreeing to stay in touch as we do so.

 

Tuesday 19th April – Journey to Juizhaigou

The flight takes me over mountains that reach high above the clouds and I feel like a god looking down from heaven.

It is incredible; I have never seen anything like it.

After landing I am met by a sweet, smiley girl named Yentze, my guide for the next two days.

It is a two and a half hour ride to where I was staying at the Juizhai resort hotel and I use the time to write notes about the last few days.

The contrast in temperature is noticeable immediately and I am glad to have come prepared with thermals and warm clothes.

By the time we reach my hotel I am worn and tired from the day’s activities and travel, deciding after check-in to shower quickly and go to sleep.

 

Wednesday 20th April – Huanglong National Park

Upon waking the next morning, I am greeted by a view of the mountains from my hotel window.

I get my things together and leave for breakfast where I meet my guide.

The ride to Huanglong national park is one of, if not, the most scenic and picturesque journeys I have been fortunate enough to have in my life.

The journey is long and filled with wonder – It is a paradise out here.

Mountains with snow-capped peaks adorn the skyline, whilst emerald green hills glow in the morning light.

The road bends and weaves as we pass by rainbow-colored villages and flags on the roadside.

Yentze informs me that Tibetans make up the majority of the population and explains that their houses are made up of three levels – the ground floor being used for livestock, the second for living and the third for meditation. The flags represent various elements found in nature and are thought to bring good luck.

An hour or so in, I see an ancient Qiang dwelling where there are a number of stone houses and towers. Dark and cold they stand in deep contrast to the colorful, warm and cozy feelings that Tibetan houses exude.

I imagine warriors on horseback with swords and crossbows defending their loved ones and their homes. It is a time which I do not know but one I now picture clearly within the confines of my mind.

As we approach closer to Huanglong national park, climbing the mountain as we do so, I become aware of the steep increase in altitude.

My ears ring and I feel a dull and heavy ache in my head. Though I am sitting, I feel dizzy.

I inform Yentze who advises I buy some oxygen from the tourist center there, and panicking ever-so-slightly when we arrive, I do. I question my physical ability at these altitudes but try to remain calm.

Though the ride is fairly short and we are soon on solid ground once more, we ascend over 4000 meters in a cable car, passing over a forest of pine and sheets of ice as we do so. It is quiet and we are alone to admire the sights around and below us.

The sun shines strongly down on us providing warmth as we walk higher up the mountain to our destination of a pond known as the five coloured pool which sits at the top of the national park.

Soft snow shimmers and sparkles, birds softly sing sweet songs and pines trees gently sway in the cool breeze.

I get dizzy often and am glad of the oxygen I have to hand.

I no longer feel afraid; it is too beautiful here to feel anything other than awe, appreciation and gratitude.

We spend the afternoon hiking and chatting amongst ourselves. She is a sweet girl and we grow close quickly.

She teaches me new words and I practice them as we walk.

My favorite word thus far, spelt entirely differently but sounding phonetically the same – as all the Chinese words in my journal are and will continue to be – is ‘Tsat sien’, meaning goodbye. ‘Shee shee’ is a close second and means thank you.

The phrase I like the most for its meaning and one I use whenever I eat is ‘Way dow hut see la’ meaning ‘delicious’ and, for the most part at least, it is true. The food here, especially the rice is super-tasty-yummy – as yet I do not know the direct translation for this, though the trip is still young and I intend on finding out!

When complemented I say ‘Kai Curchsie’ (you’re nice/kind) or, even more so as I like the way it sounds, ‘Naley naley’ – if I had to explain, I guess, it is a more cute and meek way to say the same thing.

Other words I like and which I find useful are as follows:

‘I dien dien’ – A little bit – good when asked if I speak Chinese 😉

‘Ming tien tsien’ – See you tomorrow (useful with my guides)

‘Zaow shung how’ – Good morning

‘Ker aye’ – like the Japanese ‘Kerwaiiee’ meaning cute

And though I don’t expect to use it whilst I am here but one I like knowing none the less is ‘wo o aye knee’ – meaning I love you

I am proud to say I know no Chinese swear words.. and that I intend on keeping it that way

My vocabulary is growing every day and I practice as often as I am able.

It is a two and a half hour hike up and a three and a half hour descent back down.

We reach the bottom of the mountain at around 6pm.

On the way back to the hotel we stop off for a traditional Tibetan massage or as I like to fondly refer to it, Tibetan torture.

It is very different from the western massages which I am used to and, whilst Yentze recommended it as a perfect way to relax after our days hike, I found it had, very much, the opposite effect.

It started fully clothed in my thermals, looking somewhat like a superhero wannabe, with my feet placed in boiling water. Some Chinese herbs were then added and, in all seriousness, I half expected a meat cleaver to appear and the girl to start hacking away at my calves.

With red swollen feet and a, dare I say it, slightly scared disposition, I watched as she began to get to work on my soles.

Given that I have the most ticklish feet in the universe – and yes, I did enter and win this super-incredibly-top-secret-known-only-to-a-few-people-in-the-world competition, and yes, I am currently undefeated – this was no easy task.

Giggling and squirming like a small child every time she so much as touched me, I felt ever so slightly sorry for this young woman who really was just trying to do her job.

I tried to explain with gestures and expressions but I think, in doing so, I may have just confused matters further.

She soon gave up and moved on to my legs working her way gradually and painfully up to my back, neck and shoulders – the one part of the massage I actually half-enjoyed.

I am relieved when it is over and make a mental note to never try it again.

It is around 9pm when I arrive back at my hotel and after a big and much welcome hug, Yentze and I say our goodbyes.

 

Thursday 21st April – Juizhaigou National Park

Juizhaigou national park covers a large expansive area, around which, coaches carry people to and from the multitude of lakes, waterfalls and forests found here.

Turquoise water mirrors the surrounding landscape, reflecting its splendor and stillness, whilst mountain peaks gleam and glow in the distance.

Here, I look at the world through new eyes, like a child discovering its beauty for the first time.

We spend the day hiking and riding in equal measure. The altitude is much lower here, the day much less tiring.

We leave at around 5:30pm, driving to a local village where Yentze takes me to meet a Tibetan family and the local community there.

Upon arriving, I am greeted with a white scarf being placed over my shoulders.

Yentze translates what is said to me, explaining the scarf is for luck.

I am told to make a wish before removing it from my person and placing it in the centre of a room, either side of which, two Lamas are displayed and incense burned.

Shortly after I am led to another room in which many people are gathered and here I am shown to a low slung seat next to a table containing some traditional Tibetan food and drink.

I try Yak meat for the first time finding it, to my surprise, incredibly yummy. Everything else, whilst palatable and interesting to sample, is not especially to my taste.

In this strange and alien environment individuals stand and talk, dance and sing. Jokes are told and Yentze laughs along with the crowd offering occasional translations when she can.

I sit and watch and whilst I do so an overwhelming sense of loneliness creeps over me.

For these past few days I have been completely cut off from all connection with the outside world. I no longer have any reception on my phone and, unlike in Huangshan where I had a cable in my room, here is a place where technology seems to have taken a step back in time.

Tears prick the back of my eyes and a lump forms in my throat. For the first time on my trip I want to run far, far, far away from here back to the safety and familiarity of my family and friends, back to a place where I can understand and be understood.

I try to hide my feelings from Yentze. She seems so happy here amongst these people and I do not wish my being homesick to spoil that for her.

I try to focus on the experience, to be strong, to be brave.

I am grateful when we leave, though, with a new found attitude to the experience, I do so without regret. This is, after all, what I chose and what I wanted. An immersion of self into a new and foreign culture far removed and detached from my own. I would be naive to think it would be an easy transition to make and I decide, instead, to embrace these times for the duration of the trip.

We go to a show that night, at a theatre close to my hotel which Yentze tells me has received worldwide acclaim. It is directed and choreographed by a famous Chinese man named Yi Liping and tells the story of a young woman’s journey from Juizhaigou to Lhasa, depicting the worship, culture and rituals of Tibetan life.

It is, not only, a visual treat for the eyes, but I also come away with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of Tibetan people.

It is late when I return to my hotel. The loneliness I felt has dissipated, replaced instead with marvel and contentment, for which I am grateful.

Before leaving Yentze informs me we have a 6:30am start, in order that I may catch my flight to Xi’an.

I pack my things away and sleep.

 

Friday 22nd April – Xi’an Day 1

As we approach Juizhaigou airport, I feel a sense of dread. It will soon be time for me to take yet another flight and, having already seen what I am in store for on the journey here, I am truly terrified.

As you will soon see from the pictures that I post, the mountains here sit high above the clouds, a mere inch or two from the base of the plane at cruising height.

The visibility is poor, the runway short, and the mountains all encompassing.

I heard before I came here that tour operators in the UK tend not to send people here as, due to bad weather conditions, flights are frequently cancelled.

I realize now just how dangerous the terrain in these parts is and, whilst I have admittedly never been nor ever will be keen on flying, I do truly believe that hitting clear air in a region like this could prove fatal.

Yentze, who herself is far from her home town in Szechuan, is as reluctant to say goodbye as I am to get on the plane.

She helps me to check in before hugging me several times and telling me she doesn’t want me to go.

She asks that I stay in touch and to come visit her in the autumn.

She tells me she feels a strong connection to me and, before I go, sings me a song to wish me safe passage. I do not understand the lyrics but her voice, soft and sweet, moves and deeply touches me.

We hug one last time before I go, hoping that this will not be the last time our two paths meet.

She is young, much younger than I and has a sweet, gentle, kind nature which I hope will not alter with time.

Sitting in departures I hear an announcement made – Due to bad weather my flight to Xi’an has been delayed an hour, two others have been cancelled.

I see this as a strong and very definite sign that I belong here – that this is now to be my second home.

Sure, it’s a wee bit cut off from absolutely everything and everywhere, but what is life if not for overcoming a few hurdles along the way?

If I leave on a plane I am guessing my chances of survival are, at best, 1%, though I do realize this is being optimistic.

I ponder all the things I would gain by living here.

I’d get the chance to really learn Chinese and become fluent in it.

I wouldn’t have to get on the plane.

Yentze and I could become best friends.

And I wouldn’t have to get on the plane.

It all sounds extremely enticing.

I am pretty much sold on the idea when my thoughts get interrupted by another announcement – the flight is boarding.

Shit. What to do?

I think back to the song which Yentze sang me before we said goodbye and consider that maybe, just maybe, it might just work as some kind of protective force to keep me safe from harm.

Cautiously I move towards the crowds of people now moving through the gate.

“Is is safe?”

I ask the woman who takes my boarding pass and rips off a thin strip from it before placing it back into my now clammy hand.

She looks at me blankly.

“Safe?”

I ask again, this time with a look of fear and terror plastered all over my face.

“Safe” she replies, though there is a definite possibility she has no idea what I am saying and is just repeating what I said in the hope that this will move me on.

It works, I do.

The plane ride goes well. I am at the front in first class – something which I am sure I owe to Yentze – and the cabin crew do what they can to look after me, giving me a blanket and some slippers which are both comforting and warm.

While the plane reaches ever higher, I watch closely out of the window, trying to see if there are any mountains in our way so that I may quickly inform the pilot, in case, for some strange reason, he doesn’t notice them himself.

I spend the entire journey like this, unable to relax until we touchdown in Xi’an. Whether it is due to the dense cloud obscuring the view, or perhaps just a different direction in which we are flying from when I came here, I do not see any mountains.

I am grateful to be alive and to live to tell my tale.

I am met in Xi’an by Tien, a girl of approximately my own age who is fluent in English. It is the first time on this trip that I have been able to have a proper conversation with a Chinese person and really be understood.

Tien is a fountain of knowledge.

She tells me that Xi’an is one of Chinas most ancient cities and that it was the capital for over 1000 years. She tells me it has the best preserved defense system and city wall in China and that all the buildings within it are built in the ming style of architecture.
She talks constantly and with ease and I like her. I like her a lot.

The hotel where I am staying is called Skytel and after a quick spot of lunch, I check in.

The temperature here is thirty degrees, at least twice as hot as that of Juizhaigou. I shower and change and meet Tien in the lobby where she takes me to the first of two excursions planned for the day – the Shannxi history museum.

We move around the two floors of this outstanding building with ease, stopping at various points of note and interest, where I am informed of what we are looking at, which dynasty it is from and its importance in history.

I am amazed by how much information she has to share and by how completely captivated she keeps me – she knows everything and, by the time we leave, I feel as though I do to. Well, with the exception of the secrets of the universe but I’d bet money if I had asked she would have shared them with me 😉

Our final stop of the day is the Great Goose Pagoda, a large and rather impressive pagoda (surprisingly ;)) which sits within the gardens of a very pretty Buddhist temple. She takes me around both, teaching me the story of Buddha as told through a series of jade carvings within the temples walls.

It is a fantastic afternoon and I feel my knowledge of Chinese history – though still lacking – has increased a thousand fold. At least.

Tien leaves me at my hotel till the morning when we will meet to see the Terracotta warriors and City Wall.

It is the first time in days that I have been connected to the outside world, so after a quick mail out to all of you now reading this, I take a walk around the city of Xi’an by night, taking photos as I go.

 

Saturday 23rd April – Xi’an Day 2 – Terracotta Warriors

Tien and I meet after breakfast at 8:30am when we begin the hour long drive to the home of the Terracotta Warriors – also known as the 8th wonder of the world.

They were discovered in 1974 by a group of 9 farmers digging a well, one of whom – Mr. Young – now works in the museum signing books for, and having photos taken with, it’s many visitors.

The museum opened in 1979 and is comprised of 3 pits and one exhibition hall.

The Terracotta warriors themselves stand at approximately 1.8 meters high and were burial objects made to guard the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, in his afterlife.

Qin Shi Huang was one amazing dude who was king of the Chinese State of Qin from 246 BC to 221 BC during the warring states period. He became the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BC. He ruled until his death in 210 BC at the age of 49.

Not only did he unify China by bringing the kingdoms of that time together, but he was also responsible for standardizing currency and language, the building of the Great Wall of China and creating the first information super highway along which documents, files and goods could be transported.

Qin’s burial mound remains untouched to this day. It is over 39 meters deep and is thought to have a mercury river flowing through it adorned with bronze and copper ducks and swans and geese that float along it. The tomb itself is adorned with pearls on its ceilings – used to represent the stars at night.

The warriors face outwards, guarding the tomb which stands 1.5km away. The sheer volume of them and detail with which they have been made is astonishing.

Individual braids of hair, fingernails and complex patterns on the soles of their feet as well as unique characteristics and expressions on their faces make these truly mind blowing creations.

Before I leave I buy a guide book which I get Mr Young to sign for me as a memento of my time here.

Following lunch at a nearby local restaurant, Tien takes me to the city wall where I hire a bike and cycle for the next hour and a half.

It is the first time that I have ridden since I had an accident as a child and, though I was naturally a wee bit nervous at first, I managed to scale the entirety of the wall – 13.7km in total – stopping at various places to take pictures and view the world outside as I went along my way.

I found it both liberating and exciting and, as silly as it sounds, I didn’t want it to end.

Tien had informed me about a play which was on in Xi’an in which the history of ancient china was told in story form at a local theatre. She recommended it very highly and, given my love of and for shows and the fact that all of the ones I had seen up until this point had been so jaw- droppingly good, I decided to give it a go.

I was not disappointed.

Without meaning to negate London in any way whatsoever, the shows in China that I have seen during my time here are far and away the most impressive that I have ever seen. The attention to detail, sets, costumes and the sheer ability and skill of the performers in each is quite simply out of this world.

There are lasers, projections, acrobatics, musicians and dancers – all to a standard I can only describe as first class.

Whilst at the theatre in Xi’an I met a lovely young family from Singapore with whom I shared a table. We spoke at great length about our adventures and recommended places we had seen to one another.

It was a wonderful day from start to finish – made much nicer by having Tien to show me around.

Tomorrow I fly again, this time to Guillin, where I will get to see the rice paddies in Longsheng and the unique limestone karsts of Yangshuo.

I can’t wait!

It’s gonna be the best thing ever.. Of that I am sure 😉

 

Sunday 24th April – Longsheng

I arrived in Guillin at around 10:30pm where I was met by my new guide for the next few days, Chi. Or as I fondly refer to him, Mr. Miyagi.

Mr. Miyagi is an elderly Chinese man who was born, raised and now lives with his own family in Guillin. He is conservative and reserved, both in his appearance and his nature and, upon meeting him, I immediately take a shine to him.

It is a two and a half hour drive to Ping’an, a small village on the Longji rice terraces of Longsheng and, on our journey, he gives me a running orientation of the scenery outside whilst filling me in on the history of the area.

He is an old and sweet natured man and I am grateful to have him around.

The scenery is unique to this area and somewhat hard to believe – limestone karsts – tall and imposing mountain like structures – can be seen in the distance, whilst lush green flora and fauna pave the roadside up to the mountain.

The last leg of the journey is made on foot. It is a 40 minute walk up a stony path in a temperature of over 30 degrees. It is long and hard and slow and armed with all my bags I stop frequently for rest and water.

My hotel stands 833 metres above sea level and my window looks out onto the rice fields that stretch on into the distance as far as the eye can see.

It is late when I check in and I am both tired and faint and in need of food.

Whilst eating I bump into Chi who kindly offers me some rice wine from a bottle that he is drinking alone. I invite him to join me and graciously accept the offer of more when it comes. It is delicious – like Saki both in strength and taste, differing only in that, unlike Saki, it is served cold.

We sit and chat freely and with ease.

I tell him about my trip thus far and he listens intently, knodding and oohing and aaahing in all the right places.

He has a good ear and understanding of English and it is something for which I am grateful.

The wine is strong and I am soon tipsy and feeling the same degree of tiredness which I first felt upon arriving in Huangshan on what feels like months if not a lifetime ago.

I wish him goodnight (Wa an) and we arrange a time to meet in the morning.

 

Tuesday 26th April – Longsheng day 1

I meet with Mr Miyagi at the entrance to my hotel following a breakfast of fried eggs on a balcony overlooking the terraces.

He dons a shirt and trousers and looks like he is dressed for a city job on fleet street.

The day starts out with pleasantries as we set off on our way to the Dazai village, a neighbouring village to the one where I am staying in Pin’an.

The hike takes around 5 hours and leads us off the beaten trek along narrow stone paths filled with the most magnificent scenery imaginable.

I quickly decide that it’s my favouritest place ever.

I love it, every single second I get to admire and gaze and marvel at it’s beauty is a joy to me.

Don’t get me wrong, there were moments standing alone on huangshan mountain where I felt the same way I did here, but it’s different.

The views, though perhaps not as breathtaking in the same way, are just as wondrous and majestical.

To be fair, it’s hard to explain why i feel as i do here; Its everything about this place.

The naturalness of the surrounding landscape, the stillness of the scene, the beautiful nature that man has left as yet untouched.

For the first time this trip I feel like a proper explorer and I love it. I love it in a way that can only be described with a feeling deep inside.

I love that Mr Miyagi has never done this walk – that this is a path we tread alone and together for the first time.

“We’re proper explorers now Chi” I say proudly as we walk along

He laughs shyly and nods his head “Well yes indeed” he says.

I talk non-stop for the entire time asking about his life, his family, how he got into being a guide, life in china, the flora and fauna surrounding us, what his hopes and dreams are, whether his daughter is married, the one child rule, religion, communism.

Anything and everything.

We cover it all and no stone is left unturned.

I try my hardest to make him relax within my company.

He starts 99.9% of his sentences with ‘wuswually’ And each and every time it makes me smile.

He tells me his daughter is older than me – 23 – and seems genuinely surprised when I tell him my actual age.

He asks if I am married explaining that in china girls get married at around 25/26.

He tells me that before if a girls parents didnt approve of a boy then she didn’t marry him and that his daughter is dating and that the boy is ‘ok’. It doesn’t sound like he is too fond of him nor too happy about his daughters choice in a partner, but he explains these days it doesn’t matter what the parents want or think – something I feel just from the way he speaks about it saddens him.

He is old fashioned, from a generation very different from his childs, and a culture a million times removed from my own.

I feel sorry for him – he is truly so sweet and lovely and has the warmest heart. I really, really, really, really like him and I really, really, really, really want for him to be happy.

I am so glad this is new for him too. And that he is enjoying it. Its just the coolest thing ever.

Along the way we pass through two villages.

One is made up of an ethnic minority group called the Yao people and the other the Zheun people.

Whilst Chi can happily converse with the Yao, he does not know the language of the Zheun.

When we are about three hours in I start to feel a wee bit concened about Chi. He is at least 55, mebbes older and whilst I am as happy as a lamb walking all day whilst chatting away in the sun, I realize perhaps this is a lot to demand from a body nearly twice my age.

Given his nature i really dont believe he would tell me even if he wasn’t feeling ok. He goes at my pace and when I ask if he wants a break, which i do regularly, he tells me he is fine to keep going and equally as happy to stop if i want to rest a while. I try to gauge from the speed at which he walks when to suggest we wait and it seems to work out ok.

When we walk through the Yao village, Chi checks to see that we are on the right path and we use the opportunity to get some food and water and refresh ourselves some.

“Are you having a nice day Chi?” I ask as we start off again

“Ohhhh, yes” he says smiling sweetly

“Chi” I say coyly before pausing for maximum effect “…is it the best day ever?”

I have a grin plastered all over my face and laughter in my eyes

“Becoss.. I’m having the bestest day ever Chi!” and I laugh and skip and feel so completely happy and alive.

“Hehehehe” he laughs “best day ever” he repeats after me

I love that he plays along with my silly ways and I tell him his wife is a very lucky woman, that his daughter is a very lucky girl, and that I am a very lucky person to have met him and shared this time with him.

I tell that he is my favouritest guide so far. And it’s true. He is.

Me and Mr. Miyagi goes together like peas and carrots.

He has the biggest heart imaginable, the sweetest nature in the universe and, though I talk incessantly, questioning everything we see and stopping literally every single second to take video or photos of the surrounding landscape he never, not even once, attempts to hurry me along.

He is as patient as he is kind, as loyal as he is good natured.

I am blessed to have met him – I am so very grateful he is here with me on my journey.

“Chiiii!” I call out to him after running off to take a picture of a chicken I see.

“Ya know.. We should skip the rest of the way. Can you skip Chi?!” I ask.

“It will be the coolest thing ever, guaranteed. And… And it will make you super happy too, I promise! Let’s skip chi!!”

I want so very much to infect him with my lust for exploration, to rekindle the child in him, to get him crazy excited like I am.

He doesn’t skip and, to be honest, I knew he wouldn’t, but I can tell then and there that there is a strong fondness between us like that of a father and his child and an almost protective nature which he later displays when we reach our destination.

It was around 2pm when we hit Dazai village.

The plan originally had been to drive back to Pin’an by road, but now I was hungry for more walking.

“Chi” i call after him.

“I think I’m gonna walk back if you don’t mind. I’ve nothing else to do today and I really like the idea of walking. I’ll be fine so don’t worry and i will be back before dark for sure”

I wasn’t intending to stop for photos, merely to hike while drinking in the scenery. I find it quietens and stills and clears my mind. It makes me happy and calm and improves my emotional wellbeing so very, very much.

My sense of direction is, at best, atrocious, but I think we pretty much followed a path all the way here and decide I’d be more than fine alone.

Chi is having none of it.

He tells me the way back will be harder and that the terrain, whilst safe by day is dangerous at night when the sun goes down.

He tells me to go back with him and that he won’t let me go alone.

I knew he cared 🙂

Whilst slightly disappointed not to be able to walk back the way I came, I am secretly stoked to feel he doesn’t want any harm to come to me.

Chi is right, perhaps what I wanted wasn’t the best thought out of plans ever.

We drive to the base of Pin’an together and thanking him for the day, we say our goodbyes and i walk alone up to my hotel.

After grabbing a torch, I set out along a path to two of the viewpoints suggested to tourists here. They sit high up on the mountain at around 1000metres above sea level, and whilst I prefer the relatively unexplored territory of the terrain from whence I have just come, the scenery really is second to none.

I wait till sunset when I return back to my room and go in search of food.

The Yao people here have shacks built into the Mountain paths where they sell handmade goods and various bits of food. I opt for some barbequed corn before going back to my hotel, taking a nice long hot shower and going to bed.

I sleep soundly and dream of adventure

 

Wednesday 27th April – Yangshuo 

I am woken by the sound of cockerels at around 6:30am and, staying warm in bed till 8, I make my way slowly and contentedly to breakfast and the start of my day with Chi.

Today he is taking me to Yangshou where I will spend the next two days.

The journey starts from the hotel at 8:45am or so and lasts 4 hours. I use the time to write and rest in equal measure, the rhythmic monotony of the car sending me into a dreamless sleep from which I regularly awake.

As we go further in, limestone karsts begin to dominate the scenery, jutting up hundreds of metres above the ground.

They stand both in isolation and conjoined. And they appear everywhere. Literally everywhere. We pass hotels and houses behind which, besides which and infront of which they stand. This is the stuff of fairytales and I am dazzled by what I see.

When we get to my new place of residence for the next two nights i ask Mr. Miyagi what he suggests I do with my time here.

I have a free day to explore the town before we go together on a planned day of activities on Thursday.

One of the things which we have scheduled is a bicycle ride of about 7km along the Yulong river.

Chi suggests I hire a bike and do the other side to the one which we are to do together and shows me to a place in which I can do just that. I ask him to explain the way and when he points to a busy road which, as we came along by car, I remember thinking looked pretty goddamn scary, I start thinking better of it.

“Do I have to go on the road then?” I say in a quiet and slighty nervous voice.

“Yessssss” he says.

“Oh.” I reply.

“wu not ride on bikes in wour country?” he asks

“No chi” I say

“up until a few days ago I hadn’t ridden a bike since I had a nasty accident when i was a child”

“I come with you. No problem”

See how cool mr miyagi is? 🙂

“If you don’t mind chi” i say, relieved, “then that would be simply awesome”

We hire two bikes – pink for me and blue for him.

I try to convince him to swap but he looks at me blankly as if I am crazy.

“Pink one is for girls, blue one is for boys”, he says

No harm in mixing it up a little I think, though I have no problem being a girly girl.. once in a while 😉

I get a cute basket in which to put my backpack and some water and a bell at the front which, for the first 15 minutes of our ride I use consistently and constantly. I want these craaaazy drivers to know I am around.

“Stay near me”, Mr Miyagi tells me, “keep close”

“I will” i say, intending to stay right by his side and mirror his every move.

The ride, with the exception of all the dust and exhaust fumes, is absoiutely amazing.

I am super glad to have Mr Miyagi along, especially at a roundabout we come upon, but also just generally on the roads.

There are literally no rules; Anything goes here in china and it’s pretty scary! At least it would have been had I been alone. I knew chi would take care of me and I put my faith in that. I also made sure I was aware of everything around me. Just incase 😉

We ride for around 3 hours, chatting along the way and I feel happy and free and full of the joys of spring.

At various places Mr miyagi tells me to “Stop here. Take picture” and I obey, savouring the chance to record this day at every opportunity.

We pass rivers, ponds and streams, water buffalo, farmers and flowers.

“Potoato plant” he says pointing at a small green area to the left of us. “Peach tree” he points to some trees covered in pastel pink blossom. It carries on like this as we go. “Rhododendrons”, “Bauhinia – National flower of hong kong”, “Bamboo shoots”. So many snippets of information. I feel like I may well soon be qualified to be a botanist 😉

Chi is still dressd in a shirt and smart trousers, but today he has added a hat to his attire.

“wusually I wear this ewery day. westerday I forgot it in room”

It’s an obviously much loved piece of attire. A cream coloured cap, simple in design, with the word ‘Boeng’ on it.

“Had for ower 10 years” he tells me proudly and given it’s slightly worn and faded look I can see it was and still is very loved.

“It’s lovely chi” i say approvingly, knowing myself how special hats can be.

On the ride back to my hotel he suggests I go for a Chinese massage at a local place he knows not far from there.

I explain that I had a bad experience in Juizhaigou and after telling him all about it he suggests I try this and compare it.

Wuswally a massage from a Tibetan is very different from a massage by a Chinese person, apparently.

I agree to try it but ask that two conditions be adhered to if I do.

Firstly, that it is made clear that feet are off limits. Without exception.

No sly touching when my eyes are closed.

No sneaky kneading anywhere around that region.

And secondly I ask that it be super soft and gentle, explaining I want to relax, not be in pain. He laughs at my seemingly over-the-top untrusting nature but agrees nonetheless.

We arrive and after a brief talk with my allocated therapist, Chi leaves me and the massage begins. Before he goes I listen to what he says

“Chi lie der, ok? Chi lie der.”

He says it around 15 times and I realise after, that this is his third show of genuine care for my happiness and well being, that he is as fond of I as I of him.

From now on Mr Miyagi will be my Chinese dad, I decide.

It will be, in some strange way at least, kinda like the naming of a child in China with an English as well as Chinese name. Commonplace these days – Yentze my former guide being Helen, Tien being Echo – though I never called her by this name

The massage is great. Relaxing, calming and when it is over I feel as good as new.

Chi is waiting for me when I get outside.

I am sleepy and in a world of my own. “Hey Chi” I say without thinking

“Knee how” I quickly add.

“Was good?” he asks looking concerned

“Knee Dow hut see la” I say smiling – delicious being the only word I know that comes even close to wonderful in Chinese.

“Shee shee” I add bowing slightly to show just how grateful I am for making such an effort to ensure I enjoyed it.

He looks very pleased with himself.

I thank him for waiting and he tells me that he himself took a massage there – a foot one – it’s the done thing in these parts apparently.

He explains that, with all the exercise we have done these past few days, it is good to relax our muscles and prevent them getting stiff and tight. I agree with him – I’m dazed and feel ever so slightly out of it, as if I am intoxicated – it’s a nice place to be.

We ride back to the hotel and hand in our bikes.

Before coming here, I booked a show for the evening which takes place on the Yulong river.

It tells the story of a young cormorant fisherman and is directed by the same dude who did the Beijjing Olympic games.

The show starts at 7:30pm and is a spectacle of enormous size and scale. It has a cast of 1000s and, though it is told entirely in Chinese, it is a classic love story and I follow it with ease.

The show last around an hour and from here I make my way to a place called West street – its a place not far from my hotel – a lively hub attracting both locals and tourists in equal measure.

Chi pointed it out to me, recommending, whilst i should be mindful of pick pockets, that I pay it a visit, and use it as an opportunity to buy gifts, food and perhaps even a drink or three 😉

I arrive and its jam packed full.

There are market vendors and people everywhere.

To my surprise it’s 90% chinese – though I assume a lot of these are tourists from other places around the country. Its funny but I kinda expected to see more westerners on this stretch of my journey.

West street is awesome – i find shops selling the cutest things imaginable, bars full of character and life, and streets lined with vendors and their wares.

I walk around for hours before stumbling upon a bar overlooking the river where i stop a while and have me some wine.

It’s pretty much a lucky dip as to what I get as only a few are sold by the glass. I try two and, slightly tipsy, walk back to my hotel arriving just after 12:30am.

I sleep soundly and seamlessly.

 

The rest of my journey around China was sadly undocumented. I spent a fairly large chunk of it in Shanghai, which i found uninspiring and failed to write anything of any real note or substance. I did go to a zoo that was very enjoyable. Below are some pictures from that day.