We decided we may as well go to Astana while we were in the area, seeing it was the capital, as we probably won’t be back in the ‘Stans for a third time. We had no expectations, so were blown away by the incredible architecture, street art and night lighting.
Monday 13th August, 2018 Astana (Kazakhstan)
We have breakfast at the hotel, not as good as some, but adequate, and are out and about by 10.30am someone’s time (we’ve had so many time-changes, we’re no longer sure), looking for a likely bus to get us into the CBD. Walk towards the largest road leading toward the city, taking photos of the impressive buildings which we quickly find are normal in Astana, and getting side-tracked into an interesting park with lots of floral decorations, fountains and sculptures, including a row of oversized hearts made of artificial flowers making an aisle, probably for the wedding trade, which they take very seriously in these parts. There are quite a few visitors in the park, even on a week day.
We find a bus shelter which has an interesting on-line library attached, look at the bus route map and decide Bus 21 is the way to go as it goes down a main road, then takes a left toward the CBD, where we can get off and take in the sights. At 190 Tenge (70c Australian) the bus is a pretty good deal, but about twice the price of using a local transport card, but that is a step too far for us. We take some photos from the bus which takes us over a bridge on the river, from which we can see where the river splits around an island to the west. We pass a large circular building which looks like a landed flying saucer, and to the west, a large masonry building, which would be not out of place on Central Park, with multiple towers, up to 40 storeys, and spires and towers on the roof. We see the back of the Opera Theatre and a distant view of the famous silver “circus tent” (Khan Shatyr) before making the left turn toward the CBD. We decide not to get off at the Bayterek Monument as originally planned, and ride the bus as far as we are game, stopping opposite a large arch in a long wall of multistorey office buildings which look interesting.
We had intended to walk towards the Bayterek Monument (the 97-metre high monument with a white latticed tower crowned by a large glass orb) but get side-tracked when we climb stairs to twin intricately decorated bridges over the main road to get better photos, and find lots of interesting buildings in the opposite direction. Take photos of twin conical gold glass clad buildings on this street, and to the west up the large central park, with colourful flower gardens in the foreground, to the Bayterek Monument, and much further along you can just see in the distance a massive arch, and the “Circus Tent” (Khan Shatyr) beyond. Decide we’ll explore this area later, and head to the East, in the opposite direction, to a very large elevated plaza, past an interesting fountain with water flowing down the curved glass of a walkway. The plaza extends past a couple of interesting buildings, and ends in a curved viewing point. In front of us, to the East is the elaborate Presidential Palace (Ak Orda), with a very high first floor, three more storeys above, a large blue and gold dome with a tall spike on top, and a curved façade which follows the curve of the base of the dome. The square in front of the palace must be half a kilometre on a side, with a circular formal flower garden in the centre, and more rectangular flower gardens off to the right leading to the very interestingly shaped dark green glass Central Concert Hall (an engineering description would be a nested series of inverted, truncated cones – I think you need to see the photo!)
The Palace is on a red granite podium, with staircases and fountain jets, and has private pine woods to either side. Beyond the Presidential Palace, on the other side of the river, on the same line as the Circus Tent (Khan Shatyr) and the Bayterek Monument tower, and the Palace dome are the dramatic pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the towering Kazak Yeli (country) Monument. There are arched bridges over the river on either side of the Presidential Palace. We’ve now decided to get ambitious (who, us?) and explore the other side of the river as we can see a couple of unusual buildings. Rectangular flower gardens to the left of the Palace lead to the Parliament Building. We want to walk past the Presidential Palace but get stopped by a guard, as you cannot go anywhere near the palace, but can walk left beside the Parliament building to the large, curved House of Ministries building where we first saw the massive arched tunnel through it. We take photos of the arch, the Central Concert Hall and across the river and grassland, of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
From the bridge to the north of the Presidential Palace, we get good views of the Palace, the Central Concert Hall, the river, and major buildings of the CBD. On the east side of the river is a park in the form of an extensive area of natural grassland, which looks pretty rough up close, but gives an uninterrupted view of the city. One notable building has a multitude of chimney pots.
At the end of the bridge are sculptures, one a bronze of a revolutionary with a flag, the other is a large apple. We divert toward the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, but get distracted by the need for a loo and food, and walk into a complex of high rise apartment buildings. We eventually find an information centre with a loo, find a restaurant with a quite good pizza, and get a glimpse of the unexpected large Hazrat Sultan Mosque in the distance. After lunch we once again change direction, and head to the mosque, and find it large and impressive by any standard. We get long distance views, then cross the busy road and take a closer look, hoping to get inside. We find an open door, walk in and find ourselves in a large dining room. Further around, we get to the front entrance, but it looks difficult, so we take exterior photos and move on to other points of interest.
The nearest is across another busy road, the Shabyt Art Palace, a blue glass cone with an inverted, inclined cone set into the top of it (once again, you need to see a photo to appreciate the unusual shape). It looks spectacular from a distance, but up close, it is ageing, the blue glass is dirty, and some of the panels, at ground-level kicking distance have been broken, and now are either crazed broken glass, or metal panels. We thought it was a library or museum, but is an arts university, and off limits to the public.
We move on toward the towering Kazak Yeli Monument, which has a lot of construction going on around it, including an inclined, glass-roofed structure which could be a Metro station, only they don’t have a metro. There is also paving work going on, so we can’t get close enough to the monument to get photos of anything other than the dark silhouettes of bronze figures. There is also a new building to the left with dark glass and a white external criss-cross frame beside it, which features in Astana publicity photos. From the Yeli Monument the pyramid of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation looks a lot sharper than most pyramid buildings, with about a 60 degree angle at the apex.
We take a lot more photos of the mosque from this direction, then cross the massive square and a multi-lane road to get to the Palace, only to find it is closed for renovations. From this side, we take photos of the Palace, and landmark buildings across the square to the east, including the pale green glass National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
By now we are very hot and weary, and ready to head home for a rest. We have worked out that our favourite bus, the #21 comes past here, but when it comes it continues on without stopping at the Palace, possibly because we are too close to the end of the route. This leaves us with a problem – should we go forward or back, or go to the other side of the wide road? We move forward, to find another bus stop and another bus, any bus. We end up with a different number bus, which appears on the map to take us fairly near our hotel, but when we hop on it takes us in the wrong direction, through a new suburb of up-market MacMansions, and eventually back past the pyramid, and on a different route toward the north end of town. Normally this would cause consternation, but with maps.me, we can follow our progress and decide if we are going too far off course. We take more photos on this route, and get out when we are in walking, or struggling, distance of our hotel.
After a rest at the hotel, we go out again to take night photos down in the CBD, heading for the same bus stop we used in the morning. Once again we detour through the nearby park, which is now lit up with light tunnels, and umbrella tunnels, and the large sculpture at the exit to the main street is now brilliantly lit from the inside. We find illuminated statues in the park near the bus stop, and the intricate decorations across the main road are now illuminated. We put our trust in the #21 bus again, and we follow the same route into town as this morning, noting that there is a lot of action along the river at the bridge near our hotel. We take photos from the bus of the illuminated flying saucer building, the Ferris wheel, the big tunnel through the Northern House of Ministries, and the decorated and now illuminated bridges across the main road.
We take repeat photos of all the landmark buildings we saw during the day, then walk past flower gardens toward the brilliantly lit Bayterek Monument, passing the Ploshchad Poyushchykh Fontanov (Singing Fountains Square) on the way. We think we’re too late for the show, so pleasantly surprised when they spring into life with a brilliant internally lit and orchestrated music show. It is now 10.20 PM, and we are thinking about the last bus, as, while we can afford a taxi, there don’t seem to be a lot about.
We walk as far as the Bayterek Monument, then turn north through an avenue of blue illuminated arches, to the road we arrived on. We find a layby on the street which may be a bus stop, but has no shelter or signs, so we keep walking until we come to a genuine bus stop with people waiting. Our favourite #21 comes along, but it is full, and we have to squeeze aboard and stand in the entry, trying to avoid the closing doors. Anywhere else the driver would either drive past, or pick up the same number as descend, but this must be the Last Bus from Gun Hill, and is open to all comers. We have to stay close to the doors, or we will never get out, as the bus keeps filling, and fortunately the driver doesn’t make us go back.
We get out short of our last stop, so we can walk directly to Burger King, which appears to be our last hope of getting a meal. Murray is thinking seriously of irrigating one of the street trees by the time we get there. The staff recognises us and the negotiation is easier. From Burger King, we have a quick look at the local supermarkets, and walk the long block to our hotel, totally buggered, after an exhausting, but exhilarating day. We think seeing the buildings during the day was impressive, but seeing them lit up at night was even better. Astana has certainly surprised us!
Tuesday 14th August Astana (Kazakhstan)
Today we’re planning to follow the 2km boulevard (Nurzhol Bulvar) of gardens and plazas leading east from the “Circus Tent”(Khan Shatyr) to the presidential Palace, with the Bayterek Monument half-way along.
After another hotel breakfast, we do a local photo of a large office building with a curved glass façade, then try a different number bus, which should go as far as our target, the “Circus Tent”. We stop short of it, take photos of the front of the Greek Temple style Opera House, then walk through an open area of grass to take un-obstructed view of the tent, and the massive building with a large arched void across the road from it, and a full circle of significant buildings. From directly in front of the tent, we take a photo past a large Astana sign through the arch and down the axis of the park to the Bayterek Monument, which conceals the other reference points of the axis.
Khan Shatyr is Astana’s most extraordinary building, and is a 150metres-high translucent, tentlike structure made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a heat-absorbing material that produces summer temperatures inside even when its -30C outside (according to the blurb!). Inside there’s a high end shopping mall, food court and various attractions including a drop tower, flume ride, 500m-long monorail and a beach club with swimming pool, sandy beach, palm trees and water slide. It was opened in 2010 and was designed by celebrated British architect Norman Foster, who designed “The Gherkin” in London among many other buildings.
We walk up the large staircase to the entrance to the tent, through security, and stand on the main floor of the tent, which towers above us, supported by three trussed pipe supports, two long ones at the front, and a shorter one at the back to give the asymmetric shape off the tent. The anchor points for the supports are massive steel structures, set into the shiny black granite floor. A man is driving a Zamboni, or similar three-wheel floor sweeping and scrubbing machine to keep the floor pristine, while a woman with a mop is cleaning details.
There are four levels of retail around the central atrium, and the tropical beach level at the top, with sinuously curved solid balustrades, each level getting smaller to follow the shape of the tent. From the base level, we can see the palm trees and plastic greenhouses of the “Beach” which maintain the tropical atmosphere all year, while the rest is air conditioned.
We use the escalators to get to the top, checking out each floor as we go. At the top we have to decide if we want to pay big money for a swimming ticket or smaller money for a walk-through and drink ticket. The atmosphere is indeed tropical, and a swim would go down OK, but we are not looking at spending the entire day there, and it is not minus 20 outside, and we don’t have swimmers anyway. We walk around this level, taking photos of the pool, the real sand beach, the palm trees, the mini-monorail, mechatronic T-Rex, beach volleyball court, water slide and flume ride, and structural details of the tent, including the anchors for the multiple cables, smaller cross-cables, plastic sheet covering, and columns, and get birds-eye views down to the ground floor. After the welcome “free” drink, we go down to find a massive supermarket, which wouldn’t be out of place in any capital of the world, with a very large liquor department.
Back outside, we stop at the top of the stairs to take an axis photo of the Bayterek Monument, take photos back at the tent, cross the road in the underpass, take front-on photos of the Classic Opera House and stainless steel sculptures in the park. We take off-centre photos of the tent to show its asymmetric shape, then we concentrate on views to the east, looking at a floral teapot and cup, bronze sculpture of young lovers with a flower bed, the arch and the Bayterek Monument, and other fountains. There are a lot of buildings around to photograph, the fountains are running, and the sun is shining. What’s not to love?
We know there is a major mosque (Nur Astana mosque) in the area, so walk south through a park to find it. It is a nice-enough mosque, white painted, with gold domes on the four minarets, and the main chamber. There is a reflecting pool in front, but it is not in the same league as yesterday’s mosque. We manage to get a look inside, with shoes off and shawl on, but it is pretty ordinary, so quickly look and leave.
On the way back to the main square, we have a look at the construction quality of some of the buildings, finding a lot of deterioration in paving, wall cladding, and step construction. They definitely haven’t got the adhesion of granite to concrete right, but it is still a lot better than the superficial grandeur of Ashgabat, in neighbouring Turkmenistan.
We head for the main square to look at the rest of it, taking photos of major buildings. Get a look at the brown egg-shaped dome of the National Archives, and sit and rest while we watch abseilers cleaning windows so high up on one of the large, curved glass buildings that it hard to even see them at first. We get in the queue to get the lift to the top of the Bayterek Monument, and do a bit of queue-jumper control, but it is hard to discriminate against family group members coming and going. The wait is mercifully short, and we take the elevator to the gold-glass sphere, with two levels of viewing.
Unfortunately, the gold tinted glass is pretty dirty and distorted, and there are a lot of reflections so the photos, while being panoramic, are pretty disappointing. We try both levels, and take photos of Murray putting his hand in the gold-plated impression of the hand of the first president. Never letting a chance go by, we use the loos in the tower as they are pretty few and far between, and then take the elevator down to sub-ground level.
We continue walking south and east, taking more photos of signature buildings, including one with a typically Chinese roof. Walk through a second massive arch in a curved building, this one the Southern Wing of the House of Ministries, to find the entrance of the impressive dark green glass Central Concert Hall, which is closed. The Hall is another glass-clad building, with not-so-clean glass. The panels within kicking distance of the ground are metal, some with damage, but not broken. From the Hall, we get more good photos of the major public buildings and the massive open square between here and the Parliament building, across to the Presidential Palace, and as far as the pyramid of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. After walking all around the Hall, we find ourselves in a no-mans-land of major freeways, but use narrow footpaths and driveways to get back to the main bus route and catch a #21 bus back home, getting off early and once again visiting Burger King. We have a bath in the hotel room, and take a photo of the bath water, which is pretty brown before we even get into it.
From the bus, we have seen an actual beach on the river near us, so plan an evening visit to look at the beach, pedestrian bridges across the river and a park with fountains. Head out about 8pm while it is still light, and walk towards the river, through a park with floral displays and modern soft sculptures. We reach it east of the road bridge and pedestrian bridge, then walk east along the foreshore to a large equestrian statue of a local historic figure. We take photos of landmark buildings, including the arched bridges, the dome of the Presidential Palace and a strange, very structural open centred rotating ring Ferris wheel, which appears to be out of commission.
There is karaoke going on at an open-air theatre, with the words of the theme from Titanic up on the screen. We walk on from here to buy popcorn, just like all the other families who are out enjoying the balmy evening, watch people hiring pedal boats in a very small enclosure, and reach the recently opened and very architectural semi-covered pedestrian bridge with a sinuous shape and sheet metal scales which crosses the Ishim River. It may or may not represent a snake or a dragon. At the far side, we take the long way through a wooded park, towards the fountain and clock tower we have seen from the bus. On the way we take photos of buildings and the big Ferris wheel, with the lights coming on. It looks fantastic, but it is very hard to get a good photo.We pass an interesting hollow gold half-sphere sculpture, and an open area where there are brightly lit electric cars. The very tall multi-towered building south of the main square is brightly lit, but hard to focus on at night. There are quite a few mosquitoes around here, and everyone can be seen slapping at them. When we reach the main road, the fountains are not running, but we take photos of the fountain structures and the tower, which has analogue clock faces. We look at the display of manikin figures holding a globe, representing delegates from a large number of countries to some sort of Eco-conference in Astana. We the circle twice, find most of the mendicant countries, but Oz is missing. The fountains start up, and we take more photos, and get a better look at the Ferris wheel and major buildings.
Walking back towards the river on the main road we get a photo of a crescent moon over a mosque – very Islamic, and photos of the illuminated sculptured balls at the start of the bridge with brightly lit-up apartment buildings north-west of the river. We cross the bridge and turn right onto the esplanade along the river, getting good photos of the brightly lit buildings north of the river, including the Radisson Hotel, right on the river at the bridge. There is no breeze, and little current, so the reflections in the river are almost perfect. The main road north of the bridge has all the decorative displays across the road powered up, and heavy traffic, so it is pretty bright.
At the start of the esplanade, we get a view of the underside of the bridge, which is lit up bright blue, but turns to purple. Looking to the east, the buildings along the shore line and the pedestrian bridges are brightly lit, reflecting in the river, and changing colour regularly. The three tall, rectangular buildings with wavy patterns on them, which are our landmark to tell us we are almost home, are now brightly lit on a variable schedule, sometimes nearly dark. Hunger is kicking in, so Dianne looks for inspiration and finds a bar/restaurant with outdoor and indoor tables, but it is pretty late for the outdoor, so we go in to find a funky grunge bar. The menu is in English, and Murray orders the lentil soup and beef shashlik, with a tankard of local beer, Dianne the Greek salad and a Pina Colada.
We’ve now done a complete circuit, and walk home near where we first found the river. Take a photo of the Fab Four and a large violin in a colourfully lit park, and buy Coke in the local underground supermarket, wrapping it up at near midnight.
Wednesday 15th August Astana (Kazakhstan) to Urumqi (China)
Our flight to Urumqi in China is not till 8.50pm tonight, so we have most of the day available to look at our end of the city. We ask for a late checkout, and get till 3pm, so are out about 11.30am to walk north along the first main street. We get a photo of a soft sculpture of the Dory character from Nemo, and, as a contrast, a bronze of three wise oriental gentlemen sitting cross-legged.
We have a harder look at a white circular office building with a helical pattern of windows (once again, need to see photo to understand description) take photos of a very ordinary regional shopping centre and watch a young boy taking risks with the traffic as he crosses the street on his own (we see many instances of young kids are out and about on their own – a lot more than they would be in Australia). We find nothing particularly exciting about this part of Astana. It is just where ordinary people live. We take photos of more soft sculptures and a war memorial, and when we have had enough of suburbia, we catch the 21 bus to the fountains beyond the river, where we were last night.
We get distant photos of city buildings, the Ferris wheel, the clock tower, the manikins, the fountains, and the blue-domed mosque across the road, none of it looking as interesting as it did last night when it was all lit up. At the bridge we take photos of the bronze balls on the bridge, and along to the nice-looking beach and pedestrian bridge. We walk along the south side of the river, but run into trouble when we find the beach is private and expensive. We are told we can walk around, so we deviate inland a bit along a canal and possibly a river port, and through the park to the start of the pedestrian bridge. It is a shared path and bike riders here are just as arrogant as those in Sydney. On the way we see a modern bench with solar panels and phone charging plugs, and get views of the beach and river from the bridge. The buildings north of the bridge also don’t look as impressive by day, but the scene is not unattractive. We repeat our feed at the restaurant last night, without the alcohol, as we are catching a plane and need to have our wits about us. We get more definitive photos of the distant special buildings and Fab Four and other sculptures in the park, as well as a photo of Murray sitting in a replica of the Iron Throne from the “Game of Thrones”.
We are back at the hotel by 2.30pm and the hotel has allowed us late checkout till three, so we go down to the foyer to sit till it’s time to go, but us sitting in the foyer obviously made the place look untidy, as they say we can have our room until we are ready for our taxi. The taxi price is firm at 8000 Tenge, an acceptable fixed price for a called cab, and we are at the airport by 6 PM, getting photos of inner city high rise, the Arc de Triomphe, and the approach to the airport on the way.
We are unable to book our baggage through to Chengdu, where we are flying early tomorrow morning, but it is no big deal as we have booked a hotel near the airport for the night. It is 9 PM by the time we take off, just as it gets dark, so not much to see or photograph, but do get some shots of the lakes and lights around Astana.
Arriving at Urumqi at 1am local time, we are very wary of taxis, but there is a giant queue at the regular taxi rank, and we get a best offer of 100 Yuan (A$20) from a bloke with a bit of English, which is a lot for what should be a 3 km journey to a hotel near the airport. One of the would-be drivers reckons the hotel is closed, but we have heard that story one hundred times before, all over the world, as a way to coerce you to go to a hotel they get a commission from, so we ignore it. We do a lot of driving in circles around motorway off-ramps, and just as we are getting close to the hotel (Dianne is following our route on maps.me), we get pulled up at a roadblock with flashing red and blue lights. It is an armed police check point, and our driver’s papers and our passports are taken by a policeman with a sub-machine gun. We also show him our hotel booking, explaining that is where we are going. He rings our details through on his phone, finds our papers in order, and we get our documents back, and we think he tells us our hotel is closed, which we find pretty confusing as we have a confirmed booking with booking.com. Less than a kilometre down the road we arrive at our hotel, and we can see for ourselves that the building is fenced off, with lots of razor wire, so we are in a quandary how to proceed as it’s now about 2am. It’s pretty scary as there is a lot of smog about, and through it we can see more flashing blue lights. Our taxi man tells us he can find another hotel which involves a lot more km and driving on dark roads to get to it. On the way we see a number of police cars, and are stopped again by one of them, but this time they don’t ask for our passports.
When we get to the hotel Murray stays in the car while Dianne goes with the driver to check in. The hotel is either full, or they don’t deal with foreigners, so we are at another loose end. We are about to tell him to go back to the airport when he says there is another hotel, not too far away which he will take us to, for another 100 yuan. We don’t know if he has called but decide to give it a go, but are alarmed that his short distance is halfway across Urumqi, at high speed on the almost deserted freeways. We see more police patrols, but are not stopped, and find ourselves at a large, but strange hotel in the middle of a transport yard. There are people at the desk, and a man who may be a guide, and has good English, who assures us the hotel is OK, and they do have rooms.
We surrender our passports, pay 150 Yuan (A$31), get our key card, and, after paying our driver 200Y for his time, effort and anguish, proceed to our room, through a foyer stacked with supplies and freight to a surprisingly good room, overlooking a large freight yard with semi-trailers, containers and stored freight. It’s now 3 AM (and Dianne takes another hour to go to sleep) and we set our alarms for 7 AM, and try to get some sleep after the night’s excitement. We’re in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where there has been a lot of ethnic violence. We think there must have been a terrorist threat or attack.
We have since found no evidence of an attack, and it appears all the police cars on the streets, checking everyone, was a normal occurrence. Once we left China we did some googling, and there are reports that Xinjiang’s top official, Chen Quanguo, is accused by many of turning the region into a police surveillance state and implementing a system of internment camps, also known as “re-education centres” where members of the Uyghur and other Muslim minorities are locked up. After what we saw on the night, we believe it.
Thursday 16th August Urumqi (China) to Chengdu (China)
Our 7 AM alarm goes off at 6.45am because our ipad is not working properly. Before we left Australia we had the screen replaced, but it obviously wasn’t done correctly, as it works for quarter of an hour or so, and then goes demented, jumping from one page to another every couple of seconds, when we haven’t even touched it.
We get up, after 3 hours sleep for Dianne, four for Murray, and take photos of our strange surroundings from the hotel room. Down in the foyer, we get our deposit back, and ask for them to call a taxi, but they tell us to just go out in the street and get one. The street outside is very quiet, but we see a taxi, which doesn’t stop. We try the other side of the street, but have no better luck, so then follow an arriving taxi into the compound. The driver doesn’t want to deal with us, but we insist, and get in the taxi. We tell him airport, and demonstrate a plane taking off, complete with sound effects, and point to the taxi meter. He still has reservations, but starts off and drives down the street, pulling up beside another taxi to talk to the driver and passenger. The words one, two and three were mentioned, and we can handle 132 Yuan after last night’s cost, so the trip proceeds, on very quiet freeways, up and down mountains and through tunnels. The ominous atmosphere of last night has completely disappeared. There are no police check-points, the air is much clearer, and we wonder if last night was just a bad dream. There are quite a few taxis going our way, so we are getting more confident, and are relieved to finally see an aeroplane logo on a road sign. The final bill for the trip comes out to 46 Yuan. We try to give our man a tip, but he refuses, even though we insist a couple of times, and is happy with his meter price. This puts our charges for last night’s initial 100 Yuan for 3 kilometres into perspective!
We’re waiting for our 10.25am plane to Chengdu, China. When making our bookings we had to find something to do for 10 days, as we had arranged a houseswap with some people from Angers in France (we are going to their place next year). After considering lots of possibilities, we decided on returning to Chengdu and Chongqing in China, even though last time we said it would be our last trip to China as we thought we’d seen most of what we wanted to see (we spent 3 days in 1983, 3 months in 2001, 2 weeks in 2005, 3 days in 2012 and two weeks in 2015). This time we are hoping to see about five UNESCO World Heritage sites we missed last time.
On the flight we get good photos of the city and a massive paramount peak off to the south. The land below alternates between cultivated land and bare sandy land, and there is a line of snow-capped mountains to the south-west, which must be in Tibet. Even from a distance, the big mountain, which we think is Eren Habirga Shan in the eastern Tien Shan Mountains, south west of Urumqi, stands out.
There is little to see for long distances, but we do see a solar-thermal power tower and a large solar farm in an isolated desert area, but there is irrigated agricultural land nearby. There are still ranges of snow covered peaks off to the south-west an hour and a half later. Soon after this we are over green, hilly country with farmhouses and rivers, and a couple of hours later we are on approach to the airport. We decide to take the No. 1 airport shuttle bus to the Minshan Hotel after our taxi adventures, and buy a ticket for 10Y (A$2) each. There is no provision for bags under the bus (which is strange for an airport shuttle) so we have to drag them down the centre aisle of the bus, over lots of other big bags in the aisle, and set them up in seats at the back. After the bus fills, and our bags are arranged to take up less room, we settle back to follow our progress on maps.me. We’re not sure if we’re the last stop or not, but when it becomes clear we’re not, we have to repeat the process of getting the bags off the bus, which is no mean feat when you have to lift them up to head height. Luckily we get off fairly close to our hotel.
A non-taxi driver insists on taking us, but we resist, and try to flag down regular taxis, but can’t get any interest. We finally relent and go back to our man, settle on a price of 20 Yuan, and get in for a 5 minute ride to Chengdu FlipFlop Hostel Poshpacker (what a mouthful), which even has a lift to its 3rd floor foyer. We’ve chosen to stay in hostels with private rooms with our own bathroom in both Chengdu and Chongqing because they have a lot more facilities than a normal hotel, and they both have tours you can book. It’s A$50 per night, and we’ve booked for three nights, though intend to stay longer, once we sort out which tours we’re doing.
The room is quite funky, but not necessarily very practical, with a raised wooden floor in most of the room with two mattresses, a strange low table and ultra-low seats as the only place to do business, and there is a notice to not use shoes on the timber floor. There is AC, and there are standard over-thick doonas, but the place is clean, and the staff members speak pretty good English, so we are in fair shape. Outside the room is a courtyard with old-China rough apartment buildings with a lot of junk on the balconies. Beyond we can see the high rise of modern Chengdu.
In the afternoon we do washing. You have to use the WeChat app to pay for the washing and have the machine start, so staff members have to use their phone to pay for it, and we repay them. We soon learn that everything in China is paid for with WeChat, and cash is not used much at all. We also confirm that you can’t get Facebook, Twitter and Google in China, which Dianne finds is a real handicap. It is red hot in the covered laundry section of the roof, and there is plenty of space for hanging washing, so we do a big wash.
We spend a fair bit of time planning our next moves. Finally decide on an expensive (A$169 for two) Chengdu food tour by tuk-tuk with Lost Plate for tomorrow night.
We also book:
- A one-day trip for Saturday to the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project (UNESCO World Heritage Listed) and Qingcheng Shan (also UNESCO listed) – 280 Yuan each, with only a Chinese speaking guide.
- A two-day, one night trip to Leshan (UNESCO listed) and Emei Shan (UNESCO listed) – for 900 yuan each, once again with only a Chinese-speaking guide.
- Two extra nights’ accommodation (A$67 a night – a fair bit more than our internet booking price). These nights are for Sunday night, giving us a day to recover after the one-day tour (we definitely needed this!), and Tuesday night after we return from the two-day tour.
We go out later to have a look around. We are in a very Chinese section of the city, with lots of local restaurants, alleyways, local market etc. but are only a couple of blocks away from a modern mall with lots of trendy shops and crowds of people out and about.
Friday 17th August Chengdu
We have a late start, with breakfast in the hostel and first photos of the day taken of the slum outside our window at 12.34 and the restaurants across the street. We also take photos from windows in the halls, and from the roof.
Dianne goes on her own to get money from the bank to pay for the trips, goes the wrong way at first, and has a long walk in the heat (it’s in the mid 30’sC).
For the food tour we have to meet at 6.30pm at the #4 exit of the 2nd Peoples Hospital, which is down the main street. The metro station is easy enough to find, but the correct exit takes a little longer. We are early for the meeting, so Dianne takes the time to explore for a special eating street that we fail to find, but have a good look around in the process. The main street widens out into a mall, with high rise buildings and high-end shops. There are crowds of people, and crossing at a pedestrian crossing is interesting, with surging crowds of people and silent electric scooters cutting through the crowd with no regard to traffic lights or people.
China has become aware that tourists don’t like their toilets (definitely the world’s worst in 2001) and has improved them enormously in the last few years, and now has pretty good ones in a lot of places, including here, so we indulge while waiting, and Murray is first to meet our host, a man who has spent a lot of time in Singapore, and has good English. The others on the tour are a Taiwanese-American family from California, a woman and her son and daughter (the father is here on a business tour, and is not with them). The tour is to be conducted by tuk-tuk, operated by handicapped drivers, who are the only people allowed to drive tuk-tuks in this area now.
On the walk to meet the tuk-tuks, we stop at a booth selling sticky rice balls with a crisp brown coating of something sweet (almost like toffee) eaten off a skewer or toothpick. These turn out to be the best food of the night, but we go easy on them so as not to spoil our appetites. We are handed unlimited drinks in the tuk-tuk, Murray starting off with a beer, but switching to 7-Up later. The tour is mostly through what is left of the Old China, in relatively quiet back streets, so the tuk-tuks are not a problem. In most of the eateries we are able to opt for low-chilli food.
A highlight of the tour is visiting a home restaurant specialising in dumplings, run by a family in a ground floor apartment in an old apartment complex. The restaurant is very popular, and we have to wait for a table. A highlight of the visit is the exit through a window onto a set of steps to ground level. We were told this is because when the restaurant was started it was just their home, and the lounge room was taken over for the restaurant, and they didn’t want everyone walking through their private rooms to get to it. They solved the problem by putting a set of steps up to the window.
We have a stir-fry on the mezzanine of a restaurant above a group of 12 men around a ground-floor table with at least sixteen dishes stacked in the centre of the table, and finish off the night at a French bar which makes its own beer, and the specialty is a chilli beer. Murray has a go at it, but would rather a less exotic choice. Dianne has a wine. Interestingly, the waiter/proprietor comes from Alsace, near Colmar where we were last year. It was quite an enjoyable night out, but the food was pretty ordinary, and it was over-priced for what you got, and definitely with nowhere near as much attention to detail as the one we did in Old Delhi.
Our tuk-tuk drivers have finished for the night, but the tour ends close enough to our hostel to walk back, and we take night photos of the main street, including the giant panda climbing onto the seventh storey roof of a modern building, the crowds in the plaza and crossing the road, and the stacks of hire cycles on the footpath, getting back to the hostel at 11pm. We take photos of the restaurant across the street, and the market in front of the hostel that is still active, then get our gear sorted for tomorrow’s one-day excursion.
Saturday 18th August –Chengdu and daytrip to Dujiangyan and Qingcheng Shan
We are up at 4.45am, before the 5 AM alarm. Pickup time for the excursion is 5.30am and we are waiting in the foyer when our man arrives. We are given a slip of paper with the number of the bus written on it. There is another, Chinese couple, in the cab, and we are deposited on a large street near the Peoples Park, where buses are allowed to park and fill up with passengers. There is a crowd of hundreds of passengers and dozens of vendors selling breakfast and travelling supplies, and quite a few buses there. Our cab drops us where there is a vacant space. We have not seen our bus on the way in, so Murray holds the fort while Dianne goes looking for one with the correct numberplate. It is a pretty stressful situation, with nothing but a number written on a slip of paper, but our bus arrives and we are recognised and climb aboard into our favourite, front seats. We couldn’t have been hard to recognise, the only Westerners amongst hundreds of Chinese. Our guide doesn’t speak any English, but she has a translator and can give us one sentence instructions, while she talks non-stop (not even drawing breath) for over half an hour to the rest of the bus. Our destination is 60km northwest, so we have a fairly long drive. The light is pretty low when we are on the road at 6.20am, so photography is not great, but we do see an interesting building along the same lines as the “birds nest” stadium in Beijing, and a lot of plant nurseries along the roads. We cross a major river with a lot of exposed gravel at 7am, and are approaching serious mountains when we have our first stop at 7.15am in a town at the base of a mountain. We’re pretty sure it’s not the irrigation system, which we thought we were going to first, so we think it must be Qingcheng Mountain, but that doesn’t look right either, and there are no English signs to help us. We lag behind, trying to find a sign, and almost lose our tour group, but recognise our couple from the taxi, and know our group is ahead. We have a long walk on a boardwalk, plus a stiff climb a fair way up on stone stairs. We eventually see a sign saying it is the Puzhao Temple and Nunnery, which wasn’t on the itinerary we were given. The nunnery is interesting enough, but these things tend to run into each other, and we don’t find a lot to interest us, although the sight of the tour group doing three circuits around a tall and slim golden Buddha is new, as are the three gold-clad wise men on a pedestal. The setting in very green surroundings with large and tall trees is good. We use the loo, but avoid the souvenir shops on the way down, and have a long wait at the bus for the driver and guide to arrive. They have probably been away buying tickets for admission and transport. We spend an hour and a half here, time which could have been much better spent, as we later find out.
Back in the bus, we cross another large river, with a good flow of water, but still a lot of exposed gravel in the bed, and pass what looks like an abandoned 60’s small steel works, find more mountains and a fast flowing river, and arrive in the town of Dujiangyan, home of UNESCO listed historic river diversion and irrigation works. Our itinerary says we visit the three main parts of Dujiangyan Irrigation System including Yuzul, Feishayan and Baopingkou, so we assume we are seeing the first of these, and will then continue by bus to the next two, which proves to be quite incorrect. The mediaeval nature of the town has been preserved or recreated, and it is quite attractive, placed at the foot of the mountains with a large 7-storey pagoda dominating the top of the mountain.
We leave the bus and travel in electric tourist shuttles (20 Yuan each extra) to the centre of the historic town, which is full of Saturday visitors, and looks quite interesting, but we don’t have time to look around. We exit the shuttle buses and walk to the tourist precinct, crossing a large traditional covered bridge over a fast-running river to get to the large public square outside the ticket office. We stop to watch a parade of traditional warriors, and then enter the Heritage Listed Dujiangyan Scenic Spot, which covers an area where the major flow of a big river is split into three streams which supply a historic irrigation system. There are plenty of maps, but there is little in the way of explanation as to how the irrigation water is lifted out of the river bed and fed into irrigation canals. Our walking tour takes us to a view point where we can look up the river to the mountains, and see historic suspension bridges over some of the branches, and a large, modern sluice gate system on one downstream branch of the river. We take a photo of a large rock engraved with the World Heritage symbol, and information about the park, and an information plaque which describes how the project was started in BC 256 to control floods and provide irrigation water which turned the area into the “Land of Abundance”. There are four decorated iron pillars lying in a fountain which used to be in the river bed, markers from historic dredging.
There are ponds and gardens in a nice park, and a loo which we use, having warned our guide that we would disappear for a while (Dianne now has a bit of a problem). The walk takes us across the sluice gate complex, and up the main river stream, and we can look back to the left hand channel, which runs close to the mountain, and is running strongly. Considering it is not the snow-melt season, or the rainy season, there is a lot of water in the river. Our walk takes us up the river, across a single-span swing bridge with a nasty rocking action, through a commercial area selling all sorts of local specialties and tempting cooked food, and further up river to the modern weir and a genuine diversion into an irrigation channel. Before we take on the second swing bridge, one of our group lends Dianne a Peppa-Pig hand powered fan to cool her down (it is HOT!). We cross the river to the mountain on the 320-metre long Anlan double-span cable bridge with a lot of 2-way traffic, and some very disturbing rocking action. The crowds of tourists are very large, and they pack the bridges, which are under a fair bit of stress, but in their current steel cabled configuration, they manage to survive. Earlier versions, in bamboo and rattan may not have been up to it.
At the far side, we read a plaque indicating that the Chinese used bamboo baskets to consolidate small rocks into larger parcels big enough to resist the erosive action of the river, like the modern gabion. We really have no idea what is coming next (we certainly weren’t expecting the long walk we had just done), and we are surprised to be directed up steps on the steep hillside towards the Erwang Temple. We carry on further to where the stairs meet the main road where we will pick up our bus. We are given time, but not much of it, to climb on wooden stairs up the mountain, then down to the start of the covered escalators, built in 2012, which take us up to the Yulei Pavilion, the seven tier pagoda at the top of the mountain that we have seen previously when we first arrived on the other side of the mountain down on the plain. There are more stairs to get to the pagoda, and the guide book tells us you get better views from the higher floors. We climb to the second floor, and get good photos all around and down to the Minjiang River on the plain below and the major city of Dujiangyan at the base of the mountain. The Pavilion or Pagoda looks traditional on the outside, but the interior structure looks suspiciously like large diameter steel piping, but there is no detail available on the history or construction of the structure.
Dianne opts to climb higher, while Murray goes to the start of the stairs to wait for her. He waits for a long time, is about to go looking, but gives a click, and Dianne answers. It turns out she had gone all the way to the basement on her way down, and found a track labelled “Down the Mountain”. After a fair walk downhill, Dianne and a local man realised that they were on the wrong track, and came back. We are cutting it fine to meet the bus on time, but typically, when we get back to the road, there are still members of the tour on the mountain. This has been an interesting excursion, but it would have been better if we’d known in advance what to expect, and had more time in the old town, and less time at the souvenir and food place.
Back in the bus, we drive past more traditional buildings, see large, fast flowing rivers, and stop for a communal meal, before driving on to the nearest mountain of the Mt Qingcheng complex, the home of Taoism, where we arrive just after 2.15pm. We are told to be back by 5.45pm, which gives us 3 ½ hours. We are told there is a shuttle car for a couple of kms, then a walk, then a boat across a lake (we definitely can’t work out how THAT fits in), then a cable car up, then a walk, then a cable car back, boat, walk, shuttle car. We ask if we can walk down from the cable car, and we are told no, as it takes too long and we might get lost. All the other people have been given headphones and some sort of radio, and the guide has taken all their phone numbers, so can keep in touch with anyone missing via WeChat, but that is useless for us. Slightly perplexed, we set off. We take shuttle cars a couple of km, and follow big crowds on the walk to the lake. We could walk around the lake, which is quite small, but we have tickets for the cable-powered punt, which is pretty big, and the queue isn’t all that long. We miss the first sailing, but get on board the second trip, and probably beat the people walking around the lake (just).
Off the barge, we move on to wait in the line for the cabin lift, with the queue narrowing from a free-for all to roughly 4-wide, then is confined by cattle crush rails to two, but this doesn’t stop the final bun-rush for the eight seats per cabin. It is STINKING hot at this stage, and there is no shade at all in the line, with the sun beating down, and the crush doesn’t help. Dianne has to leave the line to go to the loo (she still has a problem) and just hopes she can get back in. In fact it was a relief to get out of the line, as she could wet her hat and body in the toilets, and get a bit of cool air. After 45 minutes of great discomfort, we finally get on for the short trip to the top. At the top, we talk to a young woman in our group who speaks some English, and has been looking out for us. She explains that it is a 40 minute climb to the top of the mountain, and it is already after 4 PM, so we have a drink, and take a photo of the temple that is here. Realise there is not a lot to see we haven’t seen the like of before, and get straight onto the down-line for another 40 minute wait, but at least it isn’t as hot as the first line. At the bottom, we run into the English speaker from our group, who had walked down, and had taken about the same time as us, after waiting for the cable car. At the lake, we take the ferry, and walk to the shuttle car terminal, which has long queues. We have to decide whether to wait in the queue for the fast shuttle trip, or save the queue time for our slow (and tired) walk. We opt for the shuttle, and the queue is a lot faster than we feared, and arrive back at the bus with quarter of an hour to spare, for an increasingly important loo visits and a rest.
Back at the bus, there is a bit of shuffling of bus parking spots before we get back on, and we have to wait over half an hour for about a third of the passengers to return. They obviously had continued on once they got to the top. We return to Chengdu on roughly the same route, with a lot more light to get photos of the big river, road workers using pretty basic equipment, the plant nursery area and a number of trucks loaded with bunches of full-size trees hanging out the back. Saturday may be the only day they are allowed to move them.
We are dropped off after 7 PM, at the Metro Station beyond Peoples Park, probably Tonghuimen, which has a straight shot to Chunxi Rd. We have our first experience of using the Metro, but it won’t accept our 1 yuan notes, and eventually the person behind us pays for us on her Wechat, and we give her the cash. Reading of the fine details on the machine would have revealed it doesn’t take 1 yuan notes. From Chunxi Rd metro we have our now-normal walk home where we collapse, absolutely exhausted after a very full-on day. We’re very pleased we’d left tomorrow as a free day, as we will need it to recover.
Sunday 19th August Chengdu Exploring -Traffic Hotel and Peoples Park.
Today is a day of rest, getting over yesterday’s very long one-day excursion, and getting ready for tomorrow’s 2-day excursion. We are planning to go looking for the Traffic Hotel we used back in 2001, and then carry on to have a look at the Peoples Park, but leave it pretty late while catching up on rest and more washing, and don’t getting going till after 4pm. Catch sight of the large staff of the big restaurant opposite the hostel lined up on the footpath for pep talk (and possibly calisthenics or mass dancing??) We felt we were back in Datong 17 years ago, watching the hotel staff do drills on a Sunday morning, or two years ago in North Korea where the staff lined up for mass dancing.
We walk the other way to our normal route down our street, and turn toward the river on a street with a lot of the old China about it – tea houses, people playing card games and mah-jong, small restaurants and side-street markets.Some of the buildings are covered with white glazed tiles, all the rage in China and Tibet at the turn of the century. At the river, there is a tree-lined riverside parkway, with fishermen, and street barbers. We try to take a discreet photo of the street barbers from the far side of the river, but the trees get in the way. Looking up the river to the south-west we can see the main-road bridge near us, plus massive curved glass skyscrapers further away.
We cross the bridge and double back, looking for the Traffic Hotel, but finding a Regional Bus Station instead. We investigate this as a possible escape route to Chongqing if the trains are too hard, but can find not one word of English in the whole place. Maps.me tells us the hotel is nearby, but there is no obvious way to get to it. We circulate through narrow alleys, to the consternation of the locals, and finally find a tall brown brick building which is the same building the Traffic Hotel was in back in 2001, complete with name sign. We have a look in the foyer, find a travel agency and ads for Tibet trips, so it seems to be the same, only a bit more up-market.
We plot a course to the People’s Park, via the river, but side-tracked a bit when we are attracted to a building built in the classic Chinese style where the practice of something medical or dietary (we can’t remember what) was started. Also pass the site of the Jinyi Obstetrics School site, where Han Suyin, the Chinese doctor and writer came to study midwifery. She wrote an autographical book about it, “Destination Chungking”. Walking along the river, we find what looks like a stranded cruise ship,but it is just a concrete facsimile of one, called the Cash Club, with bars, restaurants, and possibly a casino. It’s known as the Wanlihao building, and was built to make the city famous for something else other than the pandas, but it didn’t work. It is now very run-down, and looks alright from a distance, but terrible close up.
We cross the river and zig-zag through the streets, following maps.me, and find ourselves in the Peoples’ Park, which is bigger than we first thought, and even though it is getting pretty dark, there are hundreds of people. They are boating on the lake, walking the paths, playing ball games, drinking and eating at outdoor restaurants. We carry on through the park, getting typical photos, before finding a way out towards Tianfu Square, where we know there is a metro station on our line. In the street we get photos of the giant Mao statue, see various museums that are now closed, and the landmark spiral sculpture, which starts below street level, and marks the centre of the square. Descending into the shopping centre under the square should lead us to the Metro, but as we find later, there is no incentive to make exit easy for potential shoppers. We are pretty hungry, but also pretty short of cash, as we didn’t use an ATM when we found one, so as not to walk in the park with a lot of cash. We forego eating, find the subway and take it back to Chunxi Rd and our walk home. Later, Dianne goes out on her own to get cash, and buys our favourite snack of a container of fresh watermelon pieces on the way back. We finish our packing for the 2-day trip, using two backpacks for the warm gear and rain coats we may need at altitude.
Monday 20th August Leshan & Wannian Temple, Emei Shan- First Day of 2-day Trip
We set our alarm for the less-godless hour of 6.30AM, and picked up at 7 AM with all our bags packed and the big ones in Luggage Storage, and both back packs chokka as we’re preparing for all eventualities as we’re told it could be cold and wet. We are picked up by a man in a van with a full load of people, and delivered to a different bus loading area near Peoples Park, where we are now used to the routine, and we split, each going a different way to look for our bus number. Our van driver finds Dianne and directs her to the bus, and she finds Murray. The bus is fairly full, and we find ourselves up the back as a default, so settle into our second favourite seats, right up on the back seat, which we take when we can’t get our favourite front seat,. These are not too bad if the roads aren’t too bumpy, as you get a higher seat with views down the bus, and out to the side, with sliding windows. We stick Dianne’s backpack in the overhead with some difficulty, and are away by 7.30am. We are pleasantly surprised to find our female guide speaks excellent English, which should make our trip a lot less stressful. We find the family group in front of us, from Taiwan, also speak English.
We get a good look at Chengdu, driving in circles till we settle down on a major road. The traffic is light, and we see some interesting sights, get a good photo of the Cash Club imitation cruise boat beside the river, a woman driving a scooter with one of the pink padded and waterproof aprons we see everywhere, freeway support pylons well-camouflaged with a green ivy-like creeper, rivers and waterways from the bridges. 80 minutes out of Central Chengdu, we cross the Min River, a really large river which is a tributary of the upper Yangtze River, which it joins further south at Yibin. As the scene becomes more rural, we see the rice harvest season has started, with ripe grain on still-green paddies, and elsewhere the golden grain gathered into stooks for threshing. It is hard to see how much of the work is still done by hand, but we do see harvesters on the move on the back of trucks.
A lot of the farms still look fairly traditional, with whitewashed walls and grey colonial style tiles, and a lot of the fields are fairly small, although there is also broad acre cultivation. We see extensive continuous plastic greenhouses over what look like grapes or citrus, and the immediate impression is a sea of water with the roofs of farm buildings sticking up like islands, or houses marooned by floodwater. Elsewhere there are citrus-looking trees with fruit protected by orange bags. We see typical ponds with aerators for fish, unexplained elaborate Chinese style pavilions, and Korean style gate houses. We pass tea plantations in an area of small, steep hills, with very smooth rounded rock under a thin cover of greenery.
We cross several more large rivers with still waters, possibly retained by weirs, and arrive in a large city which has to be Leshan, possibly once a small tourist town, but now a major city with over 3 million in the area, with multiple high rise buildings, and a boulevard along the bank of a very wide river, with high rise and port facilities on the far bank.
We pass a number of very fancy, and probably new, traditional Chinese buildings and pavilions with the classic upturned corners on the roofs and arrive at the parking area for buses outside the river cruise terminal. After a loo stop, we are handed tickets for the cruise and pointed to a floating dock with a large barge attached. The barge is divided by steel rails into separate sections, and we are keen to get a seat on the side which will be close to the Buddha on the river. We are kept under supervision, and not allowed to move from the corral, which we think is strange until a number of smaller motor boats nose up to each section, and a set number of passengers board each boat. In classic style, life jackets are provided for each passenger, so we take one each and head for the open upper deck, where there is a large sun umbrella, and a promise of unrestricted viewing and photography. The life jackets are pretty crummy, but we put them on anyway.
We’re here to see the UNESCO listed World Heritage site of the 71 metre high Grand Buddha, which was carved 1,200 years ago from a cliff face overlooking the confluence of three busy rivers – the Dadu, Min and Qingyi. His shoulders span 28 metres, and each of his big toes is 8.5 metres long. The Buddha is downstream, where we can see brightly coloured cliffs dropping sheer to the water. A large crowd of people is walking this way, so we figure that is where the Buddha would be, but are taken by surprise to find the Buddha in a recess in the cliff, and, with the boat riding on the strong current, it is on us before we are ready for it. We get in some photos, but the air is hazy, and the sun directly behind the Buddha’s head, so we don’t get very good pictures. Apart from the massive Buddha, and his relatively smaller, but still large helpers carved in the cliffs either side of the recess, the work involved in cutting zig-zag stairways into the rock on either side from the base of the recess to the top of the cliffs is impressive. There are masses of people at the base of the recess, and looking like ants climbing the stairways, but it is not obvious how they got there. Maybe there is a tunnel through from the park on the river bank upstream of the cliffs.
After a quick down-current pass by the Buddha, we turn and head upstream, into 6 to 8 knots of current, just holding against the current for long enough to jostle with other boats to get a front row view, then we motor upstream toward the far bank, getting a photo of a small ocean-going freighter heading downstream from the far side branch of the river. For a while it looks like we will be disembarked on that side, which is not on our instructions, but our course is probably traffic control for the dozens of tourist boats, and we turn back across the river and nose into the barge to discharge and walk back to the bus. The photos, when analysed, might tell different, but the whole exercise, at this time of day is a bit of a waste, as, with the sun behind it, the Buddha is hard to even see, let alone photograph. The Scale of the Buddha and associated works still leaves us impressed with the amount of work people will do for a religious purpose. The presence of the Buddha is credited with calming the dangerous waters, but extensive civil works to the river bed may have also helped. Putting the labour involved in the Buddha into civil works would have definitely helped.
Back in the bus, we are expecting to be taken to where we could also walk down to the Buddha, but we continue on towards the Buddha park entrance, before taking a turn inland and around the back of Buddha’s mountain, getting a quick photo of a partial reclining Buddha carved into the back of the mountain. We pass through some rural scenery before getting back into city industry, then serious high-rise. We cross another big river before stopping for another communal lunch in a restaurant in a back street. The main thing that influences restaurant selection seems to be parking space for the bus.
Lunch again offers about a dozen dishes for a dozen people around the big lazy Susan, with rice being supplied from a monster common cauldron. We are a bit like the Ancient Mariner – food, food everywhere, but not a lot to eat, but at least we can fill up on rice and the odd chili-free vegetable dish. Dianne finds the whole fish palatable, but hard to handle with just chop-sticks. We are surprised that we have to use our own chopsticks to take food from the common plates, but serving spoons are in short supply. Maybe enough chili kills transmitted bugs.
In the streets we see quite a few small car dealerships, some with interesting combinations of electric scooters of various sizes, small electric cars, new three-wheel pickups, and tuk-tuks. We cross more rivers, pass re-created classic Chinese gateways, return to rural scenery with industrial patches, then get onto a large road with the typical ornate lamp posts with multiple flower light fittings we see on all important tourist roads. Fifteen minutes later we are in forested land, with rivers, low mountains and thick greenery, and are soon at the start of the Emei Shan national park (another UNESCO World Heritage site), with higher mountains, cliffs, and a river full of large rocks and rapids beside us. It is one of China’s four sacred Buddhist Mountains. We take a turnoff towards the cable car to Wannian Temple, and luckily there is not much of a wait, and we’re up at the top by 2pm. Despite having an English-speaking guide we’re still not sure of exactly what we’re doing, and when. Eventually work out that we are getting the cablecar to the top, then walking down another way, to be picked up by our bus. Wannian temple is the oldest surviving temple on the mountain, and is 1,100 years old. It is a complex of buildings, pavilions and temples, with a lot of gold covered Buddhas in the various poses and manifestations – past Buddha, Present Buddha, Future, sitting, reclining Buddhas, some large, some small, and the piece de resistance, a gold 3-metre high sitting Buddha on a lotus saddle on a 4 metre high, 60 tonne white painted cast bronze elephant. We pat the elephant’s back leg for luck, helping the paint wear off to reveal the gunmetal below and dong a nearby 2 metre high hanging bell for more luck. Murray goes off to take photos, while Dianne stays close to the guide so we don’t lose her, but it’s pretty slow and boring as she’s giving the group LOTS of information in Chinese. She says we can keep going, and she’ll see us at the bottom in about 3 ½ hours. We’re still not 100% sure where we’re going, but there are maps around, and we just hope we have the instructions right. We climb back down the 100 or so steps from the temple before setting off on the thousand or so steps down to the river. For the record, we take a photo of the UNESCO symbol on the plaque for the Wannian Temple.
On the way down there are more temples and pavilions as well as drink and food stalls. We keep hearing men calling out, as they are carrying people in sedan chairs (usually the sort of people who SHOULD be walking) and they want us to move so they can keep up their pace. We miss finding a sacred cave in spite of being right where it should be according to maps.me, get a good photo of a traditional drinking and washing trough fed by a bamboo pipe from a hillside spring, and get more Buddha photos in an un-named temple.
At the bottom of the descent we come to the Qingyin Pavilion, placed where two streams in deeply cut canyons meet. There is also a nice low waterfall. As we have plenty of time, we decide to carry on up one of the streams toward the Wild Monkey Area, but plan to stop short of it (we’ve been warned about how aggressive the monkeys are here, and have had first-hand experience), maybe at the interestingly named Slit-in-the-Sky viewing area. There are lots of local tourists down here, some paddling in the river, others just resting. There is food and drink available, but there is no sign of ice or refrigeration. We carry on upstream on a path which climbs high at some points, past a rock face carved with human figures, and a plaque and statue of the King of Qing, and the King of Medicine’s cave. This area is really beautiful, in spite of the masses of tourists. We come to a split in the path, with a curved stone bridge over the stream, and decide to take the right path to the Slit-in-the-sky, which takes us through a narrow canyon where we can look back to see a thin strip of the sky – hence the name. Before we get to the monkeys, there are substantial concrete stepping stones across the stream that allow us to complete a loop back to the stone bridge, on a path which hangs over the stream through the canyon in a typically Chinese style.
Back at the Qingyin Pavilion, we visit several attractive viewing places before following the stream down to a substantial concrete arched bridge and the top end of a lake formed by a historic dam, named Jinguiba (Golden Tortoise Dam) after a large tortoise-like rock dug up while building the dam. The dam is a clean, green colour, has large fish in the middle, and a no-fishing sign. There are buildings around the dam, mainly on the far side, probably flash accommodation. There is a long path above the river, which drops into a deep canyon. We walk through green woods until the path widens out into a paved street with shops leading to the bus parking area. We arrive, hot and exhausted, at 5.15 PM, and Dianne buys ice-creams to cool down – hers looks like a nice lime one, till she tastes it, then looks closer at the wrapper – it is green pea ice-cream!! that went straight into the garbage.
Eventually everyone makes it back to the bus. Our Taiwanese family is having some issues – two of the three teenage sons are NOT impressed with the walking, and are complaining bitterly.
The bus drives us back to Wannian town, not far from where we got on the cable car, and drops us off at our hotel, which is on the outskirts of the town up a steep hill. With a lot of loud shouting and arguing by the reception desk staff, who have obviously not been to the Swiss Hospitality Institute, we are allocated room keys, but can’t read the number, and have to be helped by a local. We are surprised by how nice our room is. We have 10 minutes to drop our bags off, and get down to the second floor from the fifth for the evening meal, a duplicate of all the other meals. For some reason, the Chinese don’t have drinks with their meals and we have to provide our own. Once again there are plenty of dishes of indeterminate things, but we fill up on rice and veggies. We are back in the room 20 minutes later – it is obvious meals are for eating, not socialising. These Chinese tours are a cultural experience in themselves, even if we aren’t seeing the sites – we get to see a different side of China, from the inside. We sort out warm gear for tomorrow so we can still have only one backpack on the mountain. The night is passed OK, under air conditioning and doona, as they still haven’t got that sorted. An open-window check tells us the weather outside is still quite mild.
Tuesday 21st August Emi-Shan–Golden Summit-Chengdu Second Day of 2-day Trip
We have an early morning start, with half an hour to have our communal breakfast and pack our things in the bus, which was to stay at the hotel, while we take a long, steep walk downhill on the road to arrive at the Wannian Temple Station by 6.45am to get our tickets for the local sightseeing bus, which is a shorter version of our bus, meaning some of our group have to use a different bus.
We are away by 7AM, but make a stop, ostensibly as a loo break, but in fact to allow the driver to top up a tank in the luggage compartment with some weird form of water injection for the engine. This may be an advanced form of the 200-litre drums of water we have seen in the past on the top of buses and trucks in the high country which keep the cooling system topped up.
The road up the mountain is in good condition, just wide enough for two buses to pass at speed on the straights, but interesting on the sharp corners and switchbacks. There is a continuous shuttle of buses operating, so encounters on tricky parts are frequent and scary, but we avoid losing wing mirrors or worse. When we get well up the mountain, our bus pulls into a wide section of road, and we have to get out and wait to transfer to another, empty bus coming down, presumably because the water top-up didn’t do the trick.
It is very overcast, with low cloud and fog, and very misty visibility, with rain threatening, so we are not expecting much in the way of photos. This is normal weather for here, and most information says the mist burns off by early afternoon, which will be too late for us. We hop out of the bus at the terminal, then have a long climb on lots of steps to the cable car station, getting some good views down a cliff of pine trees against mist along the way. Waiting for our aerial ropeway cabin lift, we get a photo of what we think is the top of it, but it turns out to be the top of a second lift, which is a two-cabin cable car with a capacity of 100 persons and a travel time of 3 to 5 minutes.
The wait for the aerial ropeway isn’t too long, and we are in the car on our way with six other people by 9.16 AM, passing through thick fog/low cloud and can barely see passing pine trees, or cabins coming the other way until they loom out of the mist, and are at the top and looking at the site map by 9.35am.
It is pretty eerie at the top with the whole place enveloped in cloud. We can see a classic covered staircase ascending to our level to the right, and racks and cauldrons for candles and offerings in front of us, with other features vaguely discernible through the mist. Up ahead is something large and glowing yellow through the mist. A break in the mist reveals the piece de resistance of the mountain, a Buddha with tiers of multiple heads sitting in a lotus on top of four radially placed elephants. The whole thing is covered in gold leaf, and stands about 48 metres high to the spike on the top head. It is not a historic item, having been completed in 2006, and there are new temple complexes being built, and large builders’ cranes on the site. We “take the shot” as the mist clears enough to make out details, before it closes in again. We walk around the complex, check in with our guide, then proceed to the top of the mountain, along with hundreds of others, for photos of the famous “Sea of Clouds”, only to see that the whole mountain has sunk below the sea. As the morning wears on, visibility improves and we can see blue sky and large cumulus clouds above, but very little below, apart from cliffs and the odd pine tree disappearing into the abyss. We have seen people hiring three quarter length coats, but we are finding our provisions for warmth too much, and Dianne takes off her 300 fleece, and Murray gets rid of the tight black merino pullover. There is a bit of rain in the air, but little wind so our small umbrellas are OK for the moment. We do a circuit of the peak, looking for views, but finding just mist, return to the main temple to find the mist cleared enough for good photos of the big Buddha (s) on their elephants – jambo, jambo, jumbo jumbo.
We look at all the buildings, including the Jinding (Golden Summit) Temple (3,077 metres) with its modern renovation, finding plenty of gold Buddhas, and a very upmarket pavilion with souvenirs and jewellery up into the multi-thousand dollar bracket. We decide not to buy, and wait for the guide to give us the OK to descend, which is when we find out that there are actually two cable car systems. One is a recirculating system with 8-man cabins, the other a large “Reciprocating” system, with two 100-man cars, and we’re going back on the large one. We have been told to use the extreme right tourist race, similar to a cattle race, which gives us a dream run past a crowd of hundreds to get to where we are in a bunch of 100, waiting for the next cable car. Typically, being in the final group of 100 doesn’t stop urgers. We have weathered in various queues over a few days a fair bit of urging and pushing, and Dianne has been using her elbows and hips to spread over the passageway to deter queue jumpers.
We get a window position in the cabin, but there is not a lot to see, and is a bit crowded for good photos, but we do get some blurry shots. The walk down to the bus station happens in light rain and fog, but we get some classic misty pine-tree shots, and buy a plastic container of slightly al-dente baked potatoes on the way down to keep the wolf from the door.
Approaching the bus station, we run into our guide who tells us to carry on and descend to where there are tables to wait at. We look in vain for tables, and end up at the bottom of the car park. Dianne has to go searching for other group members and finds a lot of them similarly lost, and then finds more in the bus station waiting room, where there are seats but no tables, but close enough. While we are waiting for stragglers, about 12 noon, there is great excitement on the crowded pathway above and behind the waiting room. It turns out to be caused by a troop of monkeys which has descended on the tourists. There are signs everywhere to avoid the monkeys which are aggressive and dangerous, but people are feeding a particularly large and dangerous looking male. A smaller female is sitting nearby, but not taking part in the feeding. A small monkey makes off with a large bun, either given or stolen, and has run up on the roof to eat it. Dianne cannot resist going up for a closer look, but manages to keep a respectable distance, reporting that the little monkey on the roof is having fun sliding down it. A large number of monkeys arrive in the trees behind the building, shaking branches and jumping from tree to tree, but they seem to mostly steer clear of the tourists. It takes a while to assemble the group and find our bus, and we are in the sightseeing bus and halfway down the hill by 1.22pm.
We have another communal lunch in a restaurant near the bus station and wait for our bus to turn up, and are in the bus down from the mountain and passing the monster parking area at the foot of the mountain by 2.30PM.
Our guide gives us a refund of some of our money. The tour was 900 yuan each (A$184 each) for transport, guide, one night’s accommodation, meals, entry fee to two National Parks, and taxes. In addition we had to pay a total of 390 Yuan for two (A$80) for the three cable car plus insurance. However when the guide saw our passports, with our dates of birth, she said Murray was free to the National Parks as he was over 70, and Dianne was half price as over 60, so she returned us 275 Yuan (A$56) which was a pleasant surprise. We found this on our last trip as well, but only in the areas where foreign tourists are not common. The tour was definitely good value, and certainly made things a lot easier than us trying to nut it out ourselves, though it would have been nice to have spent a bit more time at some places.
Highlights of the return trip to Chengdu include a monster statue of bent stainless steel tubing in one park, strange plastic monster figures in another, and large bronze balls in another. We get duplicate photos of farms, crops, tea plantations, rivers and high rise building groups on the way back, and are dropped near the Peoples Park, with an indication that the metro is “that way, and turn left”. This instruction takes us to the central square where we had been two days before, returning from the Peoples Park, and it is no easier than then to find the Metro in the huge shopping complex, even with two of the Chinese girls from the tour, but finally find our line and get it for one stop before walking the rest of the way back to Flip Flop. We miss finding the bank on our way past, and Dianne has to go out later to get money for our train tickets and hotel in Chongqing.
In the evening we prevail on the front desk staff to do an online booking for our train to Chongqing, which takes a surprising amount of time and attention, involving typing in our names, passport numbers and visa numbers, paying by on-line cash, and getting a confirmation which we have emailed to Dianne’s phone. Even after all this, we still have to pick up the actual ticket at the station. We also take a photo of the staff member’s telephone confirmation, pay them 308 Yuan, with no obvious money in it for them, and hope for the best – another one of those services you get at hostels. We have our evening meal at the hostel, pack and call it a night early after a couple of very tiring days.
Wednesday 22nd August Chengdu to Chongqing.
We don’t bother with breakfast, and are packed, and pulling our bags down the now familiar main street by 10.30 AM. Find the Chunxi Rd metro entrance, check the right combination of three lines to get us to Chengdu East Railway station, buy tickets and proceed through security with all our gear. We find the Subway pretty full, but most of the passengers in the doorway are getting off, so set up with our baggage at the centre pole, and hang on. Our transfer at the Central Square put us onto the line to the train station, and we share the central pole with a local sitting on a suitcase, so figure we are going the right way. We arrive in the station to find it enormous, with a cavernous main hall and very little information. We know we have to get to the Ticket office, possibly for trains to the East. Find the automatic ticket issuing machines which we know we shouldn’t use, and a sign toward the ticket office, which we follow up stairs, out into the open past a lot of signs to long distance buses, and finally finding a security check point for Eastern Trains. We figure this must be for us, pass security and walk to a long hall, with multiple ticket windows on the long back wall.
As all signs are in Chinese only, we proceed to the shortest line while Dianne has a bit of a look around, and decides the line we are in is short enough to wait and find out if we are in the wrong line. We are relieved when the young man behind the window takes and reads Dianne’s IPhone and starts punching keys on his computer. After a look at our passports, we are issued with two smart tickets, and are on our way into the waiting room. The waiting room is a very long hall, with restaurants and shops at the side, and two lines of cattle yards down the centre. There are crowds of people lined up in the chutes waiting for ticket checking to start, and a lot more milling around. This looks ominous in terms of getting an orderly entry into the ticket checking machines in the 25 minutes between starting ticket checking, and closing. We go to Burger King for breakfast before having a serious look for our train, which wasn’t up on the board when we arrived. We have a hard look at our tickets, finding no problem with the train number and the departure time, or our names on the ticket, and work out that our seats are Row 13, seats D and F in Carriage 11, but after that we are on our own. Our train number came up with Gates 12A, 13A, and 12B, 13B, but another earlier train was also listed against these numbers. We work out that the crowd at 12 and 13 is for the earlier train, which is listed at 12.38, but running late. We also work out that other numbers on the gate showed that A handles the low carriage numbers, B the high carriage numbers, so we are in good shape to wait at 12B. It is a bit late to find somewhere to sit, so we just wait by the gate till the earlier train starts loading. Fortunately almost all the crowd at the gate goes through, apart from a few early birds for our train, so we join them, getting a space in a corner of the cattle race, close to the front, where Dianne can sit on the ground, and wait for our turn.
While we are waiting, Murray has a look at the ticket of another man, finds he was going to another station, not Chongqing bei (north) the station listed against our train number. This is a bit of a concern, as this is the first indication that we may not be the final stop, but without other information or time to check at the ticket office, we will just have to take careful notice of the train stations as we get close to Chongqing. The Gate opens a little after 12.39 PM, the 30-minute window before the train leaves, and we are able to cross the general flow of people to get to the escalator on the far side. Our carriage is almost opposite the escalator, and the door is level with the platform, and open, and the attendant inside likes the look of our tickets, so in a couple of minutes we have our bags stowed in the luggage space inside the door, and are in our seats, FACING FORWARD! TOO EASY!! The train leaves right on time, and is up to 160 kmh a couple of minutes from the station, so we do not have long to savour the delights of Chengdu, as by 13.08 the photos show us in the train and on our way, and by 13.09 we are looking at rural scenery.
Generally, the scenery from the train is different from that in the bus, with the route taking us higher into the small but steep wooded hills and valleys, with smaller villages and cultivation of every piece of flat land that isn’t a river or aquaculture pond. The scene is very rural but the houses are generally newer, with almost no classic colonial tiled roofs. We cross a number of different sized rivers, and see a lot of clumps of high rise apartment on the skyline, and only rarely come into urbanised areas, except for the several stops we make at major stations. We pass through a number of tunnels, which, at speeds up to 300kmh, give a nasty pressure in the ears, especially when there is another train going the opposite way.
Getting closer to Chongqing, we get see more mountainous country on the horizon, and an almost continuous line of high rise apartments. We pass through a really long tunnel through a high mountain to emerge in the two major valleys of Chongqing, where we pass a tangle of elevated train tracks, some up to 50 metres above the surface. We cross a major river, probably the Jialing, the smaller of the two which meet in Chongqing, and find ourselves in a very large rail station (Chongqing administrative area has a population of 30 million, and the city itself has 8 million). We decide that we have enough knowledge now to get public transport to our hostel. Our first problem is we have to find signs for the metro, and we can’t find any, but then remember Lonely Planet says it is signposted as “Light Rail” at airport, and this may apply here as well. The next problem is finding a metro map. There are six large metro maps on the wall, all with Chinese names for the stations, and we have the one we want in English. A local goes to help us buy a ticket on the machine, and we then realise we can get the map in English on here, and we’re then OK. This machine also accepts 1 yuan notes, which helps (those in Chengdu wouldn’t). We know the line, the station and exit number for our hostel, so can work out we need to start on Line 10, change to Line 3, then to Line 1. We also take photos of the system on Dianne’s IPhone just in case. We don’t have a photo with the end stations of each line, so have to recheck to make sure we head off in the right direction. We are then ready to go, and pick up our interchanges and directions, getting to Exit 4 of Jiao Changkou metro Station and looking for our hotel which is near the Islamic Centre and the Subway outlet.
We start off thinking this is so easy, and walk in the only logical direction, which is directly away from our hotel, and need three flights of stairs (with all our baggage) to get back to our starting point once we recognise the Islamic Centre, with the dome and Islamic designs on it. We can also see the name of our hostel written on the fourth floor of the building next to it. However, our problems are not yet over as the street we have to cross is very busy, has a pedestrian crossing but no lights, so you have to strike out boldly with a leap of faith, like Indiana Jones looking for the Holy Grail.
Even then we are not out of the woods, as a local employee has no idea where “Chongqing Travelling With Hostel” is. There is a hostel on the left end of the building with no name, so we go looking there, leaving the bags halfway up the stairs, before finding it is not the one, but at least we are directed to the other side of the building, where we see the name on the windows, and also in the dark and dingy stairwell. By the time we get up 60 steps, the stairwell improves, and at 75 steps, a double door opens into the lobby. Anyone who thinks independent travel is easy needs to read this! In compensation, it’s a great feeling of achievement once you nut out the system.
We have booked this hostel, with our own room and bathroom, because it gets excellent reviews, is very handy to everything, and arranges day tours. We’re a little dubious now that we’ve seen the downstairs area, which looks a bit like the entrance to a squat, but we’ve come to know that the Chinese only worry about the inside of their place. We are expected, but because we originally booked for two nights, then added another two nights, they tell us they have upgraded us so we will be in the same room for the whole time, but it is on the next floor. We have rested a bit during the booking in, and can handle two of us on Murray’s bag, while the heroine of the moment, the office girl struggles with Dianne’s bag, surprised how heavy it is (does she realise this 67-year old has already lugged it up and down hundreds of stairs today?). The room is very upmarket, with a large double bed, plenty of room, a swish glass-walled bathroom which is a bit of a trap at night, plenty of bench space, lights and power points. Would not be out of place in any boutique establishment – and all for A$50 per night.
After a rest and a shower, we head out hungry, looking for food, about 7pm. Down in the street, we can feel the first drops of real rain rather than the shower of AC condensate, so Murray does another stair marathon to get the umbrellas. It is just coming on dark, and the spectacular building and street lighting is just firing up. We take a lot of night shots of the skyline and streets. The streets look very colourful with advertising lighting reflecting off the wet pavement.
We walk past a night market street which is pretty crowded; then through a night food market, which looks impressive, but we don’t see anything our stomachs could handle, or our limited language could describe; through the high-rent district with all the usual overpriced luxury goods represented and down to the high terrace above the Jialing River, where there is a dense crowd funnelling into a stairway leading down to what we think is an entertainment complex, but then see the name “Hongya Cave”, so not sure what it is. Later find out it is not a cave, but an 11-storey shopping, dining and entertainment complex – a theme-park-esque recreation of the old stilt houses that once lined the riverfront. Most of the night lighting looks great, but this is so heavily lit with bright yellow lights, they detract from it. Not wanting to be entertained, we look for food, finding a Super-Large flat white for Murray at a REAL Starbucks, nothing for Dianne. We get good night shots of the river, the cruise boats, the bridges and buildings on the far bank including a large Performance Space which regularly changes colour. In our wanderings we come upon a Carrefour Supermarket, which we had used on our first visit. We are not sure it is the same place, as this one is so enormous it is very difficult to escape from, but it is in the same area. We buy French bread and bananas as an emergency food supply, but end up eating them back at the hostel. In the foyer, Murray takes a photo of a Chinese Checkers board, in memory of fierce games with his mother, who also travelled extensively in China. We take night photos from our hotel of the vertical slums and construction site between our hotel and the riverside expressway on the Yangtze side of the peninsular, then to bed after another full day. In the night, we suffer from the thick doona/air conditioning conflict, but with the AC wound down to 18C, find a compromise.
Thursday 23rd August Chongqing
Today we are conducting an expedition to the Three Gorges Dam Museum, not because we are expecting a lot of it, but because the dam was being built when we were here in 2001, and we’re interested in finding out more information about what has happened in the last 17 years. We’re going to walk there, seeing more of the city as we go, and it’s1pm by the time we set off. Take some photos from the windows of the hostel, then walk roughly north, up the peninsular between the two rivers, first downhill past an interesting art and dance workshop building, then we strike upward through the mean streets of an older district, taking photos of the (bad) condition of the buildings, the propensity of people to store junk on their balconies, and the extreme depth of the gap between the road and the base level of the building. These apartment blocks are a world away from the glitzy new ones being built. We cannot find a way through which keeps us on the ridge of the peninsular, so have to descend to the east, then back up, finding the historic city wall with road tunnels through it, and a sculpture suite on the west side showing an assault on the city walls by lots of soldiers being defended from above by the garrison throwing large rocks. We follow a main road, finding a bakery with a surprisingly good garlic bread loaf, and a raisin-poor Danish style pastry, and a bottle of coke, and have an interesting breakfast. We take a photo of a puce-pink weather proof tuk-tuk taxi, and continue downhill past a large and very steep park which appears to extend all the way to the top of the ridge, but give it a miss, as we are already in a lather of sweat walking downhill. Chongqing is known as one of the “Furnaces of China”, and we’re here in the middle of summer, so this is to be expected. However the weather hasn’t been as hot as we were expecting (thank heavens).
We get good views to the east, look at a strange winged monument on top of a red, stainless steel cloth-draped pedestal, and arrive at a hospital district above a large park, which Dianne and maps.me tells us is a short cut to the museum. There is a very large paved area fronting a multi-columned building (its name is in Chinese, and don’t find out what it is) then, back out in the street, pass a modern multistorey building with the front looking a bit like the bow of a ship, before arriving at the museum precinct, where we take a photo of the massive Chongqing Great Hall of the People and its attendant buildings, built in ancient Chinese style. It was finished in 1954. The multi-tiered circular domed auditorium with a conical green roof is built in the style of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and there are green glazed tiles on the smaller buildings around it. This is considered one of the architectural features of Chongqing.
By comparison, the Three Gorges Dam Museum is a complete contrast, a very modern bulky brown masonry building with an up-curved roof with a circular cupola and a curved glass façade. We enter the free museum with very welcome air conditioning. While Murray does a loo stop, Dianne susses it out, finds that the film about the building of the dam, and particularly the resettlement of displaced persons is about to start. We take up positions, sitting against the wall, rather than in the lines of crowd-control rails, find that it is relaxing, but not all that good for viewing or taking photos, so Murray stands. The circular theatre makes it difficult to know where the main focus is, but the long and short of it was that it is a big dam, produces a lot of electricity, and all the displaced people were happy to go, and are now doing better than they were in the bottom of the valley. We look at other rooms on the ground floor, with a lot of wild-life pictures, animations of the historic porters who dragged the barges along the banks with long ropes which actually cut grooves into the limestone rock, a typical sampan, and some anthropology studies.
We take more photos of the Grand Hall of the People from upstairs in the museum, and check out the three floors above, finding a lot about WW2 and the bombing of Chongqing, with historic black and white photos of the American and Chinese commanders, the Flying Tigers, and a surprising amount of coverage of Chiang Kai-Shek. With very little English language information, we actually don’t learn a lot, and give the African Art exhibition on the ground floor a very cursory look.
We cross the large square to take more photos of the Grand Hall of the People and the Museum, buy a cold drink and consider our next move. There has to be a Metro connection to the Museum, but there is nothing visible, so we start walking a long way to a metro directly downhill from the Museum, but with no direct access. Before going too far, Dianne looks back to see a metro sign right beside the museum. Access to the metro was via a very wide and straight tunnel, with chairs and tables in the first section, and locals resting and playing games. It looks a bit like a Bingo School. The passage continues for hundreds of metres with regularly spaced rectangular trim sections which could conceal blast doors like in DRK. The passage narrows down, but continues all the way through the mountain, to exit near the Metro Station, which is right on the edge of the river, above the riverside expressway and pedestrian walk. We resolve to come back here when we’re not as tired, as it is a good position to start a walk along the Jialing River. From here we can get photos of boats on the river and across to the other side of town. We get Metro tickets back to our home station, but this is line 6, and the exit from line 6 is different to our normal exit, and we find ourselves wandering lost in a very big shopping centre, and have to find a way to the surface and then find our way home via the park and flights of steps, getting back about 6pm.
Back at the hostel, we book the one-day limited number tour, in a modern SUV, to Wulong Karst Tourist area for tomorrow (our last UNESCO-listed site of our trip). It’s a pretty steep A$215 for the two (we later get back A$46 because of age discounts for the National Park). We know for sure we’re going to the “Three Natural Bridges”, but it’s pretty hard to get any more details than that. There is a sheet detailing the trip in Chinese, with English notes added, but when we ask about some of it, we’re told, in broken English, that “no, that’s not on it now” or similar. We ask why, if the details have changed, and the price as well, they don’t change the sheet they are showing the tourists. We don’t get an answer to that question. There is a bus tour as well, but it’s about 150km there, and takes over 2 hours, so decided car is the easy way to go.
We have a rest then head out about 8pm to pick up Line 6 again and get off at the first stop on the river, Huanghuayuan, which is a long way above the river and the expressway. We take photos from the rail platform, and have to climb steps even higher to get out of the station. We find ourselves in a rather dark park, with no obvious way down to the river apart from a narrow path that disappears into the dark. We see a person come up that way so figure there must be a way down, so follow the unlit path and steps down to a parking lot, then out to the road. It is a bit scary, but this is China, which is a lot safer than most countries, and worth the risk. We are able to cross the road with just a stopped taxi on the other side, and find ourselves on a wide pathway some 20-metres above the muddy river bank.
There are walkers and joggers on the path, so we are quite comfortable, even though lighting is pretty sparse. As we walk along, we get good views of the bridges, the river, the signature buildings of the CBD and the strange collection of well-lit traditional buildings which is the “Hongya Cave” entertainment area near the orange cable stayed truss bridge. Not very far along we can hear the roaring of a high pressure water discharge coming from under the walkway. By leaning out we can get a photo of a large discharge of very dirty water. From the smell of it, 17 years after our last visit, they are still discharging a lot of untreated sewage direct into the river.
We come to the mooring area of commercial vessels, and walk up a rise in the path to a point where a lot of cars are stopped, some double-parked, and the occupants are out taking photos of the light show, completely ignoring any road rules. The area is pretty crowded, and more so as we get closer to the “Cave” area. We are starting to get to the area where the night party boats circulate. They are brightly lit, but it is hard to get a clear photo, as they are moving.
The “Cave” area is very brightly lit, and we take a lot of photos, as it is one of the high points of the light show. We walk under the orange truss bridge, and continue as far as the massive building project which features three very tall buildings, linked at the top, and with a large curve in what is usually a vertical frame. All access along the water front is terminated here, so we take long distance photos of the point, buildings on the far side, a Sydney Harbour Bridge look-alike, the Grand Theatre, and inclinators where we think we landed in 2001 after getting a hydrofoil up the Yangtze River.
Heading inland we see the waxing moon over one of the high rises, indicating clear skies and no rain, take our last photo just after 9pm, and catch the #1 Metro home, being careful to find our #4 Exit this time. We have an evening meal at the hostel, tomato and egg with rice for Murray, egg, tomato and noodle soup for Dianne, plus a very welcome Coke in a glass with ice. The night involves switching the AC on and off when we are active in the room, switching it on when we are under the doonas and trying to get a decent temperature for sleep.
Friday 24th August Chongqing to Wulong Karst Tourist Area Day trip.
We have a 7am pickup and are ready with our small backpack stuffed when our young non-English speaking driver turns up. We are the first two of five, and get the pick of the seats in a 7-seat Chinese made SUV. Murray takes the front, Dianne behind, and we drive around the CBD looking for the others, a young woman with two teenage sons. We pick them up near a very strange building constructed from bright red stacked long, square prisms. Dianne has to let them in, but retains the middle seat with the two boys confined to the kiddie’s seats at the back.
We have a good look at the inner city road system before finding ourselves on the orange truss bridge, and across the far side off the Jialing River, heading upstream on a complex set of freeways with blue and white banded guard rails. By 7.35 we are out of the inner city spaghetti junction and onto a very good highway with quite a few tunnels, including one which is 6.3kms long. We’re heading for the Wu River valley, which we follow for most of the trip, through spectacular mountain, gorge and river scenery, unfortunately marred by heavy smog, the likes of which we encountered on the Yangtze in 2001. There are regular brown signs with English subscripts indicating distances to tourist areas, and regular toll booths. We pass massive bridges for road and rail across the river, some of which are still under construction, and stop at 8.30am at a lookout at the Wujiang Grand Canyon, on the Wu River (jiang means river) with an attached very flash toilet, get our first photos not from the car, of the river, the lookout area, the river with a fairly gentle run in it toward Chongqing, port facilities for the very large cement plant we have just passed, and the mountainside sloping steeply down to the river, with a 20-metre white strip at the bottom showing the river level range in high water season.
We make another stop at a service station near Baitao, and everyone has to get out of the car, possibly because it was a CNG (compressed natural gas) vehicle, and a bit dangerous to refuel. We do a walk around for some photos, talk a woman hosing a car park to let us go out to her terrace for a better view, but the air is still not very clear.
The road continues along the left bank of the river on a very steep hill, requiring a lot of tunnels, some better lit than others, and a good place to pass slower drivers. The mountains are becoming cliffs, and a lot of the road is cut into the mountain, with a hundred metres of hopefully competent rock hanging over the top of it. In another place the rock has been cut down about 30-metres to leave an outlier on the cliff dropping into the river. We pass a major half-finished construction project, with dozens of tall piers in the ground, but no road or rail over, and then pass a brand new town on the far bank, with scores of brown, high-rise apartments.
We break out of the gorge, and take the turn over the river, before Xiangkou (we think), a large town which has many apartment buildings and an arch-supported bridge over the river. We’re heading for the Three Natural Bridges, 19km away, and stop for an early lunch at a small restaurant in a town, where the restaurant owners or spruikers stand on the roadside looking friendly and waving passing cars in. We are pretty used to communal eating, so waive the offer of a separate table, decline the 340 Yuan fish, settle for veggies, which suits the others, and get a very good meal of rice, rough skinned beans, tomato and egg stir-fry, morning glory, and a bottle of Coke from the refrigerator – probably the best meal we have had in China, and very reasonable at Y68 for the two of us.
We do a short drive to the new pyramid-shaped Wulong Karst Tourist Reception Centre, park the car at 11.30am and repair to the waiting room while our driver purchases tickets for the National Park, and also the tourist bus which will take us to the 3 Natural Bridges in the natural sinkhole. The elder boy, 16 years old has quite good English, which improves with practice and confidence, and he keeps us informed of what is going on, or as much as he knows. We receive some obscure information about going right if the line is too big at the end of the bus ride, which becomes clear as we pass the robot left over from the Transformers movie filmed here, and see the size of the crowd waiting for the elevator down into the sink hole. What we don’t know, however, is that it is also where the glass viewing platform is, something we really wanted to see. The alternative to the elevator is to walk down, so we stay with the family, and go to where there is a smaller crowd on the right side passing over a bridge and disappearing in to the bush. This is for the intrepid who want to descend the stairs to the valley bottom. As it is reported to be only 10 minutes, we take that option, keeping loosely in contact with the others while we descend a combination of path and steps down the scrub-covered rubble slope left over from a sinkhole collapse. It is a very long ten minutes, we don’t see a lot for the first third of the descent, and it is hot and sweaty, but well worth the effort. Our sore calves seem to have self-repaired, and we handle it OK, getting some good photos of the incredible scale of the sink holes and natural bridges. The rock is all limestone, so as well as the bridges, there are waterfalls spouting out from sheer walls, enough to form a sizeable stream through the flat meadow at the bottom. The three bridges are named after dragons –Tianlong (Sky Dragon), Qinglong (Azure Dragon) and Heilong (Black Dragon).
We re-unite with the other three, walk counter to the general flow of traffic from the elevator, to find a very nice traditional Chinese Inn, the Tianfu Post House, built in 619AD but later destroyed, and rebuilt in 2005. Get a glimpse of the elevator through another natural arch (Tianlong Bridge) and are surprised what a small part of the descent the elevator covers, and the punters have to walk about a third of the descent on stairs, paths and wooden stairways. We walk a considerable distance up the stairways to get photos over the inn and the bottom of the valley, and then start the walk along the stream, following the signs to areas of interest.
There is a mechanised dragon left over from the Transformers Movie, and we manage a photo without others in it, take photos of a good waterfall emerging from the rock near it, and lose contact with the others about there. The path passes under a large arch (Qinglong Bridge) which takes the shape of a broad sword from a certain angle, and crosses the river, avoiding a shower from a spring directly above, and is supported off the rock walls in a manner we have seen in other gorges in China. The natural bridges continue to awe us, and the springs out of solid rock are something new. The trail now follows a gorge with limestone cliffs, and greenery clinging to any place which is reasonably level. The younger brother finds us, tells us that the others are waiting at the tourist cart shuttle station further down, so we make good time to get to the end. There is a big crowd at the cart station, but the climb out is formidable and we have to get to the top of the cliffs towering over us, so we make an informed decision to pay the Y15 each and get the Sightseeing Bus, which is an open 12 seat bus, engine driven. Murray manages to get a front seat to take photos on the wild ride up the hill, but the camera battery dies halfway up, and he has to do a battery change while holding on as best he can. The Sightseeing Bus takes us back to where we left the first shuttle bus, and this bus takes us on a loop road a long way back to the pyramid, where we left our driver. We’re back at 2.30pm, and while we wait for our driver to organise tickets, we get photos of three of the Transformers which, hopefully, Ed, our grandson, will appreciate.
We all get back in our original SUV for the drive to Fairy Mountain, and according to the blurb, also known as “Grassland of South China”, “Summer Palace in mountain city” and “Eastern Switzerland”. Dianne is still trying to find out where the glass bridge is, and if we can go to it, as she is more interested in that than grasslands, and it appears to be close on the map, but is told we can’t go there. It is only when we’re back home that she realises that it was the glass platform at the top of the sinkhole that we weren’t told about.
We get to Fairy Mountain about 3.30pm. The driver gets tickets on the tourist train, an engine driven, rubber tyred two-carriage, glass windowed contraption, very safety conscious, and rather slow. We can see from the train, and also from the drive, that this is a wet, mountain region, with pine trees and short green grass, similar to other alpine terrains, quite pretty, but a little low-key as a rolling grassland after the Stans.
We get out at the stop for the Great Grass Land, an entire gentle valley of short, green grass with pathways, facilities and picnic areas. The driver has brought a picnic bag full of very strange Chinese snacks, some of them edible, and a waterproof rug to spread on the damp ground. Murray doesn’t like rug sitting, so goes for a walk to take photos of the grass land, the scores of local tourists enjoying low-key recreation, such as making enormous bubbles, flying kites, or just walking in an open space where you can see blue sky, and possibly stars at night. We understand how the Chinese, who mostly live in high-rise in crowded, smoggy cities, may find this wonderful. One of the kids with us asks if we can see stars from where we live, and says he can’t from where he lives near Guangzhou – the things we take for granted!
At 4.40pm, we board another train, taking its photo this time, and are taken around a long loop, making a stop at the horse-riding facility, and circling the Great Grassland. On the way we can see a lot of depressions which would fill with water were this not limestone country, but now are possible starters as sink holes. There are a lot of horses at the riding centre, and some on the loose, plus a lot of goats to simulate wild life. Back at our starting point we have to run the gauntlet of vendors selling “interesting” food items, with two sorts of dried food spread out on the road, together with large lumps of blackish, fatty looking pieces of animal.
Back in the car, we head for home on a new road which takes us through the mountains, with lots of limestone cliff views, steep, rough concrete roads, and serried ranks of mountains extending into the blue distance. It is still hazy, but much better in the afternoon, although while we had the sun in our eyes on the way out, we now have it in our eyes on the way back. Where we can see to the east, the views and photos are much better. Our driver has noticed Murray taking a lot of photos, and becomes more helpful, stopping the car on this minor road for good shots, especially the sunlit river in the gorge. As well as mountain scenes, there is farming in the valleys, with terraced fields with green rice, which always looks good.
We emerge from the mountains with a town below us in the valley, but it is still an unbelievable distance below us, and we have to take a lot of switchbacks on the narrow road to reach the river level. We cross the river and return along the same road as we used this morning, stopping at the same service station and vacating the car again. The air is clearer now, and Murray is on the right side of the car to see down to the river more clearly, and takes photos of obsolete coal mines and river activity, but gives up at 7pm, due to bad visibility and the urge to sleep. We arrive back well after dark, coming in through a town to the north of us with almost as many brightly lit buildings as Chongqing and over a bridge to the north of us to take a long tunnel and emerge just north of our hostel, where we are dropped off first. It has been a long day, and we are too tired to do anything but have the same meal at the hostel and retire relatively early for another night under AC and doona.
Saturday 25th August Chongqing – Sentimental journey to find 2001 trip dock
This is our last full day of the trip, and we make a very late start to explore the Yangtze River side of the peninsular, and carry on to where we debarked from the dreaded Russian Hydrofoil in 2001. This is not as easy as it sounds, because a lot of the city has completely changed in 17 years. There are lots of new expressways, bridges and high-rises. After some argument on which way we would go when maps.me was ambivalent, we headed back north, and downhill to the west, coming to a full stop just beyond a recently smashed guard rail that is pushed right up against the wall – not a good place to be at the wrong time. We managed to negotiate it, but found the footpath stopped 50 metres further on. Two local girls with suitcases have a lot of trouble getting past the damage, so Murray rearranges it for better access.
Backtracking, we find a road heading south, a bit scary at first, but fairly suburban, behind the massive redevelopment going on below our hostel. We are able to take photos back up the hill through a break in the security barrier, then walk on further looking for views or a way down to the river. Our first try gets us higher for a view, but no further down-hill. The second try leads us through a very grotty stairwell with lots of security grilles to the side, but a promise of public access. The stairs take us past the level of the express way, and very grotty apartments (that’s probably an overstatement – more like rooms) some with doors open and owners sitting there, oblivious to the rubbish and dirt around them, to the base level of the ageing high-rises above, with workshops and garages, but no shops. When the Three Gorges dam went in, over a million of people were displaced, and a lot of them ended up in Chongqing. A lot of these people were from the countryside, with little education, and not many skills suitable for employment in the city. We suspect some of them end up in places like this. Across the road we can see trees and the tops of pavilions, so figure it for a park, and walk on to a break in the wall.
It is indeed a park, but ageing and poorly maintained, but does have some restaurants and plastic chairs on the river side walkway. When Dianne sits on a chair, a woman appears as if by magic, asking if we need drinks so we continue to walk on. The view from here is pretty industrial on our side of the river, with a construction pad for large reinforcing cages for pylons, and rusting boring heads and caisson rings. The site has been unused since the last high water, with a lot of debris caught in the steelwork. There is construction work going on for a new bridge upstream, with half the river closed off, and an island or intrusion into the river and these relics could be from it. Across the river there is a forest of high rises, and some sort of sail structure at the waterfront. Further down on our side, we start to see commercial shipping, a bucket ladder dredge, and barges. Our park ends and we have to return to the main road, going as far as a commercial freight and shipping yard, which affords us another view of the river, with tethered barges and walkways out to moored vessels, including work boats and Three Gorges river boats. The water here is dark brown, and the current strong enough to make the tethered barges look as though they are planing.
We take a lot of photos of the river life and the bright gold glass towers across the other side, negotiate some roads without footpaths to find another riverside walk which takes us towards the point. We cross away from the river to find a bakery in a hotel and buy a loaf of real French bread with some difficulty using a 100 Yuan note.
We find a gap to get across to the river side, but the walkway has been ripped up, and a barrier has been erected on the road side. Dianne decides we should take a punt as the locals would be unlikely to put up with a dead-end. We continued on, taking photos of the waterfront activity, with the river boats getting progressively up-market. Where it was supposed to be the dead-end, the fencing had been knocked down enough to give us access to a more legal walkway, before reverting to screened-off illegal. Once again, a gap at the end leads us back to genuine footpath. The river is fairly racing here, with near-planing tethered barges, and commercial shipping making slow progress against the current. Once again in China we see gravel and stone being shipped to where we are sure gravel and stone would be in good supply. Punching against the current seems like a mugs game for this sort of cargo. Another ship full of crated tiles makes more sense.
Nearing the massive construction site on the point with the three bent buildings, we see a more genuine collection of historic style Chinese buildings, and are pleased to see that the walkway continues beside a single lane road, with an overhead structure providing some shade. We are now in the area of current model cruise boats, moored well out with a series of tethered barges and walkways to reach them. The current is strong here, and the loading barges are anchored to the shore with wire ropes, and further down, steel anchor chains. The waters of the river are still the brown of the Yangtze, but further down the Jialing starts to join the flow and there are swirls of green and brown where they mix, as seen in the Amazon, and more recently in the hydro dams of Kyrgyzstan.
We walk to the point where the two rivers meet, finding what was probably a cruise terminal, now abandoned waiting for redevelopment as part of the master plan, and walk on further to what is truly the end of the line to take photos of inclined structures disappearing into the river, one brand new, with a single rail line splitting into two near the end, typical of an inclinator, one other a structure of steel rails on sleepers, and the third an obsolete inclinator. We are pretty sure these are different to what we saw in 2001, and the place is right for our disembarkation point, but there has been so much demolition you can’t recognise much.
We are pretty hot and very tired by now, and Dianne is keen to eat, so we go looking up on the abandoned terminal structure, but all we find is a cool, green park partitioned off from the construction site, and no way out except back the way we came. We rest for a while, look at the possibility of an ice cream from the vendor downstairs, but the pickings are slim. We retrace our steps to the first way we see up the hill, which takes us up past the bendy building site, looking in vain for bananas on the way. Find a set of steps which take us up to the level area at the top, at considerable effort. On the way up, we take a telephoto of a monument on the skyline across the river, which turns out to be a stylized eagle perched on a pink snail shell. Very strange…..
At the top we get good views of the interconnection of the three bendy buildings, find a street with markets and shops, but nothing really of interest, but it turns out to be Shaanxi Lu, the street we stayed in in 2001, so this completes our nostalgia trip, and we can take the Metro back home.
We head back out at 8 PM, plotting a course for Burger King which we have located on maps.me, as we haven’t had much success with the Chinese food, as all the menus are in Chinese, with no pictures. Decide to have a look across the street at the Halal restaurant which was recommended by a Moroccan staying in the hostel, in spite of deciding not to cross this street on our last night, as you take your life into your hands every time you do. On entering the restaurant, the waiter passes us with a dish of the stir-fried rough texture beans we have grown fond of, so this convinced us we were in the right place. We are even more convinced when we’re given a menu with pictures (!), and order rice, the beans, a relatively expensive chicken and potato dish, and a bottle of still orange drink, with the total coming to Y90 (A$18) for more than we could possibly eat.
After we buy a dish of water melon each from the lady who is always at the pedestrian crossing, with mixed results, we walk a ways up the hill toward the CBD for some parting night photos, before returning to the room to finish packing for an early morning Metro run to the airport, with all our line changes plotted. The evening has a lot of on/off action with the AC before a final “on” for our night under the doona. Considering the stress of an early run to the airport, we managed to be asleep until almost the time for the alarm, after some nightly loo visits with possibly dodgy stomachs.
Sunday 26th August Chongqing – Sydney via Shenzen
We’re making the long trek home today. Our first flight, to Shenzhen, is at 11.40am, and is only 2 ¼ hours, however we then have 5 ½ hours in the airport, before our 9 hour flight to Sydney.
We are up before the alarm, run a lot of water to get it hot enough for Dianne to shower, do what we can in the loo to prevent getting caught short on the Metro, hand in our key card to the vacant front desk and run our bags down the first four ramps, and carry them down what remains of the hundred steps. We are not out of the woods yet because we now remember the down escalator was inactive on Exit 4 last time we used it. We pay Y12 for two tickets to the airport, nearly get on the train going the wrong way, and find the train going the right way pretty full, so use the foyer pole till the first interchange to Line 6, where we find a down escalator which works.
At the bottom of the escalator, Murray finds Dianne stationary on the escalator, being pulled back, while everyone on it is bearing down on her. Luckily she manages to get going before there is a pile-up. It turns out that the right hand shoulder strap of her backpack, which is not done up, has caught in the handrail mechanism and starts pulling her backward until the strap fortunately comes loose from the backpack and releases her. It could have been serious, but we survive it. She manages to struggle on with the left shoulder strap taking most of the weight, and the right clipped onto the chest strap.
We encounter more down-steps and vacant seats which magically fill before we get to them. Dianne is feeling uneasy in the stomach, but manages to control her urges while we transfer to Line 10, this time getting the elevator rather than using the steps. We have often seen signs indicating toilets in the underground, but not when we need one. We get seats for the long Line 10 run, which goes above ground right out into the suburbs, and get off at Terminal 3 at the airport, and follow the signs and boards to get a start straight away with China Southern, with only a short queue. We try for, and get, our bags checked through all the way to Sydney, with pink transfer tickets, and get boarding passes for both legs, but are directed to baggage check, where they think there is a battery in Murray’s baggage. The baggage destination and transfer ticket on the handles of the bag make it difficult to access, but we manage to get the medical kit and 300 fleece out, then open the bottom of the bag, but are not sure what they are looking for. After a while and an X-ray of the medical kit, they give up, and we put the bag back together and send it on its way. We lose the Coke bottle of water at Security, get a thorough search, particularly for explosives residue, and Murray’s bra gets a bit of exposure (for those that haven’t read our other blogs, this is Murray’s design to hold the money belt). Dianne manages to get internet while we wait, and Murray connects the computer to the power supply while writing diary.
On the plane we find ourselves next to a young man who works for Huawei, interesting because the front page of the Shenzen paper we’re reading carries an article condemning Australia for its high-handed attitude in banning Huawei from participating in the 5G rollout because of their too-close relationship with the Chinese government. In the row in front of us, in Economy Plus, is a woman who has to be the grandmother of two boys about 5 to 7-year who are quite unruly, even with their grandfather shouting at them from across the aisle. They fight, yell, kick the seat, sit on the floor, jump up to look over at our row, and generally misbehave. They refuse to stay in their seat belts, spending a lot of time standing on their seats, with the hostess studiously avoiding them, even when we’re taking off and they’re on the floor with no seatbelts. Definitely one of the worst cases of child misbehaviour we’ve seen on a plane.
The young bloke next to us talks quietly to the boys and manages to get their attention and interest, and they quieten down, but still don’t use the seat belts. A young girl on her mother’s lap behind Murray kicks the seat for most of the flight, so it is not without its diversions. We don’t have a window seat, as somehow we’ve missed out on our aisle/window combination, but the air is pretty grey outside for the parts of the flight which aren’t cloudy.
The boys stand up and look out the windows during the whole landing exercise, but manage to survive it.
In the Shenzen terminal we walk and ride moving footpaths for kilometres following signs which include “International Transfer” finally getting to a blank elevator with a security man beside it. He doesn’t want to look at our documents, just points at the elevator, so we take it up a floor to the extensive security and immigration procedures applied to transit passengers who have already endured this at Chongqing Bei. Our exit forms finally get a run, but Murray can’t find them in the money belt, looks like we will need to fill out new ones until he finds them in his pocket. Murray’s bra gets another public airing, and he thinks a custom made money belt may be the way to go.
Our flight is on the board, but with no gate against it, so we look around, make sure the flight isn’t listed at any of the gates, and take up a convenient position at the power supply station, which looks very sculptural, with four seats and small tables attached to it, but the table is far too small for a laptop, so we plug in, arrange the luggage cart as a blockade and hope no-one will trip on the power cord while we sit in the waiting seats.
We get a lot of work done while we wait, Murray’s concentration helped by a monster 37 Yuan flat white. We do some precautionary loo visits, and Dianne does regular checks on the board to find we are downstairs in Gate 11, where there are very few people and no facilities, so we wait upstairs. We are ready to go when a free ranging China Southern agent asks if we are going to Sydney and checks our documents. When we go downstairs, people are already lining up, so we join the queue, finding that we have a shuttle bus departure, and join an already crowded bus. There is another flight, this one to Indonesia, leaving at the same time on a shuttle bus, so there is some concern, and we do not resent the final ticket check at the base of the boarding stairs.
The plane is an ageing Airbus A330, with two big Rolls Royce engines, and 2-4-2 seating which suits us fine, but we are dismayed to find there is no seat-back entertainment in spite of the 250 programme choice in the flight magazine. We are somewhat mollified to be issued Samsung IPads to watch the abbreviated list of English-language movies, which probably has something to do with the fact that there are practically no other Anglos on the flight. The hostess is very apologetic, and says they will be getting seat-back entertainment at the end of the year. Up to now we’ve been very happy with China Southern, but this definitely loses them a few brownie points.
The food and drink are adequate, although rice and beef/fish/chicken are starting to wear a bit thin. Dianne asks Murray to order an unwanted white wine when the drinks cart comes around, so by the time she has finished the meal, she is three white wines to the wind, and ready for sleep. In fact she hasn’t had anywhere near as much wine as you would think – when she asked for white wine, which wasn’t obvious on the trolley, the hostess pulled out a bottle that was hidden behind all the other drinks, and poured about an inch of it into a small plastic container – so three drinks equated to one full glass. Murray tries the Samsungs for a while, but can’t see any movies worth watching, but does find some China promotional videos which are interesting.
In the morning Dianne tries the Samsungs, and finds a documentary on designing and testing China’s High Speed Rail, which is very interesting, so Murray watches it too.
Our entry to Sydney is pretty cold, with rain threatening. We get through without hassles and are on the train to Circular quay when it grinds to a halt at Central. We have to transfer to another platform, using the elevators, as we are sick of carrying our baggage up and down stairs, and manage to miss the Balmain ferry by one minute, so have to wait another 16 minutes in the cold. The rain holds off enough so that we can make it home without raincoats or umbrellas, our keys work, and the Unit is in good shape, although for various reasons the beds are not made, so we do some washing before catching up on sleep.
Summary of Our Thoughts on Astana, Kazakhstan & China
Astana was a real surprise. It had lots of fantastic architecture and street art and sculptures, and was fantastic at night with it all lit up. It had the great advantage of only being 20 years old, so didn’t have a lot of ugly old buildings. It also has the advantage of having money to spend on such things, as it gets plenty of money from oil.
Our previous decision that we’ve probably seen enough of China was probably correct. It has a lot of special places of natural beauty, many of them UNESCO World Heritage sites, and we’ve seen a lot of them. However most of them are not particularly pleasant to visit, as so many people go to them that you have to line up for everything, and you go everywhere with throngs of people.
Our night experience in Urumqi was an eye-opener. Helped give credence to the reports about the local Uyghurs being harassed, and worse.
It’s interesting seeing just how much the cities have achieved over the last 17 years – lots of new skyscrapers, road systems, metros and fast trains. However the quality of the air doesn’t appear to have improved. Chongqing had lots of new wiz-bang things, but you didn’t have to look far below the surface to find a lot of very grotty areas that hadn’t changed at all.
Tourists who just visit the main cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guanzhou, Xian etc and/or go with a tour group, don’t realise just how little English there is in the country overall, and how hard it makes it to even do simple things like order a meal.
On the surface, you feel free visiting China, but when you take into account they fingerprint and photograph you on arrival, take photocopies of your passport and visa in every hotel, and every time you buy a train ticket, you realise you are being closely watched. When you add in the fact you can’t get Facebook, Twitter or Google, you are far from free when you’re there.
We did get to mix with a lot of locals – in fact we saw very few Western tourists the whole time we were there, apart from a group tour in Chengdu railway station.
Now that the diary’s finished, we can start planning our next trip ……………………