<< markandrupa


october/november 2006

After a bit of research we chose Travel Indochina's "China Encompassed" tour for our first visit to China.  At twenty-six days this was the longest tour offered and began just a few days after our Thailand tour concluded, allowing us to visit both countries back-to-back.  We also extended our tour a bit - adding two days to visit the Giant Pandas in Chengdu and three days for a Yangtze River cruise.  Our tour group was at the maximum of fifteen people, but we had a fabulous time and enjoyed everyone's company.


We took 2800 photos while in China - check out a slideshow of our favorites.

Trip log

  1. Chiang Mai to Beijing - october 15

    Another long travel day as we leave Thailand to join our China tour.  Our alarm sprang to life at 4:45 and by 5:30 we were on our way to the airport for our flights to Beijing.  Both flights were uneventful and we arrived in Beijing well-rested and with all our bags.

    We arrived in Beijing at dusk and the 40 minute hotel transfer was a bit surreal - the combination of fading light and dense haze sapped the urban landscape of color and detail.  Buildings 200 yards away were cloaked in white haze those a mile away were barely perceptible.

    Once checked in we met our tour leader, Kip, and the rest of our tour group for drinks in the hotel lounge.  After a brief intro we grabbed a good dinner at a nearby restaurant and called it a day.

    Gloria Plaza Hotel, Beijing

  2. Beijing - october 16

    Our first day in Beijing was long and began with Tiananmen Square.  The square itself was large but still didn't quite live up to our imagination at about a third the size we expected.  The Olympic countdown was well underway and a large "Friendlies" display was most prominent.  We next toured the Forbidden City - a sprawling 600 year old temple complex under extensive renovation in preparation for the Olympic onslaught.  The complex is so large that even spending the better part of the morning on the grounds felt a bit rushed.  We concluded our morning with a tea tasting just outside the Forbidden City.

    For lunch we headed to the Hulong district - large swaths of densely packed neighborhoods navigated by narrow, meandering lanes  The majority of structures are single story cement block units organized into small homes.  Each home is from one to four rooms, many of which lack toilet facilities and instead relay on shared community toilets.  We took a cyclo (two person peddle-powered carriage) through the narrow alleyways to our lunch stop in a small four room home.  An assortment of delicious food was prepared in a 20sq ft kitchen and served to us in the main family gathering room.  After lunch we continued our cyclo tour for a bit before bussing back to the hotel.

    After a brief nap we hopped on the subway to catch dinner at the Wangfuling (Snack Street) market.  For $1-$2 US you can pick up small dinner portions from perhaps a hundred different vendors.  We avoided the scorpion, insect and snake kabobs and instead snacked on pan-fried chicken and squid kabobs, corn on the cob and pork buns.  Later we browsed the upscale stores (think Newbury Street, Boston) along the pedestrian street and stopped in for a fried pineapple pie at the ubiquitous McDonald's (anyone who remembers McDonald's fried apple pies will forgive us).

    Gloria Plaza Hotel, Beijing

  3. Beijing - october 17

    Today was our Great Wall day and the weather was surprisingly cooperative.  A breezy night had whisked away the haze and left Beijing sunny and clear.  There are numerous sections of reconstructed wall open for touring and we were headed to Mutianyu - a 2 hour bus ride outside the city.

    The wall was pretty much what I expected - a few kilometers of reconstructed wall draped along the meandering mountain ridgelines.  The steps were quite irregular even on constant grade slopes so the hiking was slow and cautious.  We ended up hiking the wall for three hours, most of which I spent composing photographs.  We had a quick lunch before hopping back on the bus for our ride back to town.  Along the way we stopped at a cloisonné factory to learn about the manufacturing process and to purchase a few souvenirs.

    We were late arriving into town and made straight for Chaoyang Theatre to marvel at the Beijing Acrobats.  The one hour show was a bit like Cirque du Soleil without the storyline.  The performances were impressive and consisted primarily of various balancing acts.  After the show we had Peking duck for dinner and strolled back to the hotel along side the reconstructed city wall.

    Gloria Plaza Hotel, Beijing

  4. Beijing - october 18

    We started off at the Temple of Heaven park watching hundreds of retired (or unemployed) locals practice their ballroom dancing, tai chi and (rhythmic?) paddle ball.  Many were organized into large group sessions - much like you would expect to see in a US health club.  Further in, under the protection of an outdoor corridor, others gathered to play cards (Texas Holdem for some), make music, or just converse.  We continued our tour of the grounds by visiting the impressive Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest as well as a number of smaller inner temples.

    Our next stop was the Beijing Exhibition and Planning Hall - an urban planning museum with a massive floor model/map of Beijing.  The core of the city is represented by a highly detailed 1,000sq ft scale model (a 20 story building rises about 4 inches) while the outer rings are composed of high-resolution satellite images placed just below the glass floor.  Unfortunately most of the museum's displays are only available in Chinese, so the visit was limited to the model/map and a short movie detailing Beijing's past, present, and future.

    Our final stop of the morning was the large Tibetan Lama (as in Dali) Temple.  We wandered the dozen or so buildings and gazed in on the numerous large Buddha statues.  Unfortunately the resident monks were performing thesis defense at the time and we were unable to view the largest of the statues - a 20 meter giant carved from a single piece of sandalwood.  For lunch we bussed over to the Yashou Clothing Market where we gambled on spicy chicken, spring rolls, and dumplings from the 5th floor food court.

    After a short afternoon break a few of us grabbed taxis to the Red Theatre for live kung-fu show.  The show was more choreographed martial arts routines than impressive kung-fu moves, but for a highlight the cast did break thick sticks and 1/4-inch thick metal plates over their heads.  We taxied back to the hotel after the show and downed a delicious meal of spicy beef with rice cake (the rice cake was the consistency of dense tofu).

    Gloria Plaza Hotel, Beijing

  5. Beijing - october 19

    We had a rather luxurious morning today as we didn't depart until half past ten.  Our schedule for the day was a bit random and almost entirely by foot.  We started with Beijing's underground city and the associated government silk factory.  The underground city is a large network of tunnels (thousands of kilometers worth) buried under Beijing's streets during the peak of the cold war.  Only a small section of narrow tunnels is open to the public, but apparently there are facilities enough to house 300,000.  We continued our pedestrian tour through the nearby Hutong District and on through Dazhalan and Liulichang Streets - historic market streets - before busing to the Summer Palace for the afternoon.

    The Summer Palace was nearly as packed as the Beijing subway.  Large groups of tourists funneled into their guide's wake as they navigated narrow passages and opposing tour groups.  We walked the grounds at a fair clip, covering the entire length of the long corridor before catching a ferry boat back across Lake Kunming.  We had a few extra minutes and stopped in at a large fresh water pearl shop on the way to dinner.  Dinner was uneventful and we rolled into the train station in time to navigate the frantic masses before boarding our overnight train.  This was our first overnight train ride and we were a bit apprehensive, but once on board we settled in rather nicely.  Each car had a pair of toilets, three vanities, and perhaps ten cabins.  Each cabin was a quad-berth so Rupa and I shacked up with Kip and Sarah.  The four of us ventured down to the inadequately provisioned bar car for drinks before heading off to bed.

    Overnight train Z19, Beijing to Xian

  6. Xian - october 20

    Our night on the train went smoothly and we awake decently rested and ready for another day of touring.  We met our local guide, Linda, at the train station and headed straight for our first site - the Big Goose Pagoda.  The Pagoda is a tall, narrow structure of about 10 floors.  It reminded me of a larger Leaning Tower of Pisa - even down to the leaning bit as the Pagoda has settled a bit unevenly.  After the Pagoda we bounced next door to the Tang Dynasty Art Museum - a quaint little museum stocked with frescos and scrolls.  At the associated art gallery we splurged a bit and purchased a large 4ft by 8ft painting for our foyer back home.

    Out next bus stop had us at the Shaanxi History Museum - a large modern museum impressive for its well stocked collection of Xian artifacts (mostly pots) and introduction to the terracotta warriors (which we would see the next day).  Since we didn't have a scheduled lunch stop today most of us grabbed a snack (snickers).  Our final tour of the day was the Great Mosque - a historic yet still active mosque built in traditional Chinese style with palace-like buildings and multiple courtyards leading to a (tired looking) prayer hall.

    Dinner was a dumpling delight as we feasted on plate after plate of bite-sized Chinese dumplings.  The dumplings varied by filling (chicken, pork, vegetable, etc) and wrapping, but we soon lost track as the waitresses moved dumplings from plate to plate to free up space for more.  For desert we stopped by McDonalds again and this time attempted a taro pie.  It turned out rather well and tasted a bit like an apple-rhubarb pie.

    West Capital International Hotel, Xian

  7. Xian - october 21

    The big site to see in Xian is the terracotta warriors and we spent the better part of the day visiting them.  We started off at a nearby shop that sold various sized terracotta statues and beautiful lacquerware furniture and we learned how terracotta statues are made.  From there we bussed over the Terracotta Warrior site where we toured the three pits, the museum, and the (lame) 15 minute 360° history flick.  The original pit, discovered in 1974, is housed in a massive airplane hanger and is mostly excavated.  The second and third pits are much smaller and are only partially excavated - excavation stopped in 1999 when five in-tact archers were uncovered but then quickly succumbed to oxidation and lost their surface coloring.  Overall, the vast majority of warriors have been found in mutilated and toppled condition - a combination of early looting/burning and the collapse of the wooden ceiling beams.  The route back to the parking lot is also worth a note, as the nearly mile long walk was bordered by a dozen or so large multi-story buildings under construction and clearly intended for souvenir shops and restaurants.  The architecture felt a bit like Whistler Village in Canada.

    A unique feature to Xian is the complete city wall - an imposing structure 36ft high, 36ft wide at the top, and 9 miles long.  The 14th century wall has been restored to allow a complete circumnavigation, which we completed on rented bikes amid a dense haze.  Back at the hotel we chose a nearby restaurant from our city guide and headed out.  We walked all the way to the west gate without finding the restaurant, although we did pass a sex museum - impossible to miss with its life-sized statue of a man packing an 8ft long, 1ft diameter penis.  We eventually found our restaurant right next to the hotel (our map had it over a block away) and spent some time perusing the exotic menu - dishes like turtle, frog cream, spiral shell sea snail, and grilled hippopotamus.  We settled on a more traditional dinner of Chinese short ribs and an absolutely amazing steamed eggplant in chili sauce.  We finished the night back at McDonald's for pineapple pies.

    West Capital International Hotel, Xian

  8. Nanjing - october 22

    We had our first group flight this morning as we traveled 2 hours east to Nanjing.  Our bus departed the hotel at 6:30am and fought a dense haze the entire way.  Visibility was limited to about 30ft, but light Sunday morning traffic allowed us to make our flight.  Our flight was uneventful and upon arrival in Nanjing we met our local guide George and transferred to our hotel along beautiful flower-lined highways - even the highway flyovers were fully lined with hanging flower baskets.  Once inside the city center the four lane surface streets were lined with large sycamore trees - a nice break from the sterile eight lane monsters in Beijing and Xian.

    Our hotel was located in a hip area of town.  Once checked-in we took off to find lunch along the nearby pedestrian avenues.  We found dozens of clothing stores as well as miscellaneous trinkets and such but not much in the way of food.  We settled for a couple tasty chicken kabobs from a street vendor, a stick of sticky rice and a couple of CKC ice creams (premium ice cream machined from a cup into a cone).

    We did some afternoon touring with the group and our first stop was the Lion Tower - a recently built but traditionally styled pagoda with normally impressive views of the city (not for us though, as we were once again fighting a haze).  Instead of climbing the pagoda I spent time taking photos of the hundreds of small stone lions that lined the plaza railings.  Our second stop was the Yangtze River Bridge - an impressively long double-decker bridge built by Chinese engineers in 1968 after the Russians walked out.  This time the haze actually provided a unique view.

    For dinner a few of us found a restaurant near the hotel with a short English menu translated directly from Chinese.  From a variety of entertaining choices we ended up with "shampooed tenderloin", "fragrant fish", "beef at iron plate", and "braised eggplant".  The food was some of the best we'd had to date and we topped it off with another round of CKC ice cream (the cute attendant gave a giggle when she saw us for the second time today).

    Mandarin Garden Hotel, Nanjing

  9. Nanjing - october 23

    We spent most of the day at sites lining the Purple Mountain - a 1500ft forested hill just outside the city.  We started off at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum and walked up the long terraced staircase to the memorial chamber and tomb.  The surrounding grounds are lovely but the mausoleum itself is not particularly interesting except to the Chinese, who view Sun Yat-sen as the founder of modern (non-imperial) China.  The most entertaining moment of the morning came when three Chinese teenagers requested a photograph with me - apparently among the western Chinese it's a bit of a prize to have your picture taken with a westerner.  After visiting the mausoleum we stopped in at a nearby museum for a brief history on the founding of the Chinese republic in 1911.  Our final morning stop was the Linggu Temple complex where we visited the Beamless Hall - a 14th century structure with an impressively large vaulted ceiling built entirely of brick arches.

    After lunch we toured the Presidential Palace - a (reconstructed) mansion complex built on the remains of a former Ming temple.  The complex served as government offices during the first half of the 20th century and is now essentially a history museum.  After a brief stop at Ming Xiaoling's Tomb to view the 600 year old stone statues (of oversized animals and humans) we finished our touring with a section of the city wall.  Longer than Xian's wall but now incomplete and in places heavily overgrown, the Nanjing city wall was still a worthwhile photographic stop.

    We hadn't had our fill of "shampooed tenderloin" so we dined at the same restaurant as the night before.  After dinner we had our third CKC ice cream and stopped by a supermarket for water and snacks.  As in Thailand I checked out the potato chip flavors and found international delicacies such as "Mexican tomato chicken", "Italian red meat", and "French chicken".

    Mandarin Garden Hotel, Nanjing

  10. Nanjing to Shanghai - october 24

    Other than perfect weather today was pretty much a bust.  We were transferring to Shanghai by train in the early afternoon and had the morning to ourselves.  We slept in, checked email, and packed up.  The two hour train ride was pleasant and we checked into the historic Pacific Hotel in the heart of Shanghai.

    We had the evening off as well and elected to walk around town.  I came up with a vague plan of walking to a recommended restaurant (South Beauty) in the Pudong area and taking the subway back.  We strolled along Nanjing Donglu Street - a crowded, neon-lit pedestrian street (much like a ½ mile long Times Square) lined with dozens of uninspiring Gap-like clothing shops and interspersed with restaurant chains like McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Häagen-Dazs.  We crossed the river via the pathetic and overpriced pedestrian sightseeing tunnel, the psychedelic aspect of which robbed me of the name and location of our intended restaurant (I had thoughtfully left the map at the hotel).  We started off in the most promising direction and shortly thereafter we ran across the Superbrand Mall and peaked in.  The mall was large and rather western looking and lacked any kind of directory.  Rupa suggested that we ask the information attendants about our restaurant, but I didn't think they would be able to help us.  We continued wandering around Pudong for another two hours - passing from the newly developed high-rise area to quaint streets lined with well-worn storefronts and apartments.  We grew tired and grumpy and dragged ourselves to a metro station for a ride back to our hotel.  After four hours of walking we were both quite tired and settled for a nearby McDonalds.

    Once back in the room I consulted our map and became instantly depressed - the South Beauty restaurant I was searching for was located on the 10th floor of the Superbrand Mall.  Had we simply asked the information attendant at the mall we could have avoided three hours of pointless walking and instead spent time at the top of the nearby 88 story Jin Mao tower.

    Pacific Hotel, Shanghai

  11. Shanghai - october 25

    Another day of perfect weather began with a brief trip to the Bund - a long row of historic riverside buildings dating from the early 20th century.  We followed that up with a tour around the quaint but heavily trafficked Yu Yuan Garden and Bazaar where we had fried kabobs, Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs for lunch.  Later we spent an hour or so at the Shanghai Museum.  We only made it through one floor, mostly because I got sidetracked by a display of traditional Chinese tribal masks.  Our final afternoon stop was the Shanghai Urban Planning Center where we spent 30 minutes admiring another city-wide scale model and an impressive 360° computer fly-over of various city neighborhoods and attractions.

    For the evening we elected to finish what we had begun the night before with a trip to the Jin Mao Tower and dinner at South Beauty.  Kip, Sarah, and Gerrie made it a group outing.  We started off at the beautiful Jin Mao Tower (world's 4th tallest) and beat the afternoon rush to the observation deck on the 88th floor.  In addition to the 360° city-spanning views the Tower boasts an elegant 32 story center atrium starting on the 56th floor.  After the tower we grabbed a delicious dinner at South Beauty, although without a reservation we weren' t able to get a window view of the Bund.  We took the metro back to our hotel and just as we were exiting to the street Rupa noticed an adjoining Dairy Queen and we all topped off the night.

    Pacific Hotel, Shanghai

  12. Wuzhen and Hangzhou - october 26

    Today we had our first road trip as we moved from Shanghai to Hangzhou.  The four hour bus ride was broken up by a visit to Wuzhen - an old town that stretches for half a mile along a narrow canal.  A mix of two-story wooden and stone structures line the canal and narrow lanes and are used as housing, museums, restaurants and handicraft shops.  We spent an hour and a half snapping photos, by which time we were ready to board the bus.

    We continued on to Hangzhou, checked into our hotel, and went out to a group dinner.  We had planned to hit a recommended restaurant but it turned out the building had been demolished to make way for a new structure.  Instead we found the Zhiweiguan Restaurant (upstairs dining) across the street and had a delicious dinner of beggar's chicken, West Lake carp with sweet and sour, southern Song Dynasty fairy broth, and spicy beef - all for only $6 each including beer (1.9% alcohol!).  You can always tell a fancy restaurant in China as soon as you sit down - a server rushes over with a vinyl cover to slip over any clothing you hang on the chair.  They also distribute small, individual wash towels on tiny plates (sometimes adding 25¢ to the bill for each one).  After dinner we strolled around the local shopping scene - the majority of it clothing - with McDonald's pies in hand.

    Xinqiao Hotel, Hangzhou

  13. Hangzhou - october 27

    We started the day's touring at Lingyin Temple - the largest temple in eastern China.  After a brief tour of the very typical temple buildings and Buddha statues we were given time to scramble along a nearby limestone hill dotted with hundreds of recessed Buddha carvings and inscriptions.  Some of the carvings are over 1000 years old and I suppose, with the proper time and motivation, one could trace the evolution of Buddha art.

    From the temple we bussed out to the Longjing area to visit the Dragon Well Tea Village - a small farmers' village nestled among rolling hillsides of terraced tea plants.  This area is famous for its green tea and the village offered us an introduction to traditional green tea production as well as the etiquette of drinking it.  This was our second tea ceremony of the trip so group interest was waning, but Rupa picked up a small container of fresh tea leaves (50 cups worth) and we wound our way back to the bus through a maze of local vendors hawking their wares.

    Our last stop of the day was a mostly pleasant small-boat cruise around West Lake.  The serene lake and perfect weather were on our side, but our scullers tried desperately to dock us at a shore side pearl shop - presumably to earn a commission.  None of us left the boats and our cruise quickly resumed.  By the time we made it back to the hotel it was 3pm and we settled on a quick lunch at Pizza Hut (chicken curry pizza).

    We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the nearby streets (again, a string of clothing stores) and met up with Chris, Liz, George, and Vivian for another dinner at Zhiweiguan Restaurant.  This time we were without our local guide and weren't exactly sure how to order, but George solved this problem by visiting with a nearby table of five young Chinese women.  They were quickly taken with George's friendly demeanor and one of them (who spoke English) agreed to help us while her friends giggled in the background.  We duplicated the previous night's order of beggar's chicken and added fairy duck with ham (duck soup), gold medal braised pork, and garlic asparagus.  We were also able to get our steamed rice up front to complement our meal - it's typically served at the end of the meal as filler.

    It was a pleasant evening, so after dinner we grabbed our (now routine) McDonald's pies and strolled the busy streets for a bit.  Once back in our room we noticed that our laundry hadn't been returned (9pm) and we called down to try and locate it.  A friendly lady showed up at our door to try and help, but her lack of English and my lack of Chinese got us nowhere.  To solve our communication problem she dialed someone on the phone who could translate and we played a bit of phone tag until she understood our request.  Just then another lady showed up with our completed laundry and the two had a bit of a laugh.

    Xinqiao Hotel, Hangzhou

  14. Shanghai - october 28

    We spent the morning driving back to Shanghai, stopping for toilets and snacks along the way.  As we all stood around eating our Magnum ice cream bars I realized just how ubiquitous ice cream was.  At every stop, whether a temple or museum or whatever, ice cream freezers populated the vendor stalls.  Magnum bars (think $1 Dove bars) were by far the most popular, with our group of sixteen devouring up to fifteen bars per day.  Clearly I should be investing in Chinese ice cream distribution.

    Upon arrival in Shanghai we made straight for our lunch date with a retired Shanghai couple.  We pulled up to a fairly typical twenty-story middle class building and were invited into the couple's ground floor condo.  Their unit measured a little less than 600sqft and consisted of a tiny kitchen, a nook, a full bathroom, a dining area (to seat 10) and a living room - a portion of which was curtained off into a bedroom.  Although their particular unit was government provided (since they had worked under the socialist system) the market value of the unit was around $50,000 (~$100/sqft).  For lunch the eight of us squeezed around a large table set up in the dining area as the husband and wife took turns cooking.  Over the next hour they prepared and served at least 25 different dishes from the small kitchen, all of them absolutely delicious.  The most interesting dish was certainly the winter melon infused with Tang - we enjoyed it so much the wife served us a second plate of it and even helped George finish off the final pieces by feeding him with chopsticks.

    After lunch we checked back into the Pacific Hotel and I immediately dropped on the bed for a three hour food-induced nap.  Rupa did some booking while I napped and we didn't make it out of the hotel again until around 7pm.  We strolled around Nanjing Donglu - this time perusing the side streets and finding the local Chinese restaurants that previously seemed missing.  We were still quite full from our 25 course lunch and opted for New Zealand Natural ice cream as evening filler.  We also stopped by a Bread Talk chain store where we found a diverse selection of breads, cakes and pastries.  They also offered a unique looking snack called "Fire Floss" - a light and soft bread roll sweetened with egg cream and coated with chili flavored pork floss.  I couldn't possibly eat one now but avowed to try one the next time we ran across a Bread Talk.

    Pacific Hotel, Shanghai

  15. Guilin - october 29

    Our morning flight to Guilin went off without a hitch and immediately out of the airport we were surrounded by the famous karst rock formations.  These tall and thin limestone outcroppings range anywhere from 200 to 800 feet tall and are scattered across the otherwise flat landscape.  Guilin itself is built in and around hundreds of these formations making for a scenic backdrop everywhere you look.  In fact, the town has limited building height to a mere twenty stories to prevent the city from overwhelming the scenery.

    After checking into our hotel Rupa decided to take a nap while I ventured out to have lunch with some fellow travelers.  We found a small no-name restaurant nearby - encouraged by their English menu.  It only took us a minute to spot two offerings we hadn't seen before - dog soup and rat with noodles.  Fortunately the restaurant had less exotic elections as well and we made a decent lunch of it.

    Returning to the hotel after lunch I realized I had forgotten our room number.  I had left Rupa with the key (required to power the room) and, after twenty hotel rooms in thirty days, I was briefly at a loss.  The fifth floor sounded likely, so I wandered in the direction I thought looked right and found the "do not disturb" sign I had put out before leaving.  After waking Rupa from her nap we joined the group for our afternoon visit to Reed Flute Cave.  Upon arrival we labored up the entry steps and were halted a bit short of the entrance as we waited thirty minutes for some limo-riding dignitaries to finish their private tour.  Once inside the cave we walked a half mile through a large and winding tunnel illuminated now and again by brightly colored fluorescent lights.  Near the end we came to the highlight - a still pool of water lit up to perfectly reflect the jagged ceiling.

    We had a fabulous group dinner tonight at the Zhengyang Souper Restaurant.  We ordered a dozen or so dishes and our favorites were the Sichuan beef and eggplant casserole.  We finished dinner just in time to catch the nearby Li Jiang Waterfall Hotel's nightly show.  For ten minutes each night, like something you might see in Vegas, the 15-story hotel opens its roof-mounted floodgates to unleash a 200ft wide wall of water which cascades down the steeply raked exterior.  The show is impressive and can't be beat for the price of admission - free. 

    We headed home after the waterfall show with Liz, Chris, Vivian and George.  We wanted to walk along the waterfront but had trouble crossing the 4 lanes of traffic to get there.  George bailed us out again - this time by grabbing his white handkerchief and rapidly waving it at the traffic (as if surrendering) while we crossed behind him.  My guess is that the traffic stopped more out of amusement than for any fear of hitting us.

    Hotel Universal, Guilin

  16. Ping-An and Guilin - october 30

    Today's tour event was a visit to the Zhuang village of Ping-An (near Longsheng) two hours outside Guilin.  After leaving Guilin we wound our way up and over a mountain pass.  The weather had saddled us with haze yet again, and although it dimmed our view a bit we were still often able to make out eight or more nested ridgelines as they cascaded into the haze.  At lower elevation the mountains were covered in bamboo forests, but as we gained altitude the bamboo gave way to a mixture of pines and deciduous trees.  As we came near Ping-An we transferred to a smaller, more agile bus for the final climb to the mountain top village.  This climb reminded me of Machu Pichu where busses also snake their way to the top.

    The village of Ping-An is known for its terraced rice paddies set high in the mountains.  Terraces are scattered everywhere at lower elevations, but there is something special in seeing the paddies cascade up and over the mountains.  These terraces run continuously along numerous ridgelines and, as with most wonders in China, have been given a descriptive name - the Dragon's Backbone.  The village itself winds its way up the mountain (much like Mont St. Michele in France), and upon arrival Rupa and I worked our way up to a prominent viewpoint.  The path was well marked with regular stone steps leading top the top, but even without this the path was quite obvious if you just followed the line of tourist cafes, shops, and photo-ops with traditionally dressed locals.  We were short on time so we didn't stray far from the path, but if we'd had a night or two in Ping-An we would have explored some of the smaller pathways leading off into narrow alleys and presumably lined with homes, stables, and workshops.  We wound our way up to the viewpoint where we met a friendly Chinese wedding photographer from San Francisco.  He was on his fifth photo trip to China and had hoped to catch Ping-An in autumn bloom, but the warm weather foiled his plan.  We chatted for bit and then wound our way back through the village, eventually catching the small bus back to our big one.

    At the base of the mountain Kip paid some local Yao women to let their hair down for photos.  The women in the area cut their hair once at age eighteen and let it grow out the rest of their life.  They keep this initial lock of hair (which can be about 4ft long) and use it later to add volume when they wind their hair into a bun.

    Back in Guilin the afternoon was ours, and we decided to walk the mile over to Seven Star Park.  We arrived about an hour before sunset and headed toward the zoo.  The zoo was small and the cages were old, but we were able to see a Panda eating carrots and a tiger posing for photos (some brave girls even "sat" on its back).  We also stopped by the duck pond for a look at beautiful Chinese Mandarin ducks as well as greater flamingos.  We then finished up at a short-tailed monkey exhibit, where a young monkey was playing a game of "grab the tail" with an older one.  The older monkey would have none of it, but the young one was persistent and this led to some entertaining encounters between the two.

    For dinner we ended up at the same restaurant as the night before (this has become a theme with us).  We began with a nice Osmanthus tea and ended up ordering the Sichuan beef and eggplant casserole (this time we wouldn't have to share :)  Before dinner we had been approached by a friendly young man with an art gallery, so we spent ten minutes after dinner walking the gallery before heading home.  We knew we weren't going to buy anything but we couldn't decide which was worse: Not even looking at the gallery or checking it out and exiting empty handed.  We settled on the later but probably should have saved everyone some time and gone with the former.

    Hotel Universal, Guilin

  17. Guilin to Yangshuo - october 31

    We had a unique travel day today as we cruised the Li River for four hours between Guilin to Yangshuo.  The Li River winds itself through hundreds of karst mountain tops along the way, and despite another day of haze we had some great views.  The water was low and the river channel was narrow, but none of the two dozen boats making the daily trip had any navigational problems.  The shoreline was littered with thousands of ducks and numerous water buffalo, which are still used for plowing the small fields.  Interestingly enough, some of the water buffalo were shoulder deep in water and snorkeling for seaweed!

    We disembarked in Yangshuo and were greeted by men posing for pictures dressed in cormorant fishermen outfits.  Traditional cormorant fishermen wear a kind of bamboo "raincoat" and employ a pair of well-trained cormorants to do their fishing for them.  I doubted that many of the men posing knew how to perform the fishing, but before I leave town I hoped to get some photos.

    Once checked into our hotel Rupa and I dropped off laundry, grabbed a New Zealand Natural ice cream (Hokey Pokey flavor for me) and headed down "tourist street" to catch some lunch.  We found a decent bite to eat at the Green Lotus Cafe and then continued our walk out along the river and north of town.  On our way back into town we happened to pass by an elementary school just as classes were letting out.  Six hundred yellow ball cap wearing kids streamed out of the schoolyard and into the street.  As they passed a random few would say "hello" and smile at us, but a couple young boys played fake guns with me - until I sent them giggling with a boisterous "knee how" (Chinese for "hello" - it was all I knew).  Also, much like in the states, dozens of parents were waiting outside the school to give their kids a lift home.  But unlike the states, the parents had shown up in a whole host of vehicles including bikes, cargo trikes (bicycles welded to a small cargo box either in back or to the side), scooters and motorbikes.

    For the evening we joined most of the group for Yangshuo's famous Impressions water show.  Directed by Zhang Yimou (Raid the Red Lantern, Hero, 2008 Olympic opening ceremony), six hundred local fishermen, dancers, and singers stage a grand performance amid unique lighting effects.  If you go, though, take your binoculars or rent some at the gate for less than $1 - the show is spectacular from a distance due to its scale, but eyeing individual performers requires optics.

    Paradise Resort, Yangshuo

  18. Yangshuo - november 1

    A late start today as we donned cycling helmets and biked out to nearby Moon Hill - a large limestone hill with a curiously shaped round hole carved out of the middle.  Most of the group chose standard single geared bikes, but I grabbed a geared bike with a suspension - the road was level and not too rough but the suspension made for a more pleasant ride.  Not ten minutes on the bike and we had left the paved streets and chaotic traffic of Yangshuo behind in favor of hard-packed dirt roads and the occasional open-engine tractor.  We were clearly on a popular bike route though - every few hundred yards a villager was peddling water and snacks from a roadside shack.  The scenery was similar to that of the Li River cruise from the day before - just more intimate and less hazy.  In fact, other than our day on the Great Wall, we probably had our best weather yet.  We peddled by dozens of towering limestone peaks and hundreds of small rice fields, many of which were being hand harvested.  We also passed a number of small villages and eventually stopped for lunch at a cafe with an unobstructed view of Moon Hill.  Our waitress got a kick out of George's "no spicy" request and teased him every time a new dish came out.  After lunch we hopped back on our bikes for the short peddle back to Yangshuo, completing what we think was about a ten mile circuit.

    This afternoon we rested a bit (I'd been nursing a sore throat for a couple days) and later joined others from our group for dinner at the Cloud 9 restaurant.  George, Vivian, Chris and Liz had eaten there the night before so the waitress already knew our peculiarities (no spicy for George and rice with the meal).  We also had our most exotic dish to date - delicious fresh water snails stuffed with pork and mint.  We picked up laundry after dinner, grabbed boxed Magnum bars (the best flavor) with George and Vivian, and headed back to the room to pack up for the next day's flight.

    Paradise Resort, Yangshuo

  19. Yangshuo and Kunming - november 2

    Rupa and I split up this morning - she participated in a Tai Chi introductory class with the group while I ventured off on a 2½ hour bike ride.  I peddled east along a major roadway for about an hour before coming across a small village.  Near the far edge of town I turned down a promising looking local road and soon found myself caught up in the blur of daily rural life.  Rice paddies and corn fields spread in all directions as bikes, trikes, scooters, tractors and pedestrians lined the two lane road as locals made their way to and from town, either hauling goods to sell or returning with goods bought.  The road was far to busy to stop for photos and was elevated a yard or so above the rice paddies, but before long I came across a small rural pathway and turned in.  The pathway ran level with the paddies and was just wide enough for a tractor to navigate.  I moved a few hundred yards down the path and left my bike to take some photos.  Every few minutes a local would pass by, shoot me an inquisitive look, and bust out with a hearty "hello", to which I faithfully responded.  I stayed about an hour and then sped back to the hotel for a shower and a snack.

    Rupa to write about tai chi here.

    We spent the rest of the day traveling - first by bus back to Yangshuo (1½ hours) and then by plane to Dali (2 hours).  Once on the ground we met our local guides - Tony and Wendy - who would remain with us until the end of the tour.  After checking into our hotel we went out for a group dinner at a local restaurant (no English) just around the corner from the hotel.  We tried to order the local specialty - over the bridge noodles - but they had been quite popular and were gone for the day.  Instead, Tony helped us order a small feast for a mere $2.50 each.  We had an early morning flight the next day so we called it a night.

    Golden Dragon Hotel, Kunming

  20. Dali - november 3

    We started off early this morning for our flight to Dali.  In a rare turn of events Rupa and I were the first ones on the bus and were only just settling in when Chris boarded, looked up to find a seat, and quipped that Rupa was already asleep in the back!  After 20 days together Rupa had become renowned for her ability to sleep through anything.

    Our one hour flight was uneventful and upon arrival in Dali we transferred to our hotel for a late breakfast.  Along the way we found ourselves on a recently expanded eight lane divided road.  The roadbed was finished but the curbs, sidewalks, retaining walls and landscaping was still being completed and hundreds of shovel and pick wielding workers were spread along the ten mile roadway.  Also visible were a fair number of cleanly amputated buildings and walls abutting the left side of road.  The expansion had clearly occurred in this direction, but rather than sacrifice entire structures only the offending sections were destroyed.

    Our hotel was rather classy, featuring a large six story atrium, well appointed rooms and friendly bell staff donning bright purple outfits.  Breakfast was also a treat.  For the first time I opted for the rice congee - a traditional Chinese breakfast goop similar to oatmeal.  It came unsweetened, but with a little sugar it was quite edible.  We also went for the local rice noodles in broth with spicy pork, pickled veggies, scallions, and a leafy spinach-like green.  It reminded us both of Pho and was just as delicious.  Near the end of breakfast Tamara came back to the table with ginseng and asked if it was good for anything.  Rupa mentioned memory, but Wendy thought it might be an aphrodisiac and suggested that she and Gordon would let us know in the morning!

    After breakfast we started our touring by visiting a local market.  Except for a few soliciting ladies that wouldn't leave our group alone the market was a pretty authentic experience.  We strolled among spice vendors, vegetable stalls, toy shops, and a meat and fish market.  A number of women we dressed in their traditional garb, and especially well-represented were the Bai women with their white outfits.  We finished our visit by stopping in at an abandoned Chinese mansion dating from the first half of the twentieth century.  The two story structure wrapped around two large courtyards and supposedly housed an extended family of a hundred or so in relative comfort.  As we left the house an adorable little two year old toddled over to "pitch" a copy of Mao's Little Red Book (communist propaganda from the fifties).

    Our next stop was the Three Pagodas.  The Pagodas are impressive to look at, but even more impressive when you consider that the largest one tops 200 feet and was built almost 1200 years ago.  To help it withstand the area's infrequent earthquakes the large Pagoda has recently been filled in.  On the way back to the bus we struck up a conversation with our guide Wendy and found out that she chose "Wendy" as her English name after watching Peter Pan.

    We then headed to old town Dali for lunch.  Old town is a fun mix of open air restaurants, bars and unique shops lining a series of interesting pedestrian streets.  We settled on a cafe with an extensive menu of both Western and Chinese dishes and decided to abandon the Chinese for a meal and order pizzas.  Rupa grabbed a veggie and I grabbed "The Hot One" (which was nice, but only mildly hot).  It was a lovely afternoon so we chose to eat outdoors.  This opened us up to the occasional solicitor, but generally a few hand waves was enough to send them on their way.

    Our final tour stop of the day was Zhonghe Temple set near the top of Zhonghe Mountain.  We took the twenty minute chair lift up and by the time we got to the top the sun was setting behind the mountain and the air was quite chilly.  We spent some time exploring the temple and took in the expansive view of Dali and the 15sq mile Erhai Hu ("ear-shaped lake") below.  After returning to the hotel we grabbed a shuttle back to old town and had a pleasant meal at Marley's Cafe, capping a long but enjoyable day.

    Asia Star Hotel, Dali

  21. Dali to Lijiang - november 4

    Our first stop of the day was a family owned batik shop.  Batik is a type of dyed clothing in which patterns are formed by selectively dying the fabric (most commonly white cloth dyed dark blue).  Most Batik is made using wax to seal off the white segments of the pattern, but this family was using a more intricate method of tying off the white segments into tight knots.  Each family member was responsible for a different step of the process, and the tying of the knots was performed by the aging but agile grandmother.  The shop had a nice selection and we looked around a bit but left empty handed.

    After the Batik shop we left Dali and headed off for Lijiang.  Our second photo stop en route was a small village that clearly didn't appear on many travel itineraries (as evidenced by the gaze of the villagers and lack of any souvenir stalls).  It was a Saturday so the kids were out of school and a few of them amassed at the village entrance to check us out.  We took some photos of them as they stared back at us, so to break the ice I let one of them hold my five pound camera.  I then showed him how to look through the eye piece while I held down the shutter.  He was clearly excited and quickly convinced his friends to take a peak as well.

    We rolled into Lijiang around lunch time and headed off for a group meal at a restaurant in Old Town named Sakura.  Rupa and I ate with George and Vivian and were finally able to get our over the bridge noodles, which ended up being a chicken soup made with delicious rice noodles.  The highlight of the meal, however, was our energetic Chinese waitress, Tinika.  She spoke wonderful English with an adorable accent and had an infectious laugh.  She did everything she could to make our meal perfect (like rewashing our beer glasses) and stayed to chat with us while we ate.

    After lunch our local guides took us on a short walk around Old Town.  Old Town is a rambling array of narrow cobblestone alleys lined with historic-looking two story buildings that house tourist shops and restaurants.  During the tour I was presented with another opportunity to pose for photos with a group of Asian tourists.  They each took turns, and when the last woman stepped up a man from the group put my arm around her shoulder to appear as if we were long time friends.  As we continued around town I found a few photo ops of my own, and once our short tour was over Rupa and I spent a few hours perusing on our own.

    For dinner we went back to Sakura with most of the group and had another decent meal.  Tinika wasn't around to entertain us, but plenty of other traditionally clad young women were.  It turned out that this particular stretch of Old Town was packed with a dozen or so restaurants.  To lure customers each restaurant employed a small entourage of teenage girls to dress up and sing and dance.  The spectacle of all these troupes singing across the street to each other was entertaining at first but soon dissolved into chaos as the singing turned to screaming in an effort to out project their neighbors.  After finishing our meal we walked slowly back to the hotel, checking for Magnums along the way.  We came up empty handed but continued our pursuit around the block where we hit pay dirt and concluded our evening.

    Grand Lijiang Hotel, Lijiang

  22. Lijiang - november 5

    We left Lijiang this morning to visit the surrounding area, starting in a little village just outside the city where the Austrian-American researcher Dr. Joseph Rock lived in the two decades before the 1949 revolution.  Upon arrival in the village a pink-clad two year old ran out to greet us with a vigorous series of waves and a stream of "hellos".  Tony quipped that perhaps we had met our local guide :)  We spent some time perusing the artifacts and pictures stashed in Dr. Rock's house, but the highlight here was our walk around the village and the small glimpse of daily life we were able to take in.

    Also in the morning we stopped by a small lamasery named Yufeng Monastery.  After passing through a long line of mostly vacant tourist stalls we toured the lamasery and its star attraction - a 500 year old camellia tree that spawns 4000 large blossoms each spring.  The tree was obviously not in bloom but we were able to meet Nadu - an 88 year old lama whose primary responsibility for the past 50 years has been to care for the tree (even secretly watering it during the Cultural Revolution).  At the time we met him his primary concern was finding someone to care for the tree once he passes on.

    Our final stop outside Lijiang was Baisha - a town whose name means "we kill Lisu".  The Lisu were another tribe in the area many years ago and had been run out by the Baishans.  Interestingly enough we had spent the night in an active Lisu village during our Thailand tour a month earlier.  Today Baisha is known for two things - its 600 hundred year old frescos and Dr. Ho.  The frescos themselves were in pretty poor shape - the effect of both time and the Cultural Revolution - and generally weren't worth the visit.  Dr. Ho, however, was an interesting character that may be worth visiting if you are passing through or are deathly ill and spurn western medicine.  Although fully trained in western medicine, 83 year old Dr. Ho has made his name in practicing traditional Naxi herbal medicine as a social doctor.  Instead of charging for his service he asks each patient to pay what he can afford or what he feels is appropriate - presumably if he saves your life you pay a little more than if he plucks a splinter.

    Our final stop of the day was back in Lijiang as we hiked up to Lion Hill Park for some lovely 360° views of the city.  After the hike Rupa and I hooked up with Tamara, Gordon, Wendy and Gerrie for snacks at a cafe overlooking Old Town.  We spent about an hour there before heading off for dinner.  Tamara had raved about the apple pie at Sakura, so Rupa and I headed over there with Gerrie and Wendy (Gordon wasn't feeling well and headed back to the hotel).  The apple pie was indeed delicious, but the best part of the meal was the hour we spent chatting with Tinika, who wasn't our waitress but sat down with us while we ate.  We asked her all sorts of questions about commerce and politics in China and then each spent time fielding questions about our own countries.  We also found out the she had learned English on her own in middle school and high school so that she could attend university, where she studied business management.  She would eventually like to become a tour guide or English teacher, and was working in Lijiang to practice her conversational English and learn about other areas of the world.  She also had no plans to rush into marriage, figuring that she will eventually meet the right man at the right time.  The four of us left the restaurant having little doubt the she would succeed in whatever path she chose.

    Grand Lijiang Hotel, Lijiang

  23. Lijiang to Zhongdian - november 6

    We transferred to Zhongdian by bus today, making two major stops along the way.  Our first stop was the first bend of the Yangtze River, about an hour's drive outside Lijiang.  Here the river takes a sharp 180° bend as it winds between mountain ranges.  There wasn't much to see, so ten minutes later we were already heading to our second stop, the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Billed as the deepest gorge in the world at 12,000 feet you might expect to find something almost surreal at Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Instead you hike a 1½ mile cliff side path that terminates in nothing more than attractive rapids set among steeply sloped hills.  Wherever the elusive 12,000-foot peak stood it was certainly nowhere in sight.

    We grabbed a small lunch of fresh vegetables (cooked) at a roadside cafe and headed up a Yangtze tributary to the Zhongdian plateau.  Terraced fields and hillside villages soon gave way to clouds and snowy headwinds as we worked our way over a mountain pass.  Once over the pass the weather remained cool as the plateau presented a vastly different landscape - large ranches carpeted the plains and autumn colored pines and bushes cloaked the hillsides.  A short time later we rolled into Zhongdian and checked into our lovely hotel.  Our room was quite chilly (50°F) so I cranked up the thermostat, Rupa downed a spot of hot tea, and we headed over to the bar room for a fireside dinner of Tibetan tomato soup and fried rice with yak meat.

    Gyalthang Dzong Hotel, Zhongdian

  24. Zhongdian (Shangri-La)- november 7

    Rupa woke up sick to her stomach, but the miracle of modern medicine had her up and running in time to catch the morning's activities.  The air was quite cold - maybe 40°F - but it was quite rewarding to bundle up in our warmest clothes - after all we had been schlepping them around Thailand and China for forty days now.  Out on the street it didn't take long to see that Zhongdian was quickly booking a tourist destination - "Old Town" was still under intense construction as traditional style buildings were going up on every block.  We wandered the newly laid cobblestone streets a bit before climbing a small hill to help turn one of the largest prayer wheels in the world (three times around for good luck).

    Before lunch we also drove out to Sumtseling Monastery, a 300-year-old monastery complex inhabited by several hundred monks.  We were lucky enough to visit during an open-door prayer session and were allowed to pause inside and listen to the head monks, seated along the center aisle and dressed in elaborate outfits, say prayers while the younger monks, seated in the outer aisles, whiled away the time.

    Having had a poor night's sleep Rupa elected to skip lunch and remained at the hotel while the rest of us visited a local family for a homemade lunch featuring yak cheese.  Our large tour bus garnered stares as we rambled into a nearby village and pulled up to a typical Tibetan home.  We entered through the enclosed courtyard and continued up the stairs to the main living quarters, arrayed as one large common room and a small bedroom off to the side.  In one corner sat the cooking area - a raised platform supporting a black metal oven and a large copper water jug.  The family served us a lunch that consisted of yak cheese with sugar, yak cheese tea with barley, buckwheat pancake and fried dough.  The pancake and dough were uneventful and I wasn't fond of the sour tasting cheese, but I was able to down some tea after adding four heaping spoons of barley.  After lunch we walked around the village a bit and then headed back to the hotel.

    Back at the hotel the power had gone out so Rupa and I bundled up under the covers as we waited for dinner.  Rupa was feeling good again for dinner and we joined the group for a Tibetan hotpot - a fondue-like dinner heated by a charcoal pot.  The broth itself was quite spicy and to my liking but it caused George quite the headache.  Three times the restaurant attempted a non-spicy version but none would work for George, who settled on steamed rice for dinner.  By the time we were back at the hotel the power had been restored and we settled in for a comfortable night.

    Gyalthang Dzong Hotel, Zhongdian

  25. Kunming - november 8

    We fly to Kunming early in the morning and arrived in time to do some sightseeing.  Before lunch we stopped by a museum dedicated to Yunan's ethnic minorities where the highlight was the collection of traditional outfits.  For lunch we bussed over to Green Lake and found a nearby restaurant serving both Chinese and western dishes.  The English menu appeared well translated but a few of us were still surprised when the dished arrived.  Rupa's egg rolls turned out to be an egg omelet, Tamara's fried shrimp came out as shrimp flavored crackers, and my ice cream shake arrived as three tiny scoops on a plate.  It turned out ok though, as Rupa shared her omelet with Tamara and I chased my lunch with a pair of Magnum bars.

    After lunch we strolled around Green Lake watching local musicians play for gathering crowds.  Our final tour stop was Kunming's bird and flower market.  The market was short on both birds and flowers, and other than a Chinese embroidery shop with some beautiful pieces the market was a disappointment.  For our farewell dinner we dined at an upscale Chinese restaurant.  We said our goodbyes after dinner and grabbed taxis back to the hotel.  Kip, Sara, Rupa and I hung out in the hotel bar for a drink or two before calling it a night.

    Golden Dragon Hotel, Kunming

  26. Chengdu - november 9

    Rupa woke up sick again this morning and felt bad enough to query Travel Guard about our return policy.  Fortunately, a few heaves later and she was feeling better - our best guess was that the water in Zhongdian just didn't agree with her (even when boiled).  We finished packing up and flew to Chengdu with Wendy and Gordon who were also extending their trip.

    In Chengdu we were met by our local guide Helen who took us to a beautiful park honoring the famous Chinese poet Dofu, who lived in this area over twelve hundred years ago.  The park is a major site for domestic travelers, but as we were traveling in the off season the grounds were nearly vacant and consequently quite peaceful.  From the park we drove through Chengdu to our downtown area hotel, at one point passing a group of twenty or so uniformed restaurant employees being led in afternoon exercises.

    We checked into our charming hotel and were just ready to find some dinner when we received a follow-up phone call from Travel Guard.  Rupa confirmed that she was feeling better and we went out in search of food.  The weather outside was a bit surreal - the perfect combination of temperature and humidity where you can't feel the air against your skin.  I was hoping to find a nice Sichuan beef or fish flavored eggplant but instead we happened upon a Bread Talk and elected to eat lite.  Rupa grabbed a mini-pizza and a cheese stick and I chose the "Fire Floss" and a bacon-cheese roll - everything was stunningly delicious and we lamented the lack of a Bread Talk in Seattle.  On the way back we stopped by a McDonald's to end my twelve day fried pie drought.

    Yinhe Dynasty Hotel, Chengdu

  27. Chengdu - november 10

    This morning's excursion was one of the trip highlights - a visit to Chengdu's Panda Base.  The Panda Base is the world's premier breeding center for the Giant Panda and cares for around 45 of the endangered animals.  We arrived at 8am and were nearly the first ones through the gate.  All morning long the base was virtually devoid of tourists allowing us ample opportunity to see the pandas.  In total we saw ten or twelve Giant Pandas eating, sleeping and playing - which is pretty much all they do.  We also watched three young cubs roll around a large crib, still unable to walk.  Later in the morning we visited the Lesser, or Red, Pandas.  These endangered pandas are much smaller than the Giant Pandas and look a like a cross between a raccoon and a fox.  However they are curious by nature and prowl around much like a cat.

    After the Panda Base, Helen took us to a large traditional Chinese medicine market where she showed us various remedies such as furry deer antlers, costly caterpillar fungus ($3000/pound) and a four foot bag of cicada shells.  Our last tour stop in Chengdu was People's Park - a typical Chinese city park with excellent tea houses.  We had just enough time for lunch before flying to Chongqing so Helen took us to a nice restaurant and helped us order our favorite dishes - Sichuan beef and fish flavored eggplant with chili sauce.

    Our flight to Chongqing was short and uneventful, but disembarking was a bit confusing.  Throughout China we had been exiting the plane and riding a shuttle bus to the terminal.  The bus at Chongqing was more of coach than a shuttle and we weren't certain what to do.  Strangely enough it also appeared that everyone was waiting around to collect their checked luggage right there on the tarmac.  Fortunately, another English speaking westerner was familiar with the situation - the coach was a business shuttle and would stop first at the terminal and second in downtown Chongqing.  We could only assume that we were being met at the terminal, so we hauled our luggage into the aisle of the coach for the short ride to the terminal.  We indeed meet our guide, Clarice, at the terminal and made off for some abbreviated Chongqing sightseeing.

    Chongqing was immediately different than the other Chinese city we had visited in that it was completely devoid of bikes and trikes.  It turns out that Chongqing is spread out among a number of steep hills and pedal power is not really an option.  Instead the city has an impressive public bus system and will soon have a subway as well.

    Our only tour stop in Chongqing was Eling Park - a typical Chinese park set on the top of a commanding hill.  We stopped by a Three Gorges "museum" where a 100ft long mural of the Yangtze River covered the walls.  A tour guide walked us along the mural pointing out the impact of the dam on local populations as well as the sights we would see during our cruise.  It was a nice departure briefing and made the cruise more meaningful

    Clarice (who chose her English name based on Jodi Foster's character from as Silence of the Lambs) offered us the option of having authentic Chongqing hotpot (spicy fondue) for dinner rather than eating on board the ship.  We took her up on the offer and were set up with a dual pot - half spicy/half not - but focused mostly on the spicy pot.  We also must have looked a bit helpless at first, as our waitress spent much of her time helping us cook our food.  Dinner was a bit expensive at 100Y each, but everything was quite delicious, including the stomach meat.

    Our cruise ship was quite large at 200 passengers and bit run down - nowhere near the quality of our previous cruises in Egypt and the Galapagos.  The ship was adequate though, and a spacious cabin was a nice surprise.  Once on board we were given a quick tour of the ship, which was more cabin up sell than tour.  Back in our cabin we were feeling a bit knackered after such a long day and called it a night.

    President Cruises #6, Yangtze River

  28. Yangtze River (Ghost City) - november 11

    At breakfast we quickly noticed that 2/3 of the passengers were domestic tourists and wouldn't be much company.  We figured we would just keep to ourselves, but then we met Peter on our first shore excursion and had ourselves a great travel companion.  Peter was a Kiwi who worked in aviation photography, had traveled a fair bit around China and had even been to Seattle a number of times (for Boeing).  We had plenty to talk about and spent the next couple days eating meals and sharing time with him.

    Our afore-mentioned first shore excursion was a visit to Ghost City - a series of temples ascending a river side mountain.  We climbed the 400 steps to the top with Peter and had a quick look around - the only interesting bit being a series of statues depicting gruesome torture techniques - scenes of hell I suppose.  Back on the boat we had a rather decent Chinese lunch and spent the afternoon watching the passing scenery from our cabin - the "sundeck" was a tad windy and a bit too cool for comfortable viewing.  As the hills, farms, cities and coal mounds slipped by it was difficult not to consider the current and future imact of the rising water level.  Large billboards every few miles warn of the impending shoreline, but even without such blatant clues the recently built cities, massive new bridges and ongoing construction were a constant reminder.  Perhaps the most interesting scene of the day was the construction around the 300 year old Stone Treasure Stockade temple.  The fully filled lake will rise above its base and separate the temple from the mainland.  To protect the temple a retaining wall is being built around the soon-to-be-island and a tall bridge will connect it to the mainland.

    Dinner was nothing special today and we spent the evening in our room catching up on travel logs and reading magazines.

    President Cruises #6, Yangtze River

  29. Yangtze River (Qutang & Wu Gorges) - november 12

    Today was the scenic portion of our river cruise as we passed through the first two gorges and journeyed up a large tributary.  We passed through Qutang Gorge just after brekky (Kiwi slang for breakfast), but the weather had turned a bit foggy and it was difficult to see beyond the next bend in the river.  The scenery was lovely but, like Tiger Leaping Gorge, was not as dramatic as I had hoped for.  Later in the morning we passed through Wu Gorge which was a bit more impressive with taller peaks and a few cliff walls.  I have to imagine that these gorges were much more impressive a few years ago when the river was lower and narrower.

    Our excursion for the day was a boat ride up Shengong Stream - a larger tributary than the name implies, perhaps due to the rising water level.  Our cruise ship couldn't make the journey so we transferred to a smaller ferry boat for the upstream ride.  The "stream" was much narrower than the Yangtze which, combined with clearing weather conditions, made for scenic cruise.  Along the way we passed small (relocated) towns, bamboo forests, a troop of monkeys and wooden coffins suspended high among the cliff faces.

    About an hour into the cruise we transferred to large canoe-like boats propelled by local boat trackers.  The boat trackers started out using oars, but as the water became shallow and rocky they hopped out and began pulling the boat from shore using handmade bamboo ropes.  For the downstream ride they attached a long oar/rudder to the front of the boat and allowed the current to carry us through the rapids.  Apparently our trackers were more efficient than those in the boat ahead of us, and when the gap closed our trackers jumped out to slow the boat by bracing their legs against the rocky bottom.  Although the boat trackers have now become a tourist stop unto themselves, their skills are rooted in tradition and were a delight to witness.

    After dinner Peter and I checked out the passenger talent show hoping to see some Chinese karaoke, but apparently there wasn't much interest and instead the staff demonstrated traditional dances and songs and performed some simple magic.  Back in the cabin Rupa and I spent the balance of the evening packing.

    President Cruises #6, Yangtze River

  30. Yichang, Wuhan & Shanghai - november 13

    Our final day in China began with a visit to the Three Gorges Dam.  We'd been seeing the impact of the Dam all along the River and were excited to see it in action (half of the generators are already operating).  At full capacity the Dam can hold back 360ft of water and generate power equivalent to about 18 nuclear power plants.  We were hoping for a tour or perhaps a walk along the rim, but instead our visit was limited to two nearby observation points.  Even from a distance the Dam is impressive in both height and width, but it lacks the dramatic impact of a canyon spanning dam such as Hoover Dam.

    The Dam's passenger ship locks were closed to traffic, so our cruise operator bussed us downstream to Yichang for lunch and our subsequent departure.  In addition, the airlines had moved to a winter schedule in early November and most of the flights out of Yichang had been cancelled.  Consequently, our local guide and driver were needed to transfer us four hours to the city of Wuhan so we could catch a flight to Shanghai.  Our driver seemed a bit sleepy en route - veering onto the shoulder and abruptly correcting - and I was entirely relived to make it to Wuhan safely.

    Our flight to Shanghai was uneventful and typified our domestic flight experiences throughout China - new planes (generally 737s) flown by cheeky pilots who taxied at 40mph, gunned the throttle on take off, and landed the plane at near cruising speed.  It wouldn't surprise me if the airports began installing arresting cables.

    Ramada Pudong Airport, Shanghai

  31. Over the Pacific Ocean- november 14

    We left our hotel airport bright and early for the long haul home - two hours to Tokyo, two hours in the airport and nine hours to Seattle.  Our baggage arrived unscathed and Malinda picked us up at the airport.  We spent the rest of the day catching up on both email and snail mail.

    At home in Seattle

Travel Tips

  1. The entrance fees for Travel Indochina's China Encompassed tour were $245 per person, due at the start of the trip.
  2. If you want rice with your meal learn how to order it in Chinese.  Otherwise it will arrive at the end of the meal as filler.
  3. Order fish flavored eggplant often - every meal if possible. It's consistently one of the best dishes throughout China.
  4. Internal flights are very efficient.  It is generally sufficient to arrive 1-1½ hours before departure as checkin is swift and security is non-event (no need to remove shoes, jackets, or separate laptops).  Flights often leave a few minutes early (once fully loaded) and baggage often beats you to the terminal.

Souvenir List

  1. Oolong tea
  2. Cloisonné vase
  3. Cloisonné fish pendants
  4. Large painting of bamboo (4ft x 8ft)
  5. Green tea
  6. Nephrite Buddha pendant
  7. Red pattern cotton sarong
  8. Book - Lost Horizon
  9. Book - Searching for Shangri-La
  10. Small Giant Panda stuffed animal
  11. Giant Panda magnet
  12. Sixteen containers of Yichang Green Tea!