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Beijing for Starters

Sandals and Bicycles

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20th-22nd July

Oppressingly hot

My sandal breaks down on exiting the station at Dongzhi men.
No sandals of my size were available in the nearby department stores, so I bought a one euro pair of plastic flip-flops. My heels exceeded the tongs, but at least I would not be barefoot. However an hour later while walking in a hutong, an alert shoe repairer hails us in the hutongs as she saw a broken sandal dangling from my bagpack, where Xiaolou had attached it, and she repaired it very well pulling new threads forcefully through the straps and sole.

Hungry, we entered a smoky, small restaurants with a rather low sanitary level in spite of their numerous licenses, but we were served a rice dish with unknown, delicious flavors.

On our way out we noticed a bicycle shop with bicycles sprawling all over on the sidewalk : we hesitated but we managed to resist...only until the late evening of the next day after having toiled 2 days with our bags and having had a hard time to find the shop back. Hot and tired on our way to a hostel, we found repose in a narrow park strip, where we discovered an authentic teahouse of bygone days. Curious as we were, we entered it, although no one was visible. As soon as we were in, our first Chinese God given exquisite encounter came to welcome us: Lily. Lily was a beautiful girl with very gentle traits and manner, and after showing us the various beautiful objects that were exposed, she was eager to have us seated and offered us tea. Xiaolou managed to fall asleep in his chair while Lily and I conversed. When we left her and the teahouse, we were still amazed at the simple pleasantness with no strings attached she had offered us, and we had now gathered strength for the last mile(s?) to the hostel.

Double payment as ' guarantee', lots of paperwork, no English, smiley, though little helpful faces, unaccepted international credit cards and malfunctioning Google related software, among which Android, etc. awaited us at our youth hostel, called Little Mao in English (and something very different in Chinese) near Jingshan Park. The staff immediately falls in love with Xiaolou and let him know.
On our way to Jingshan park, we tasted the hitherto unknown bamboo of the mountain (shanzhu) which we decided to love for its delicate juicy lychee type of inner part in spite of its very bitter totally inedible parts before reaching the edible part.

You pay to get into most public parks and so it is with Jingshan Park, but we got plenty for our money: water brush writing, singing, dancing, badminton, foot badminton, playing cards,, views over the Forbidden city, and Chinese crowds more than you want.

On our way to meeting my colleague, near Ritan park, we found ourselves all of a sudden in Russia, with everything in Russian around including Russian fur coats on sale in this sweltering temperatures. My colleague showed us kindly around and XiaoLou learned to use the chopsticks for the first time, realizing that he would have sooner or later, so why not now.

In our desperate search for thirst quenching drinks, we found the slightly sweet and sour refreshing lactic drinks and both got addicted to it for the rest of our journey.

Soon we got to observe plenty of male bellies: when it is hot many lift their shirt up and let their bellies see the world (and vice versa)
As we were giving marks to the modern buildings we were seeing around us, we now started to give also marks to the bellies. They come in all forms and shapes, although, we have to admit, Chinese bellies seem less diversified than for example Western ones.

While walking on the avenues, the omnipresent red slogan banners struck our eyes. Of course, you would say, since they are omnipresent, big, red and in prominent places. But in reality they don’t seem to strike any Chinese eyes. When asked about them, the Chinese hadn’t seen them, or certainly hadn’t read them. Chinese have been accustomed to their presence for all their lifes, so these banners have just become part of the walls, whatever is written on them. I tried to decipher them diligently though, as a reading exercise to train my rather slow reading ability of Chinese characters. Most were patriotic in Beijing, but they vary from time to time according to the political message that the local, or provincial or national government, from which they emanate, want to pass. Their only common feature is that nobody reads them, except for the odd foreigner.

Chinese parks, such as Tiantan park (Temple of heaven), are really top of the shelve : on the background of beautiful settings and historic buildings (that somehow always close just before we arrive in spite of our tickets) , we also played Xiangqi (Chinese chess) - we brought our own travel set - and attracted spectators and players. Against a Chinese boy his age, XiaoLou even won.
Karaoke is as popular as ever, vibrant and loud.

On the long bridge leading to the Temple of heaven complex of buildings, we play the Emperor walking down the aisle towards the temple to perform the rituals, and as everyone knows the Emperor thought he was the best dressed but was in fact naked.
Shortly after we have the opportunity to play foot badminton for a while, with a group proficient at it, and receive the foot badminton as a souvenir. P1020449.jpg
By the time the night had taken over, we stumbled upon a Chinese cymbalon and flute playing together, surrounded by a music lovers public, under the ancient gate. XiaoLou tries his best at it, and is wildly applauded, We sing to thank them and discover then high in the night sky the magnificent lit kites. As with the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow we went and searched for the origin. After quite a while in the dark, we finally found the kite flyer who didn't just hold the thread to the kite, but carried a whole metal reel and used a tree to help him hold the rope. We helped him pulling down the kite and the 300m long rope decorated with lighting strips.

After this elating flying experience we decided to buy the bicycle we had seen, but needed to find back the shop and hoped to find it still open at 10h30 pm. And we did. We now had our little (children) bicycle, which we planned to ride: dad sitting and son standing behind, enjoying the gushing air rather than the paralyzing heat. As usual, credit cards did not work, and I was gently shown to an ATM, which did work. We were now ready to dash off with our brandnew bicycle to the Great Wall.

During this journey I started calling my son slightly sarcastically Zepyr-tje, from which slowly but surely, after Zee-piertje, Pepylou evolved, which stayed for the rest of our journey together. Also the number of times that he got photographed with or without permission, with or without me, alone or with a Chinese by his side, is uncountable, as is the number of times that he has been called ke'ai (cute) or shuai (handsome, by the way the same character as for the general in Chinese chess) or directly in English 'handsome'. This is a real catastrophe for his ego, but he played the game along, although sometimes he got fed up with it or pretended to wonder why he got so much interest. Very intriguingly too, after being complimented, the Chinese sometimes asked him whether he was a boy or a girl ! As if cuteness can only be associated with girls. By now he must have outnumbered Mao's portraits adoringly placed above the fireplaces of Chinese homes.
We also developed a code name for Mao (which literally means 'animal hair'), so our political comments, potentially subversive to Chinese party member's ears, could not be overheard or understood: poil dans la soupe.

New friends:
Lily at the teahouse in the park strip
Anhui girl in hotel
Xiangqi playing boy in Tiantan Park

24th -25th July
Back in Beijing after the Great Wall experience, we were invited by Mr Sun to a great Sichuan cuisine restaurant where we discovered all sorts of dishes, among which a big puffy ball.P1020515.jpg We made plans to ascend some mountain together during our last week-end in China later in August. And off we went to the Forbidden City, which Xiaolou wanted to see, but I had imagined it would be sufficient to have seen from the Belvedere in Jingshan Park.
As expected, it was very crowded and very treeless for the most part. Our countryman Ferdinand Verbiest, jesuit and astronomer, had a prominent place in one of the showcases, and Xiaolou got duly photographed under this great man's portrait. Next to a garbage bin, Xiaolou found a silly looking head umbrella, always useful to cool down one's head after it has suffered overheat and turmoil in mathematical and anstronomical regions,

He readily entertained a group of French tourists, while I was reading all the historic information boards I could find and especially the very poetic and imaginative (or just Taoistic) names of all the halls. Everybody was pushed out at closing time, and we headed back to our nearby hotel, gearing up for our dinner at our cousin Veronique's near the drum tower.
On our bicycle we located them in a very nicely restored hutong, but in spite of its charm, they plan to sell it, and possibly come back to Europe. We had a nice dinner in the pleasant evening air and got to know Marc and Veronique's son Pierre. Off we were back to the hotel but passed through the very lively and colorful entertainment lake-side area of Beihai. We spoiled the atmosphere by losing the left pedal of our brandnew made in China bicycle. In spite of all our efforts we could not find it back, and ended up going back on foot to the hotel.
Next day we were taken to the Summer Palace but on our way we saw the Olympic area and a 7 star hotel. I wanted to see what a 7 star looks like from the inside. it took us more than 7 minutes to get to the lobby of that hotel, but by the time we got there we were knocked off by the heat, and even the airco of a 1 star hotel would have felt great.
The summer palace too was crowded as expected but big enough to find some repose. It has magnificent views
ships made out of stone, colorful roofs,
and little Suzhou
(which freed us from having to go the Shanghai area later). XiaoLou had his name written on a very special and colorful plastified banner
which he now had to carry for the rest of the journey.
We came back late still just in time to recover our bicycle, get in trouble and total confusion about that night's hotel reservation (ending up paying much more than we should have) and got our next morning's bullet train tickets to Xi’an. We learned by then that obtaining such a train ticket is an adventure in itself, especially at such improbable night hours, with lots of enquiring about the departure and arrival times, speaking through a gridded window in flawed Chinese with possible flawed booking as a result, showing of passports, computer software that doesn’t take foreign names, refusal of credit card only cash and other niceties

Posted by Pat2014 14:13 Archived in China Tagged beijing Comments (0)

Great Wall

Steep Peep

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23th – 25th July
Mutianyu- Bohaizhen-Jiankou
Xiaolou insisted on taking the bicycle to the Great Wall, so we did, ignoring the unexpected downside that bicycles were not allowed on buses, subways or trains. Arriving finally at the right bus station, an overwhelming crowd queuing up for all sorts of directions didn't allow us to pass to the right queue, not even to find the right queue. A controller took pity on us and guided us through the crowd and started asking several bus drivers to take us with our bicycle, Finally one accepted and we were very grateful to this lady controller, until we were dropped 70km further (Miyun) not anywhere near the Great Wall (Mutianyu).

We had chosen to go to Mutianyu because of its being slightly less touristical than Badaling and because of the bob-sleighs, but the place we had been dropped off was way out the normal way to Mutianyu. Of course we were assaulted by taxi drivers, giving us wrong information and far too expensive a fare. With not much other alternative then riding our bicycle to Mutianyu ourselves, in the constant absence of detailed maps, we finally drove a hard bargain with one of the drivers, who left us again stranded rather far from the ticket office and the entrance to Mutianyu section, again with plenty of wrong information, that pressed us to buy the tickets to be able to ascend the wall (including bus trip and telepheric) before closing time. Exceptionally there was a tourist information centre, however less exceptionally it was closed and no one available.

So we got on the wall, the normal Chinese way: paying, bus and telepheric. Fortunately there weren't too many people around any more, so we could fully enjoy this well restored tourist section, although the information for tourists didn't shine by its clarity.
In the company of a few fearless birds P1020481.jpg we went down this time on foot among the last visitors, and called our hosts for the night, as we had no idea how far their house (nongjia) was. They fetched us and drove us to the nearby village of Bohaizhen. Although this type of hosts call themselves agricultural homes, there isn't much agriculture going on except maybe for chestnut yards. We were shown into our room with nice view on their garden and the great wall visible. Three Chinese students (in holiday from their American universities) shared the other rooms. They taught us to play Chinese poker, (during which I am proud to have won a few rounds) and the next day we hiked together to another section of the Great Wall. Although it was great to share this activity with Chinese, the leader of their group was tiringly boastful, seemed to have only retained the vulgar language from his American university, and only one Chinese expression : niubi. Xiaolou was toiling at first to keep pace with us in our way up, but after a beautiful big black butterflies stuck to my legs, he got first and far outpaced the 3 Chinese youths lagging behind.

Getting finally at the foot of the Wall, the door had been recently bricked up and closed, but we managed to shove Xiaolou into the Wall through a slit. He then guided us from on the wall to another section where he had spotted a door, which was closed from the outside but that he opened from the inside. So thanks to our Mongolian traitor we invaded the Great Wall. By then one of the three Chinese youths suffered from the altitude, so they decided to call it a day, whereas we wanted to go and discover the allegedly most beautiful and wild sections towards Jiankou. It took me some persuasion to get Xiaolou to go for these high, far, unknown and unguarded territories, all the way shod in shabby sandals, not your ideal Great Wall foot gear, and in spite of the numerous warnings for danger and impossibility from the Chinese. But he did, after all his name is Lohengrin (from which Xiao Lou is derived). He knows by now he functions in waves: one moment he will be down or tired or in the dip of the wave , but we just have to wait enough for the wave to take him up again. We left the other tourists far behind us, and crossed sections with nothing but rubble and no wall except for stones covered by the jungle, other sections consisted of a mere ridge sided by deep ravines. After having stumbled and hit himself against a protruding stone, Xiaolou, exhausted, got enough and was ready to abandon, The last, extremely steep section was still looming ahead. The wave had taken him into a dip again. So we paused until tears and wears had sufficiently vanished again, to attack the ominous tower at the summit of this craggy steep mountain.
It remains a mystery how bygone soldiers used to march up this wall. We had to grip anything we could, not to slide down the steep slope. Stones were flat and wouldn't offer much of stair-like facilities. The views had been splendid all along but the top still tops it all.

We took advantage of this vantage point to have a meditation session, while our faces breathed again in the welcome breeze. The sensation of Zephyr on his cheeks and forehead and of fully satisfied well being in his whole body at that particular moment will hopefully remain grafted in Xiaolou's memory for ever, for him to grab back to in case of need or just for pleasure.
We took all our time to get down again while being watched over by the mountain 90_P1020511.jpg until the very end of the other side where the bobsleighs are, and rode them swiftly only to be blocked half way down by a middle-aged Chinese woman who obviously had not understood that the lever could also be released to increase speed.

Walking back to our hosts, we discovered that Mutianyu actually houses a specially designed ecological international community.

The village of our hosts, Bohaizhen, however smaal or remote or countryside it was, nevertheless boasted a central square with big screen displaying news, weather forecasts and evening films. We played basket and ball games with local youths and enjoyed the atmosphere. Xiaolou also got close to a toddler, while I got scolded by an elderly either deranged or drunken woman, for no reason.

Posted by Pat2014 15:32 Archived in China Tagged mutianyu jiankou Comments (0)


Small Goose and Big Goose Stories

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26th-28th July
Xi’an and Lintong
The bullet train swished through the Beijing suburbs and the rest of Hebei's and Henan's plains at a a speed of 300 km/hour. At the very Southwestern tip of Beijing we crossed an area that seemed to be a newly built residential leisure area. It looked quite attractive at least from the train (but I am not sure how attractive the train looks to the residents of that place), which none of our fellow passengers could name.
Towns and cities with rows of skyscrapers followed one another interrupted by relatively few large agricultural areas. Even Zhengzhou, a city of millions, and one of the few stops before Xian, could not retain the train much longer than a mere minute .

We arrived in Xian's railway station and already bought the tickets for our next planned destination, while we were in the station, so we wouldn't have to come back to the station just to buy it or even to enquire. Tickets for the only 2 subway lines were easier to get, but still always require the right type and amount of coins, or else you are in trouble together with the people queuing behind you. We got out of the subway in the centre, and headed for the hotel on foot only to find it full. Fortunately we found another one just next to the City walls. It was composed of three adjacent court yards, but we were exiled to a windowless underground room, next to a ping pong table though.

Shortly after we were off to the Big Goose Pagoda where countless fountains played to light and music in this very busy park. Lasers, teleguided model planes, kites, all sorts of food stands and toys, Xiaolou heroically resisted the urge to buy one of the teleguided planes, or rather I resisted, and by the time we decided to go back, the subway stations had closed, so we walked back and crossed some serious mahjongplayers on the street. Xiaolou was quickly taken into confidence by one of the female players, but although we checked out one of the free tables, we were not sure to understand the rules quite clearly. When Xiaolou got a bit too far involved in this adult play, one of the players sent him off rather brutally, so we took this as a sign to continue our walk. The next morning we had enrolled for what was to be our only arranged tour during our whole journey: : the visit of the Qinshihuangdi tomb, which is nothing more than a green hill at this moment, since it still isn't excavated due to Mercury concentrations, and on the same tour to the clay soldiers.

Their sheer number is very impressive, especially since there are still many more still buried, and a big part was broken during excavations when the roof under which they stood collapsed. The guide spoke English difficult to understand, accused everybody instead of excusing, gave confused hardly understandable information and was mostly concerned about the right count of her group members. We definitely have to go back over twenty or fifty years to see what they will have found by then and how the explanations will have changed and hopefully be clearer.

Of course we were introduced into the unavoidable shop where not only various artifacts were exhibited but also the finder of the clay soldiers in the seventies: Yang Xuman. Xiaolou managed to get an autograph from him. in the group of tourists there were also 2 young people from Gent, and 2 French circus artists with their baby Camille. Xiaolou of course engaged in conversations with all of them including the less than 1 year old baby.
Back in Xian, we spent the evening in front of a flat screen television on the street watching a rather scary Chinese film 'Huapi' while eating brochettes.

The next day we were in urgent need of finding a shoe repairer this time for Xiaolou's sandals that were not going to last much more than a minute. We finally found him, after having visited a Taoist temple and having had a Chinese breakfast on the street. He did a perfect job, and just as with mine, Xiaolou would have no shoe worries any more for the rest of our journey.

We still had another errand: find a way to add credit to our Chinese phone card. this proved to be one of the more arduous tasks. Why ? We are still not sure, but apparently we had a card restricted to Beijing, so no credit could be added outside Beijing. This seemed a rather nonsensical expalnation, but it is the only one we got. After much running around, patience and insistence, we finally got it though. Xiaolou was responsible for his little phone with the Chinese card. So all Chinese calling would have him on the line. He took good care of the phone and the card, and we used it many times. We visited the so-called muslim (Hui) quarter, and bought some pens and ink, far too expensive, in view of some painting or drawing we could do during our journey.. After all this we geared towards the Small Goose Pagoda,
ancient Buddhist place as well, where the historical monk that stood for Shifu in the XIyouji, actually left his Indian Buddhist scriptures. P1020569.jpg but also where the Xian Museum is located with a magnificent scale model of the city at the time of the Tang-Dynasty, then called Chang-an. Chang'an 's 1 million Tang dynasty city

Chang'an 's 1 million Tang dynasty city

We found it very impressive : 1 million inhabitants at the time of Charlemagne ! That was well worth a 'lucky chime'. P1020594.jpg

On our way back we were introduced to a very forceful form of toll spinning or rather toll lashing, on the streets. P1020602.jpg
More tiring than expected.

We also joined some street exercise, on music, but the moving of the elbows sideways for a rather long time had a very painful effect on my neck. interesting !

Now we were ready to head by subway to our planned night train for our next destination. Just arriving at the train station and very proud to have arrived well in time with our tickets in our hands, we were informed that we were standing at the wrong train station, and that the right station was at the other end of the city, and that we would probably miss our train. And so we did. But we still hurried to that other station, just in case, That 'right' station appeared to be a complete mess, inaccessible by car because of 'police' and other 'undefined events', people queuing up in all directions , trying to pass God knows what sorts of controls. It took a lot of efforts to pass all the hurdles only to hear that we just missed our train by 5 minutes, and that we can try to change our tickets at some other remote counter. Counter which was of course hidden behind something that should resemble a queue. When I finally managed to change the tickets, we had wasted yet another hour, but the next available train was scheduled no sooner than 5 hours later. Since we had nothing else to do, we decided to walk back to the hostel (located at the other side of the city) and have bite on our way.
When the center of the city was almost visible, we were fed up with walking and a motorbike stopped. We got on that bike, and off we went back to the hostel, three on a bike with our luggage hanging somewhere , and in countersense to the traffic in the middle of the night.
The hostel people had a good laugh when they saw us coming back, and so did we. Xiaolou watched television and I slept in the lobby and we managed to get up in time to reach the 'right' station by taxi this time. The sunrise was near so it could hardly be still called a night train, but it definitely was a sleepers train and we both had a top bed (which is cheaper than a bottom one) . Xiaolou only had to lie down on it and he was off to fairyland albeit Chinese fairyland.

New friends: - sweet girl from the hotel, French circus artists and Camille


Posted by Pat2014 15:32 Archived in China Tagged xian Comments (0)


The Buddha carved in the Rock

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29th-30th July
Lanzhou – Liujiaxia - Binlingsi
After a bus ride from Lanzhou train station to a bus stop too far due to the somanieth wrong information in tiringly hot and dusty Lanzhou, we were kindly guided back to the right bus stop in order to get to Liujiaxia (which name I had trouble to remember and repeat properly). As usual no maps available and so we had no idea where exactly we had to be heading for.
The bus ride was long and interrupted by numerous grand road works.

Arriving in Liujiaxia, which didn't seem to offer anything touristic, we found a hotel, after being refused in another one, very close to the Yellow River.
The hotel reception was useless, as usual too, to give any useful information on the surroundings, and ... no map available.
After full shower and a little laundry, we went out for night pictures in front on the swelling Yellow River bank, and discovered a small restaurant. In reality nothing more than a family's living room where the mum started to cook for us.
She did very well and was very helpful to indicate us what Liujiaxia was about: the great dam. That is also the place where she took us the next morning and where we embarked on a small kuaiting (hydrofoil) for a one hour cruise to Bingling Buddhist rock temple at the other end of the large dam reservoir.

The hydrofoil was packed with about 25 people, offered only limited views but lots of splashes of water, very limited safety as it seemed to lose balance at every sharp turn or stop (due to heavy surface water pollution). As we neared the temple site's creek, all of a sudden, the mountain range shapes and silhouettes changed without explanation: from common mountains to typical Chinese paintings shapes.P1020645.jpg
Beautiful landscapes and views,
impressive and old Buddha sculptures,


so-called two-sister rock formation, all in the company of our new friends: Eefje Aernoudtse (NL) and Lena Kuhn (D), a nice two-sister formation too, but in difference to the rock version, they were lively, Chinese speaking water and agriculture researchers.
Back in Liujiaxia we had lunch together in a nongjia (literally farm) in the middle of the town, which didn't even look like a farm. As they had to go back to Lanzhou, we continued our journey by bus to Linxia along the dam reservoir on brand new road and bridges.

In Linxia (muslim town) we were dropped on a rather unpleasant corner of a street, that certainly didn't look like a bus station or even bus stop, in order to catch the next bus. While waiting, a Tibetan monk joined us, played foot badminton with Xiaolou. A few other Tibetans were also waiting for a bus to another city (Hezuo) and happened to have family in Belgium.
We were waiting but nobody had any idea when the bus would come. When we were about to give up, our bus finally came and took us higher and higher through scenic mountains dotted with temples and mosks (in a funny mixture style) to our next destination: Xiahe , home to the large Labrang monastery.

New Friends: Eefje and Lena

Posted by Pat2014 23:04 Archived in China Tagged binglingsi Comments (0)

Labrang Xiahe

Monks and Money in Tibetan Buddhist Temple

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30th – 31st July
Labrang in Xiahe
It had rained and it was still drizzling when we arrived by bus. With our sandals in the slightly flooded street we finally got to our hotel at the other end of this small town. Our room was shared by a Chinese driver, very kind but who found it quite natural to smoke in the room. Xiaolou went to look for the toilet by himself and found the wrong one not meant for the guests, and probably the most disgusting one he had seen so far. Xiaolou, due to his diarrhea-prone digestive system, was to become an expert on Chinese toilets in all its variations and locations, during this journey, although he may have visited a number of them with eyes and nose as closed as possible. He actually might keep a separate blog on this subject.
We went out for Tibetan dinner, but Xiaolou was shivering with cold

The next morning was still grey and rainy and had left our clothes and sandals still wet.
Just finding the main entrance of this huge temple complex amid the muddy streets proved a challenge in itself. When we found it just in time, we were added to the only available small English speaking (mandatory) tour guided by a monk. Although the buildings,
P1020650.jpgP1020649.jpgthe size, and some of the sculptures and scriptures were impressive enough, this monk showed none of the qualities we were expecting from a monk, and managed to offend or to rebuke every single member of our small group (an elder Australian couple, a German teacher based in Brussels, a French couple, and ourselves) by his arrogance, conceit and greed. The main hall was filled with hundreds of monks in meditation position with a chanting coarse bass voice resounding all along.
After this disconcerting and rather sour experience of our guide, still wet and cold, we were only too happy to get back to the town to warm up, We hesitated for a while but finally bought a thick Tibetan coat for Xiaolou, which he would now need to carry for the rest of the journey even in sultry regions.

Back at the hotel we sat down and took all our Chinese colors, pencils and ink we had bought in Xian, to give it our best try, seated in the Far-West styled Tibetan styled tearoom.P1020666.jpg
The artistic value of our production, although considerable, could still certainly be improved, and in search of inspiration we went on pilgrimage: walking the corridors around the temple premises while turning the endless prayer wheels
or as some Tibetans were doing it, going flat in the mud and up again every two meters. P1020665.jpg

While climbing up a hill to enjoy the view, we met a Tibetan lady herding her cows, and although she was thickly covered in numerous dress layers, as most Tibetans are usually up to the middle, she didn't even cover herself when it started raining rather heavily. Our drenched caps did cover our heads, but I am not sure the effect was much better.

When the weather cleared up at the end of the afternoon, we went for the big pilgrimage tour again around the temple but this time in the mountains. The path was hardly discernible as it wound up to the big flag pole site with loads of smaller colored flags and paper slips flapping in the wind. P1020672.jpg

From there, it went even higher up and we found ourselves in the midst of crow crowds, very near a couple of eagles (milans) P1020677.jpg and a vulture (gypaete) circling in the evening sky. On our way down at dusk we must have crossed the local toilet area as Tibetans were squatting down for obvious purposes. As we passed in front of them, we saluted them respectfully with our newly learned Tibetan phrase: cho de mo ?
Salute which we got back with smile (or was it a rictus).

In our room we now had the company for the night of Jamie, a young Englishman from Newcastle. His Hispanic looks and foreign accent made us seriously doubt he was from England, but since he insisted, we decided to believe him. He had been an English teacher for two or three years on the East coast. He seemed to regret that his Chinese after all this time was still nowhere, and blamed his laziness for this fact. Of course it didn’t do much in reinforcing our vain hope to master Chinese in a few weeks.
New friend: Jamie

Posted by Pat2014 23:49 Archived in China Tagged labrang Comments (0)

Langmusi and Highlands

Horses and Dogs

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We organized right on arrival our horse trek to start the next day, hoping for good weather, for good horses, for good company, for no accidents, etc.
In the mean-time we shared our room with a very friendly Israeli student and his mum that he had invited over with a huge suitcase to spend his last weeks in Eastern Asia together. He had already traveled for 5 months and seemed to have survived nicely. While walking in Langmusi’s main street, we came across a scarf and cloth shop, where a Tibetan woman was weaving some sort of poncho-scarf in an amazingly calm and even demeanor and with a gentle and shining smile that never departed her lips I took a photograph of Xiaolou in front of this lady in this very colorful shop, and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful shots of our whole journey.

On the next morning we received our supersonic horse riding lesson and off we went without riding hat and with sandals as riding boots in the company of our Tibetan guide, our horses and a small foal following her mother (assigned to Xiaolou).P1020703.jpg
My horse was a white stallion and the best I have ever had. Not once did I have to use the stirrups (which we didn't have anyway) and not even my heels. Although my riding confidence had been near zero before this experience, this horse greatly changed this. Xiaolou had a mare (followed as well it could, by her foal) but it seemed to be primarily interested in eating and resting. At lunch time we met in some mountain farm ruin with some other Chinese riders and had some Tibetan Belgian fries made on the spot.

Marmots played hide and seek with us on our way to the Bailong source, where struck by the afternoon sun and harassed by various insects we well deserved a sip of this pure source water. Our Chinese lunch companions found us back at the source, before our ways parted again, as we were nearing slowly but surely the grasslands at 4000 meter riding through a magnificent scenery with grand green slopes sprinkled with yaks and sheep.

When we finally arrived at destination, carefully avoiding the aggressive dogs, the evening light coloured the wide peaked horizon. For the last hour I had been fighting a soaring head ache. Unfortunately I had no patience for Xiaolou’s casual questions any more as I needed all my energy just to stay on the horse.

Our tent was a small one and one of the last ones in that area, as this was the last day before the great move of the herds to the new autumn grass lands. To this day I haven’tunderstood why they had planted it on top of the mountain with no protection from the flank of any mountain to protect it from the cold night wind seething through it abundantly. I was of no help for preparing the horses for the night, dinner or the beds, because by now my headache had knocked me down silly and caused nausea. Xiaolou duly entertained our hosts and did his best to keep our spirits high, but one of my most miserable nights ever was about to start; there I was at 4000 m altitude as sick as hell, in charge of my son, with no place to go , to hide, to cry or to vomit in peace. Inside the tent it was crowded – ideal if you have to vomit - and noisy with lifely Tibetan conversation - a perfect match for my banging headache, outside we were not to go because of the unchained dogs and the cold.
To be honest our Tibetan guide offered to take us back down, but it was not clear how, and embarrassed to ruin his and my son’s plans, I refused in the hope it would soon get better. It didn’t. Having to throw up in the immediate vicinity of your hosts, who share with you their dinner at that precise moment, and in the very tent we all eat and sleep in, is extremely uncomfortable, but then again considering that the tent is planted on yak’s dung, that the fuel pile near the stove in the same tent is pure yak’s dung, and that all the beddings were abundantly stained with yak’s dung., I should get over it. So I did, and threw up three times in the tent.

When after all in the attempt to catch some fresh air, I dragged myself out of the tent, I discovered in the sky, full South, the constellation of the Scorpion, as clear and complete as I had never seen it before. I got Xiaolou, who is Scorpio, to see it in awe. He was very proud of his sign, which made me take a sly mental note to show him how Chinese grill and eat scorpions in Beijing’s Wangfujing.

Back in the tent, I didn’t sleep at all. Neither did a howling dog very near our tent although it sounded more like a poorly oiled sawing machine, I wasn’t sure any more whether I was hearing this dog or my own lamenting, but I was praying for the sun to rise a little earlier so this ordeal could end. Having shivered with cold for most of the night I realized all of a sudden that I wasn’t cold any more, but burning hot, cooking in fact. The lady of the house (or tent) had started to prepare breakfast on the stove, without paying attention to the fact that I was lying very close tot the stove. I was in sweat but hopeful that dawn would not be long anymore. Even before dawn the ominous tent got dismantled and the horses were soon prepared too.

Still in pain, my condition changed abruptly for the better as soon as I set down on my horse and started riding. This miserable night now made place for one of the most glorious mornings I ever witnessed. As the clouds lifted; the horizontal morning light shyly discovered peak after peak, green slope after flower carpet, herd after herd. Soon we were enrolled by fellow Tibetans to help them guide the huge yak herds to the Sea of Flowers (their new autumn grass land).

This task filled us with a feeling of joy and freedom which Xiaolou and I will never forget. Galloping in the high grass and flowers blinded by the light, the yaks were meekly indulging our screams and pretended to obey.
Some of the yaks looked fierceful, due to their size or simply due to their masks shaped by their black and white hair.

I took some photographs of these moments (not many and not the best), but this was a challenge to take pictures one handedly as the other hand was too busy holding the reins.

On the whole it was a big risk to have all our pictures on the same camera, without a possibility to download them at regular points, but fortunately we didn’t lose nor damage our camera during the whole journey.

When the job was done, our Tibetan guide invited us at his summer home (tent or yurt), where we were welcomed by his children, grandchildren and the nicely chained dog. We were offered all sorts of Tibetan delicatessen, such as tea with yak’s butter, yak cheese and tsampa. In an attempt to break the shyness of his grandchildren and get some playful interaction with Xiaolou, I suggested to race them jumping in big bags I had spotted in the tent. Xiaolou showed them, but since their reaction was still very quiet, I decided – never mind my dwindling headache - I had to get involved to, and seeing me jumping up and down in this bag, excited so much … the ‘nicely chained dog’ , that it managed to unchain itself, go for me, and bite me in the lumbar region . Hindered by the bag, I fell down, and my only hope to avoid the second attack was the owner would intervene in time, which he finally did. My back was bleeding around the right kidney, and our guide now applied on the wound the tsampa he had just chewed before.
Tibetan mountains seem to reflect their peaks and valleys on my physical condition in a very literal way.

There was no other option than to get back on my horse, pain or no pain. But it was very bearable, and we arrived a few hours later at a small village, where we had lunch in a,n old lady’s wooden house. We had yak’s meat with noodles under her late husband’s and Mao’s watchful eye. The first one was all right, the second one, as poil dans la soupe, certainly didn’t enhance our appetite. She didn’t join us for lunch but kept us company and served us tea. Her interior was completely made out of wood, and strongly reminded me of Russian Isba’s. However the difference is that here there at that altitude there were only very few trees around.
It was certainly better than our improvised Tibetan Belgian fries sprinkled with tomatoes which had all been thrown up in that tent up there on top of the grass lands as discretely as circumstances had permitted. Theefore I still don’t know whether I had suffered from the well known altitude illness or from some intoxication from that earlier lunch, or maybe from both.
After a short walk on the highway with our horses at hand, we got back ‘safely’ in Langmusi.

The Tibetans had told me that, as far as they knew, there had not been any recent known case of rabies in their region, but when we told the Chinese friends about the bite, they were very worried for me, and insisted I had to get an anti-rabies shot within 24 after the bite.
Whether necessary or not, there was no chance of getting that shot in Langmusi anyway, but there was a chance to find it in the next town on our journey (100 km further). So we decided to take the early and only bus to Zoige the next morning.

Shortly after our return with the horses to our hotel, a truck with beehives passed our street, and within few minutes our street got invaded by swarms of bees. We had to hide promptly behind the closed glass doors of the hotel. That situation unknown even to locals, lasted for about a half an hour, and disappeared at suddenly as it had arrived. Nonetheless it had been enough for a beesting to find Xiaolou’s soft skin.
I had finally had a chance to look in the mirror to see my wound myself, and it proved much bigger than what I had expected and still slightly bleeding.

During the commotion of the comments on my wound (everybody having a different opinion) we met Han en Hennie. Dutch cyclers who were halfway their journey on bicycle from Lanzhou to Chengdu. They are used to cycling trips foreign countries since they had been doing it for 14 years, but still we were impressed, although we were not quite sure what pleasure they may find in riding e on dusty, noisy, busy, dangerous and tiring mountain roads. Truck drivers were their friends, but with bus drivers their experiences were not so good.
Langmusi is on the exact frontier between Gansu and Sichuan, but on the Sichuan side there is a Buddhist temple that seems to attract quite a few Chinese tourists, because heavenly funerals (Tianzang), reputedly the highest and most honorific form of funerals, are performed there. Monks (or close relatives cut the deceased body ioto pieces and offer them to birds in the early morning at 6 am. It reminded me of the Parsis in Bombay, and the rather clumsy vultures dropping a piece of his fine meal, while flying, into one’s cup of tea. Tibetan Buddhist have alternatives (Earth Funeral, Water Funeral and Fire Funeral) but this one does attract tourists, if not vultures.

Although Xiaolou had been very courageous during the bee attack and sting and in a good mood and good health all along our horse trek, now he didn’t feel too well, and he decided to throw up as well, in our hotel’s room. Luckily he managed to do so on the floor rather than in his bed. I called the staff in which had a very efficient way to clean the mess up: they poured some mixture of coal, earth and ashes on the vomit, and shoveled the whole mixture quite efficiently away. However Xiaolou would not be ready to go and see vultures eating pieces of body in the next early morning.

The next morning we were ready in time though to catch the only bus in the day to take us to the town with the hospital for the injection. However at the busstop they told us the bus had already gone. Dismayed at the wrong pieces of information we had received yet again about the time of bus departure, we managed to catch a daba (minivan) overcrowded to get us there in time. On our way to Zoige, we passed other huge plains filled with yaks and … Chinese tourists along the highway.

New friends: Chinese from the trek lunch, Israeli mum and son, Han en Hennie, Tibetan family
New enemies: Tibetan dogs

Posted by Pat2014 01:57 Archived in China Tagged highlands tibetan Comments (0)


Peace between the branches by Milarepa

1st August
The next day we took the bus to Hezuo and were dropped at the Milarepa Monastery, quite an impressive gilded Tibetan skyscraper fortress type of temple, which allegedly has the unique quality to revere the lamas, panchens, and other venerable figures of all branches of Tibetan buddhism.
We hurried barefoot up and down this massive temple tower, turned a few prayer wheels, some of them brand new which still had to be painted and probably filled with prayers.
After eating in a small smoked-in jiont where we were not only observed, watched, but litterally gaped at, we got on the bus for our next destination: Langmusi.

Posted by Pat2014 13:16 Archived in China Tagged hezuo Comments (0)


First Aid and First hospital

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The next morning we were ready in time though to catch the only bus in the day to take us to the town with the hospital for the injection. However at the busstop they told us the bus had already gone. Dismayed at the wrong pieces of imformation we had received yet again about the time of bus departure, we managed to catch a daba (minivan) overcrowded to get us there in time. On our way to Zoige, we passed other huge plains filled with yaks and … Chinese tourists along the highway.

At Zoige (or Ruerge), it was troublesome enough to find the right hospital in possession of the right vaccine, and to calculate how much time it would take us in order to book the bus tickets to our next destination.
A female taxist took advantage of our ignorance that the concerned hospital was just off the station where we had landed, and charged us far too much. A non Chinese friend of us, who has lived in China for a long time, calls this type of cheating ‘contribution to the development of underdeveloped countries’.
At the hospital, in fact health prevention center, they were very helpful, made us sit down with tea and chewing gum, and had me read a whole sheet of questions and precautions in Chinese concerning the injection. As obviously the medical Chinese was too hard for me to understand thoroughly they set about translating it with their Chinese version of Google translate.
They made it clear too I was to have a series of 5 shots in a month. That meant hospital tourism in view, unexpected experience OK, but quite a lot of wasted time too.
In the hospital they gave an injection to a man in official wear, also due to a dog’s bite, but it was already at his 4th injection. While I was under medical observation after my injection, Xiaolou and I had all the time to try to guess what official function the guy had. He was kind enough to play the game with us, but we were not particularly brilliant at it. It took us 10 minutes to understand he was a tax administration official.
Before our next bus, we had quite some time, to visit the local market, where butchers sided with groceries and cookies merchants. Then we discovered a rather large town square, where a few of the most silly electric cars decorated with big inflated Disney characters and other plastic animals crisscrossed. We just had to get in there for our daily selfie.
By that time Xiaolou had the runnings and was in urgent need of a toilet. Finding a decent toilet may be quite a challenge in China, but we managed to find after some persistence and holding in, on the outskirts of the small town, quite an alluring hotel, the courtyard of which was almost completely covered by a large canopy consisting of small colored flags. The toilet too was inviting, and Xiaolou was allowed to do his business in peace.
On our way to Songpan…

Posted by Pat2014 01:48 Archived in China Tagged ruerge Comments (0)


Moonlit Sonata

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In most middle and long distance buses, a television hangs next to the driver for the passengers to watch some film. During this whole journey in China, it never worked out that I could hear and read the Chinese subtitled characters at the same time, which would have been ideal to improve my Chinese. In the many buses we took, either we were seated too far to read, or the sound didn’t work too well, or the program didn’t give subtitles, or the television didn’t work at all. With a few exceptions that was also the case in the hotels where either the television was too poor quality, or we were just too tired to watch television or there just wasn’t any television at all.
Pity, because undoubtedly , especially if on top of that there would be also English subtitles, and if the film characters wouldn’t speak too quickly or too numbly or too dialectally, a few sessions of this regime would have enhanced my Chinese dramatically, Obviously there were too many ifs.
Anyway after having watched a Jet Li film with one eye, and the mountain scenery through the window with the other eye, and having basically missed both, we finally arrived in Songpan and the National Park areas.

Our hotel P1020823.jpgwas close enough to the bus station, but it was also close enough the only main road, unfortunately.

Trucks and buses are equipped and even some vans in China with hooters that fit boats and planes, and they use them lavishly, not only to indicate there is an imminent danger, but also to let everybody know, concerned or not, they are on the road. We hadn’t completely recovered our health from the highlands experience yet, and where I was stuck with a sinusitis and still pounding head aches, my son Xiaolou was still suffering from a his weak digestive system. This constant hooting proved a real ordeal and almost got us completely mad. Obviously drivers education in small province towns like this and big cities like Beijing widely differ. In spite of the chaotic traffic with all possible vehicles going all directions at the same time and the glaring contempt for the no less glaring traffic lights, Beijing streets are very quiet in comparison with Songpan’s.

It made us wonder whether the acoustic reactivity of Chinese ears was different from ours. After all we had noticed other strange acoustic phenomena: Chinese don’t speak to you, they bark at you. Very few Chinese everyday’s conversation voices could possibly be named melodious, or even just pleasant to hear. I doubt this is a purely cultural judgment because some Chinese television ads do make use of pleasant voices. At least it had the consequence that Xiaolou remembers now how to say ‘hooting’ in Chinese: an laba.

Anyway back in Songpan just getting ourselves to the pharmacy through the constant hooting proved a test for our mental health. We bought some Chinese/Western medicine, the instructions how to use of which we hardly heard. But when we finally made it to enter the ancient city walls of this old garrison town Songpan, we discovered a very charming little town, with its main street complete in the ancient wooden style, where no trucks, buses or even cars were allowed. What a relief !

To have some variation in our daily selfies, I had already planned to have my beard shaven at the next occasion. When we entered the first hairdresser shop we noticed, I was quickly ushered to a back side room, where I was told to lie down on some torture bed (or was it a massage couch) with a basin at one end. After some wetting of knives, a lady finally attacked my chin and cheeks, whilst a crowd was gaping at the operation.
Xiaolou watched television in the shop in the mean-time.

At the local theater we saw that there was daily show on. We found out it had already started but we could still enter if we wanted. So we did and watched a beautfiful song and dance show about the history of Songpan.
We thought the girls very beautiful, nnd their performance extremely well –timed and entertaining. Alas it was very loud again, which only reinforced my previous impression of Chinese ears.
At the end of the show, we just stayed in our seats while all the rest of the public was leaving. After a while the performers descended in the hall, casually dressed and with partly removed heavy make up. They gradually came to sit down all around us, threw some ununderstandable pigeon-English phrases, until finally one was brave enough to ask a picture of us. This was the signal for general attack, as soon almost every single member of the performer’s troup wanted a picture expecially with Xiaolou. As we were now seeing them from very close, they didn’t look so attractive any more as when they were on stage., so we even didn’t forget to ask their autographs. Inadvertently roles had been turned around: we, the public, had become the object of the show and pictures by them, the show actors and singers.

The next day I still had a tough job at deciding in what park we should go: Jiuzhaigou or Huanglong. In spite of their beauties many people had told us they were tourist traps, especially in summer when they were overcrowded with Chinese tourists, and very expensive on top of that.
Since we had missed the bus due to wrong information (again) to both, I rambled in frustration until a new park came up, allegedly similar to the others, but closer, cheaper, and less crowded: Mounigou. So not much to hesitate about any more, and there we arrived in this beautiful double sided park: one side comprises a magnificent grand water cascade that flows through trees and tea pavilions (which I am not sure how come they still stand there)
and the other side boasts a series of emerald colored clear water ponds
up to the highest sulphur containing hot spring. P1020818.jpg
We spent the whole day in these beautiful places, going several times up and down, and were lucky enough to have avoided the Chinese tourist masses, which wouldn’t have matched our idea of a natural park.

These parks, being expensive, are well kept and unlike other parts of Chinese nature, have strong anti-litter policies.
By the end of that day we had recovered our health fully, and were ready to resist to Songpan’s fierce attacks on our eardrums. While walking now in the main thoroughfare, we had a better look at the goodiegoodies that where hanging for sale in various shops. In our confused mental state of the previous day, it had not dawned on us what some of it was. When I asked the female shopkeepers what part of the yak body their salesware exactly was, my question was met with giggles. And although their giggles had confirmed my suspicion, I insisted for them to show me, so they went to get their male colleague, who wasn’t sure what he was asked. But even with his explanation in gesture and words, Xiaolou and I were not too eager to buy and eat the yak’s penis and balls.

As we had really enjoyed the show the day before, and that we had missed the beginning, we thought we were entitled to go back and see the beginning (for free), so we hastened to get there in time now and luckily the ticket guy remembered us and shared our view.
Of course we didn’t wait for the end and the general attack, but left in the middle discretely.
Out in the streets again, the moon was visible through the street lights.

The day before we had spotted some fortress on top of the mountain linked to Songpan by a path. We decided to ascend and see how far we would get. We got to the top, at least 500 m higher than the town, through a path only lit by the unreal moonlight. It was pure magic, and Xiaolou got to learn the famous phrase ‘Point n’est besoin d’espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour persévérer.’
All the way up shadows had played with the moon hiding in and out of clouds. The path went from lit to pitchdark, the town and its noises were left far below. No human soul crossed our path. Luckily no stray dog either. Just a few bats. The fortress itself, more a watchtower was small, hollow and empty, but the white moonlight gave it a mysterious glow.
The way back down proved much more tricky and ideal for straining ankles, as the steps were not visible, but we did it, and back on the streets of Songpan, we had come back from another world.
Xiaolou’s stomach was growling, so we sat at one of the last open skewers booths (shaokao) near the city wall and ordered a few yak’s … meat sticks. Very spicy, (after all we were in Sichuan) but very tasty.

Posted by Pat2014 11:25 Archived in China Tagged songpan mounigou Comments (0)


Badminton with Buddha

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By bus we crossed some grand mountains and valleys, the touristy details of which nobody around could offer us. We passed through the town of Wenchuan which had suffered a lot from the earthquake a few years earlier but I could see no trace of it. A big statue representing, according to my scant tourism information sources (i.e. neighbours) the engineer-general who had developed the large irrigation and dam system 2000 years earlier and that was still in place, was prominently visible from the bus though.
The millions-city Chengdu appeared when we finally ushered from the highway tunnels. These tunnels and roads cross the famous Chengdu pandas and also some historic town with a whole series of towers. Again the available information lacked in precision for me to give here a name, but the sight from the bus was unusual enough.
After checking in we went out quickly to visit the nearby Manjusri (Wenjun: the Buddha of Wisdom) Temple. Since wisdom is not our main strength, we thought a visit could always come in handy. The premises were imposing and in very good condition. Xiaolou recognized all the Buddha’s and other deities much better than I did, thanks to his watching some episodes of Sun Wukong. In one of the inner courtyards, a threesome (formed by a monk, a young man and a lady) played badminton. We asked if we could join, and there we were playing badminton in the temple of wisdom. We played late in the dark until the fly had become a mere suggestion against the dark sky.
The monk offered me a caligraphed banner and the young man, giggly and rather effeminate, decided to join us in our further discovery of the city. He showed us around and invited us for dinner in a restaurant, although he had already had dinner. He was so kind to choose the less spicy typical dishes. Although allegedly not spicy, they were still very hot, but delicious. The young man seemed to find simple pleasure in just having us around. On our enquiry he explained us that he was the fastest typist of China. His job was to write down other people’s speeches or taped text, and this job allowed him to take many free days. He had imposed himself a self- discipline to be able to type always quicker and quicker.
After this fine dinner he accompanied us to the centre town,but it seemed to be too late already to enjoy much city life.
The next day our mission was to find the right hospital for my second anti-rabies injection. On our way we walked into what was advertised as one of the biggest department stores of Chengdu. We saw among others a temporary exhibition about international top interior designers. One of the illustrations showed a hotel in Chengdu. As an errand in a treasure hunt, we decided to try to find the real thing in the city and give our own impressions life later in the day. In a sort of lunapark within the department store, a bare-chested youths was dancing in a rhythmical light machine. After watching him and the other available games, we finally left without playing ourselves.
On our way to the hospital our eyes fell upon an advertisement glued on same bank window showing a guy from the back on his shoetips, arms up in St-Andrew’s cross, body convex, obviously exhibiting sheer happiness by his mere body position. P1020836.jpg
So there we were imitating his position in front of a bank in this thoroughfare. After frequent trials and lots of Chinese gaping around, we managed to buy our next day’s train ticket, and finally found the hospital. After much more trouble, discussions, and running round than in our first hospital, I finally got my injection in the arm, and off we were to our next errand: Renmin Park.
Renmin park proved one of the most exciting, active and surprising public parks we visited. It teemed with all sorts of people, activities and curiosities even in full afternoon. Already at the entrance we couldn’t resist the sirene tones of a hulusi, and decided to buy one. Equipped with this new music instrument we soon entered the realm of karaoke in all styles and genres. It must be said that the average quality of the would-be stars was quite low, but this was obviously no reason to reduce the volume. Again do Chinese ears somehow work differently ? A bit further various kinds of physical routines on music took place. I joined one to the embarrassment of Xiaolou.
P1020846.jpgHow ridiculous can one look ? Most participants belong to older generations and to the female sex, but so what ?
Next discovery were the caramel sculptures made on the spot for you in function of what the wheel of fortune indicates.
In another corner of the park, middle aged and senior citizens packed together without a clear visible activity. The only hint were various cv’s lying around. I read a few, and it made the whole situation clear. P1020848.jpgThis was the dating corner, where parents broadcast their son’s or daughters credentials or description. I shared my amusement with some of the parents and asked whether I would be a suitable candidate, but obviously the presence of Xiaolou ruined my chances.
In another part of the park we were hunted until we gave in by professional ear cleaners with special metal bars to do the job. We were quite suspicious as we already had doubts about the good functioning of Chinese ears altogether, but against the heavy insistence I succumbed. While my private ear cleaner was amazed and endlessly proud at the treasures he managed to wrestle out of my ears, I dozed off, only to wake up when he tweaked his metal bars in my ear producing some tinkling rhythm. After this very relaxing experience, Xiaolou’s ears, in spite of their sensitivity and diabolo’s underwent the same fate.
Among the great trees of the park, some of them grew natural ropes perfect for swinging on them, which we did without tumbling down.
It was time to see more of the city and find the hotel Minshaintern in order to check for ourselves its appraised interior design. The hall contained some nice and neat glass decoration, but it didn’t seem more breathtaking than other luxury hotels. We nevertheless took pictures among the glass hanging from the ceiling while going down the grand staircase (in sandals and shorts).
We followed the river at random at arrived in lively parts of town. A building in the shape of a passenger boat struck as almost really afloat.P1020874.jpg Having had something some grilled skewers to eat in a street full of restaurants and another chance to have our ears cleaned (while eating !) which we refused this time, we then arrived by chance in the Jinli Lu area, which turned out to be a famous, very attractive, restored ancient area of Chengdu with buoyant night life and and touristy shops. Plenty things to see and to taste, and to hear: among others a sugar blowing artist shaping all sorts of animals like glass blowers,P1020881.jpg while watching television (obviously bored by his activity and success), bianlian artists,P1020882.jpg a French singer that also teaches a new mixture of Taijiquan and Aerobics (promoted by Jet Li and other prominent Chinese) as a daytime job, beautifully restored wooden shop streets.
In spite of the crowd it had a great ambiance and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Although seated just one meter in front of the face changing artist during his performance, we still haven’t got a clue how he did it.Too late to take the subway, we walked all the long way back to the hotel, enjoying the by now subdued night atmosphere of the city.
At the hotel our double room had been taken in by other guests, so we had to move to a 6-bed dormitory, but our bed proved very cosy, clean and intimate with private curtain, night lamp, and air conditioning. This was one of the few hotels where we actually had airconditioning, because we usually preferred the old fashioned fans if given the choice. As we came in very late, the other guests of that room were already asleep, so we had to wait the next morning to see who we were sharing the room with. And one of them spoke Flemish to us, or to be preciser Afrikaans as he came from South-Africa. In spite of his very positive and open character, his views on South Africa’s future were very pessimistic: wars and fights will not cease, not because of the white population since they have already given up a lot and will probably leave altogether, but because of the permanent conflicts between the different black ethnic groups. At breakfast we met an American mum with her 4-year old Chloe again from Nevada. They were traveling by themselves but married to a Chinese she knew her ways in China. Their plan for that days was to visit and cuddle the Chengdu pandas.Cuddling, apparently, is possible in Chingdu ( but may be a little expensive).
And off we were to the (hopefully right) train station. .
New friends: Chloe and her mum, Nicolas Noah, Mr Wang (the gay typist)

Posted by Pat2014 14:21 Archived in China Tagged chengdu Comments (0)


Flying Coffins and High Ridges

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9th-11th August
Luobiao and Gaokan
The bus ride to the middle of nowhere, which is basically what Luobiao is, was long through winding mountain roads, some of the hairpin turns of which had collapsed or were about to, as was visible enough by the temporary shortcuts the bus had to take. At every stop some local food peddlars with some local food items climbed on the bus, and after having served the willing passengers, left the bus quite later. I am not quite sure how they work out their logistics, and in fact I am still not quite sure what food they served, although I tasted it, the spicy kind and the less (or allegedly ‘not’) spicy one. Xiaolou had chosen a seat quite far from me, so he was leading conversation with his neighbours and attracted the food merchants, as he was obviously the main attraction on the bus. He got his food for free, and so did I because I inherited the food from him because he couldn’t eat these too spicy delicatessen. Our guidebook had warned us we would pass a ‘grim coal mining town’ called Gongxian.
Xiaolou and I were surprised to see on the contrary quite a dynamic, clean and well organized city (although all these impressions were caught through a bus window) and were ready to throw that guidebook in the dustbin.
When we arrived in Luobiao, we were met by pushy touts who wanted to push us to the only, they said, hotel in town. Because we were fed up with being pushed around, we told them we were big enough to push ourselves where we wanted. So we left them on the spot with this highly philosophical reply to ponder about, and hiked down the road out of this small town of Luobiao, just in case we would see some coffins flying around. For being in the middle of nowhere, the town was rather ugly, exhibited a huge modern incomplete and empty building in its very center with two rather big trees growing on its top. P1020912.jpg It remained a mystery to the end for us how and why these trees grew up there. No sign of coffins either , hanging nor flying, so we walked back to the centre and pushed ourselves in the hotel the touts had aleady wanted to push us into right from the beginning in the end the hotel proved a good choice (if we can call that a choice) because in spite of its rather uninviting lobby it had a nice view, a nice manager, and a nice computer in the room. This had the unexpected consequence that this day was the only one where we managed to skype and speak to the home troups, and that from the middle of nowhere, while the other attempts from world cities such as Beijing, Xian and Chengdu had failed for all sorts of petty reasons.
Before our skype session we had gone out in further reconnaissance of the place. A simple hairdresser’s shop meant our next stop in view of the face variations for our daily selfies. This time no beard shaving, but real hair cut. I was mentally ready to go for the almost shaven clear hair cut Chinese frequently show. I left it completely up to the hairdresser’s choice, and he, although he cut a lot, left me, surrprsingly much more haire than expected, and did a fine job..
In order to be able to regrow it, we then went for a bite, and had one of our worst ones: our rather simple rice dish was tasteless and little appetizing, but probably to compensate highly priced. After this surprising dinner, we went for a walk to recognize the surroundings in a further attempt to find flying coffins. During this walk we had been followed by a group of children, but as they kept following us even if we took the most improbable paths, our attitude slowly changed from not giving them any sign of reaction or any stimulation due to the feeling of being stalked and harassed (even in the middle of nowhere) to slight mockery and pestering by walking very quickly and then very slowly. Xiaolou had to go for the big toilet somewhere in nature, but these stalkers hindered him from doing so, which only added to our annoyment. Because their persistence was remarkable and in fact hilarious, I finally addressed them and a conversation started, We discovered they were nice children, just over curious and probably over bored. In the evening heat Xiaolou was dreaming of having a swim, so we asked them if they knew where to find swimming pools or ponds. Of course they know, and they showed us one, but because our new little friends could not swim and Xiaolou would have to swim by himself, we asked for another one where they would join in the water. At dusk Xiaolou and his friends were splashing around in small rocky pond constantly fed with water from a cascade. Soon other children from the village came to see the show, and even a few adults. After this cool bath, we walked back into the Liubiao, where we were welcomed and invited . quite forcefully to sit down at a large party table on the street. No choice was left to me either about drinking what was offered to my lips: they called it white wine, but it was strong and came in different rounds when about every member of the party wanted to drink with me separately.
Fortunately Xiaolou had a non alcoholic version of the same treatment. In the general merriment we proposed to the children in the presence of their parents, uncles and aunts, and other relatively distant relatives, to come back the next early morning, to have a morning swim, and would they like to join ? We managed to stroll back to our hotel, and even more heroically, to rise early as we had promised and call on them. It was so early that only two kids came along for the swim. This time since the pond was not too crowded I joined too, but I bumped into a craggy rock on the bottom, and wounded myself at the foot. The pond was abviously too shallow for me, but the bleeding cut handicapped my walking as it was on the spot where my sandal strap would rub.
We had decided to stay up early that day, because we wanted to see a lot that day and move to the next desitination still that night. That day the hanging coffins and the terraced paddies were on our self-imposed program. Our two little Chinese friends showed us the way to the hanging coffins , a few kilometers away. At the foot of quite a big group of them hanging from the cliff, a small but quite interesting exclusively Chinese museum explained this funerary phenomenon. However I still don’t undertstand how many of these more than 1000 years old wooden coffins still hang in rather good shape. How come the wood of the coffins and even more surprisingly the wood of the boulders sticking out horizonatally from the rock as a porcupine on which the coffins rest, hasn’t rotted away.large_P1020920.jpg
How these coffins were ever placed there, and why are questions which even the museum doesn’t give definite answers to, merely possible theories. large_P1020921.jpg
On our way closer to the coffins, we entered a big natural cave in the rock where bats were hanging upside down and from which the view on the surrounding mountainous landscape was great. The Bat Cave

The Bat Cave

Our two small Chinese friends were not in the least scared to get deeper and deeper in the cave. Both were smaller in size than Xiaolou, but tricksolder : 11 and even 13 (or probably 10 and 12 in Western counting). The 3 kids formed a jolly joyful group. They exchanged bits of conversation, jokes and tricks, mostly in Chinese. We walked further down in the valley to try to find even more flying coffins sparsely and irregularly distributed against the cliffs. Some of them had fallen down, obviously. It was about time now to find our second item on the program : the high-edged terraced rice paddies. I had been enchanted by the vision of mountains covered by mirrors. In Chengdu I had seen these on a picture, and I had managed to find out where the picture had been taken, so i knew we were very near, with no more precision due the constant lack of detailed maps during this whole journey. Although I had already seen lots of these terraced mountains, so far I hadn’t seen the paddies drowned in water creating this beaufiult mirror reflection. I had also noticed by now, that the reason why I hadn’t seen the water in the paddies, is that we were travelling in the wrong season: the rice plants were already too high, turning the paddies in wild fresh green cushions, hiding the water under them. However in Chengu I had carefully stacked in my memory the name of these paddies in Chinese: not just titian (terraced paddies) but gaokan (high ridge) titian, from which I deducted that these were paddies with specially high edges to contain more and longer water. I was actually quite proud to have deducted all that by myself, and that we were now nearing these special paddies in the middle of nowhere without map or any tourist sign. Near, especialy when you are on foot, is a very relative concept. The indications I received from the Chinese I asked, varies between 15 and 30 km. Considering my threesome troups, I thought it may be a little too much for them, so we hitchhiked. A van was willing to take us on the way as far as it had to go anyway. We gladly accepted. Having reached that point, the driver was now even willing to take us to the gaokan titian.
He even offered to wait a few minutes for us to see and then drive us back. As we reached the top of the mountain range, he started mentioning the price. It was way out of our budget and completely exaggerated. So I said he could leave us at the gaokan titian, and we would find our way back by ourselves. Suddenly I read Gaokan in Chinese on a signboard. Gaokan was just the name of a village, and had nothing to do with high ridged paddy fields. Gaokan did have paddy fields though, but they were as green as all the others we had already seen, and didn’t exhibit any particularly high edges. However when the driver had dropped us off and left , we walked further and we did find some magnificent views on the fully terraced mountains. Only they showed off in lush green instead of mirror-like refledction of the sky in the water.P1020935.jpg
The day was now at its hottest, and we were in the middle of paddy fields. Further up we saw some Chinese harvesting apples in big baskets. Xiaolou helped them while his two little friends were recovering from the heat and the mountain climb.
Back in Gaokan, we had some lunch on a street corner, ideal for being gaped at and hearing comments on waiguoren (foreigners), until I confirmed in Chinese that Xiaolou and I were Chinese, but our 2 little friends were foreigners. The confusion was so big, that we didn’t hear a word any more, until I couldn’t hold myself any more from giggling, especially at seeing our two little friends faces. They needed their lunch for what was to come: we now had about 15 km to walk back (fortunately most of it downwards). They must still be wondering, poor devils, why on earth did we want to go to Gaokan, why on earth did they go with us, and why on earth had I let go of the car, and had I refused to take some other (improvised) taxi. But they did walk down all the way, more dead than alife. Xiaolou tried to raise their spirits, successfully. We stopped regularly and it turned out to be a very nice hike, with some beautfiful views on mountains, P1020944.jpg bamboo groves and…. Terraced rice paddies.
During our hike we had ample time to get better acquainted with our little friends and asked them what they wanted to become later as an adult. From the older one the answer came without hesitation: soldier. As I had trouble to believe this was this sweet kid’s dream, my poor command of Chinese tried to make a more suitable profession out of what he had replied, but no he hadn’t said ‘kanbing (doctor)’ but ‘dangbing’ (serve as a soldier). His younger friend, after some longer hesitation, finally said the same too. I was surprised but it confirmed what we had already heard elsewhere, when adults told us their favorite programs on television are war or military films. And there are plenty of them on television. So is the Chinese propaganda machine working its population up for war or an aggressive military stance. I hope not, but these simple observations certainly pointed in that direction.
In spite of the pauses, I kept a decent rhythm in it, because our plan was to leave Luobiao and take the bus for the Sea of Bamboos. However when we finally got back to the hotel, the last had already left, and so there was nothing left than staying one more night and leave the next day early morning.
Our Chinese friends had offered us the previous night to stay the night at their home, but as we had already had the hotel room, it made no sense to change then. For this night we could have probably stayed at their home, but we were so tired that we wouldn’t have been able to stay alert or even awake for any social talk. So we just stayed another night at the same hotel in a room with the charming reminder on a signboard not to spit on the floor.
New friends: our two xiao pengyou, and their families

Posted by Pat2014 14:29 Archived in China Tagged luobiao Comments (0)



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The next morning it rained heavily and we missed the first train, but caught the next one. This time we stopped in Gongxian, had to wait a few hours for the next bus to Chongqing, as by then we had not imre any more to go and see the Sea of Bamboos. In the mean-time we had the famous Yibin Ranmen, decided it was good but not to the point of doing 600km for it as the 2 nurses from Chengdu had done. I overruled Xiaolou’s vanity and convinced him that he would not be less handsome after a haircut, on the contrary, Besides he just had to for the variation of the selfies. He underwent the full process at a quite posh hairdresser’s: two washings and three haircuts (as I insisted the cust wasn’t short enough, obviously my Chinese for very, very short, even accompanied by the approporate gesture proved ineffective) . Xiaolou was very happy with the result, but with this lengthy haircut session, we had missed the chance to go and get my third anti-rabies injection: the local hospital was now closed. We filled our remaining time by looking for a Chinese DVD’s with duly subtitled Chinese films, but didn’t find any. Chinese must download them all by now., but we did find a toilet in a fruit shop for the urgent need of Xiaolou.
Even in the rain, Gongxian was not quite grim, as the guidebook had announced

Posted by Pat2014 14:41 Archived in China Comments (0)


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8th-9th August

The train took us from Chengdu to Zigong. Zigong boasts a few curiosities that attracted us: - the salt museum and the salt well, as well as its teahouses. It is also home to the best price-quality hotel we stumbled upon during our whole journey. For a mere 100 yuan we received a very modern and clean double room with all possible modern equipment. Everything looked brandnew, including the mahjong tables that this hotel seemed to be devoted to, as two of the four storeys of the hotel contained nothing but special mahjong rooms. It was also very convenitently located close to the station. .

We hurried to the Salt museum in center town, which was housed in a beautiful ancient mansion complex, and very well documented. P1020899.jpg

I have always wondered at the power of salt, its attraction to humans, its economic and historic huge value. It is all the more difficult to grasp for me, because personally I don’t like the taste of salt. However I have to admit that salt generated civilisations such as the one called Hallstatt (city of salt) among others, spawned words such as sou, solde and soldat in French or soldier in English, indicating again its fundamental economic significance, and produced the historic riches of cities such as Zigong. And obviously it is the same story all over the world. Xiaolou had a good look (and hand) at the wooden maquette of salt drilling installation.

After this interesting visit we searched for the allegedly renowned teahouses. Considering the number of wrong indications about their location, they must be renowned to all except to the locals. We finally found the impressive façade of one of them, but the inside had only little charm, so we went for the second one by the river. The tea was good, but the view was exquisite. The windows opened on the the confluence of two arms of the green waters of the local river, A golden roofed temple peaked on the other side, and a lone fisherman squatting under his large conic straw hat at the foot of a flight of stone stairs , had cast his line, and waited, motionless. This was a (tea)room with a view. P1020905.jpg
In order to capture the details of that serene scene, I asked a piece of paper and something to draw. I received a blue ball pen, and a small slit of thin paper, so this is what I had to eternalize this sight of eternal China on.

We had dinner in a small local joint, and while waiting we invited the boy of the house, that sat at the back, to play Xiangqi with Xiaolou. He did and and lost thanks to his father who betrayed his son, shamelessly but commercially, by helping Xiaolou to make the winning moves against his own son.The boy was about the same age as Xiaolou, but since the Chinese are one year old from the first day of their life, it takes some recalculation or translation to understand the real age.
To make sure he would hold no grudge against us, we played tag with him and his friends on the street sidewalk and let him win until I decided to get some medicine at the nearest drugstore against an upcoming sore throat and head ache.

We couldn’t wait to get back to our hotel, and take full advantage of the modern bathroom P1020906.jpgand the big television flatscreen. However sleep quickly took over.

The next early morning we were queuing up to get on the train for Yibin.Two girls who had already spotted us on the platform, ended up (I suspect not by chance) sitting in front of us in the same compartment, although we had entered a the train by a different wagon. They were nurses using their only weekly day off to go to Yibin (150 km away) to have a Yibin ranmian lunch. We thought this must be really exceptional a dish to deserve such a trip. While dreaming about this meal, we proposed to play Chinese poker with them. P1020908.jpgThey readily accepted and we had a very pleasant trip with lots of supporters, as many of the other Chinese passengers marveled at our playing so well (?). Xiaolou won a few times too.

We were not to stay very long in Yibin because we still had to catch one of the few coaches for Luobiao. So we hesitated a long time to join the girls for their alluring lunch, but it seemed it would ruin the rest of the day’s program. The coach to Luobiao however started from another station, we had to reach by bus, the bus stop of which was of course, as usual, wrongly indicated, though without malice of course by the girls. Nevertheless with a lot of patience we found the right bus stop, the right direction and the right bus, and managed to get in time on the coach.

Posted by Pat2014 10:11 Archived in China Tagged and sweet sleep salt Comments (0)


Sails in Leds

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The bus drove us through even more terraced rice paddies. I was seated in the bus behind a lady who managed to open the window that was shared with me, to throw up quite substantially, while riding, and to close the window right after. And on we went, not giving a hoot about it.

Chongqing may be one of the most gigantic millions city in China that nobody of the West can locate, or, even worse, associates with a really existing place. Its name itself, although having the quite joyous meaning of ‘repeated celebration’ if you read its characters, sounds like a childish mocking imitation of imaginary Chinese. But we can now confirm, Chongqing really exists, it even gave its name to its surrounding area: the newly made official Chongqing Province.

The bus dropped us at some unknown point, located out of the small map of Chongqing I had managed to find. When asking the very pushy touts where the nearest metro station was, we only got further pushes toward some motorbike or taxi or rickshaw they wanted us to get in, but didn’t get the slightest indication as to what direction we should walk. Getting so fed up with their impoliteness and unwillingness to help, I screamed sarcastically ‘ xiexie’ in a very ungrateful tone, but refused to get on one of their vehicles. To cool down we entered the first hotel we saw, and hesitated about one hour whether to take this rather luxurious room or move again to unknown territory.

We finally moved, found the subway, queued in front of the machine only to find out the machine didn’t accept most of the banknotes or coins, queues again to get some change, queued yet again to finally get the tickets out, queued in front of the security checking machine, queued to pass through the ticket checking machine and queued on the subway platform for the train to arrive. This very impractical queuing series is by no means the privilege of Chongqing but seems to be rather standard in all Chinese subways. We got out at the last station of the line towards the supposed centre, and got out in the drizzling evening.

There used to be a large centre for guests or merchants from the Guang (-dong and –xi) and Hu (-bei and –nan) provinces in olden times. It was now transformed into a museum, but it sounded inviting enough especially since there should be a suitable hostel in its immediate vicinity. The way went down countless staircases towards the river.
While descending in the dark, the conversation drifted somehow to the even darker subject of drugs. I warned him against false friends who would drag him down, and that he would need to resist temptation. It may become very difficult for him because the downside of his openness is that he is so easy to influence and subject to peer pressure. He asked heart-breakingly how he could make sure not to fall for it. I told him too there was a good chance he would not listen to any of his parents advice or warnings over a few years, and that in fact he might want to do exactly the opposite. He was surprised and wanted to know why.

We reached the river without having found the hostel. By now it was pouring rain, but except another Chinese traveler looking for a hotel, we had found nothing. Xiaolou called the hotel, as we had no other option any more except floating aimlessly with the rain into the huge river (the Yang Zi Kiang or Chang Jiang, or Blue river) .

Xiaolou had had the task and responsibility to keep his little telephone with the Chinese telephone card, where we usually had registered the phone numbers of potential hostels during the preceding train or bus journey. He was then in charge of dialing the needed number and handing the mobile over to my ear after the first ring. Generally speaking Xiaolou had been promoted to the much envied position and function of ‘eyeglasses’. I couldn’t read the much too small figures on his much too small screen on his small mobile for one, but also many times I couldn’t read the letters or the characters on ill lit or far too small and scant maps. It was a constant: every time I absolutely needed to read something in order to find the right bus, train or destination, the lighting was deficient or dim for ambiance purposes, which gave me the hint that maps in China, if at all, were merely decorative. Xiaolou then read the English approximately, if it was available, or more othen than not, described the Chinese characters even more approximately for me to have wild guesses. Anyway here again Xiaolou performed his task faultlessly and here too it served its purpose wonderfully well. Only now he put his mobile to the ear of that other lost Chinese young traveler, and as a result a few minutes later the hostel manager appeared with a few reserve umbrellas where we were waiting : near a brandnew not yet operational grand bridge crossing the river. By that time I had already given up going to that hostel, that wasn’t even able to properly indicate its location, and because the Chinese traveler, having his own agenda gave us lots of wrong information, I didn’t want to go any more to that hostel, and rather wanted to be left alone. The other Chinese too left for some other hotel, but Xiaolou and the Chinese hotel manager with this umbrellas insisted we should follow him. Fed up with all these pushy Chinese that kept giving nothing but wrong information, I nonetheless gave in and followed them in a rather bad mood and soaking wet. Finally arriving at the hostel (we had actually walked past it) we discovered a very nice old double court yarded guest house with lanterns all over the place.P1020956.jpg

After drying up a ltttle and having chosen our beds, we went out to see what this city had to offer: rain and darkness along the mighty river. It had become rather late, so we had to walk quite a bit in search of some life, which we found in Jiaochang: huge buildings, disco’s, 4D cinema’s, and a closed subway station. We walked back in a straighter way, but without map this remains a difficult exercise, as the central Chongqing due its hilly and peninsular configuration does not present the favourite Chinese square lay out.

The next morning we had to find our routine anti-rabies injection facility. And we did. Of all obliged injection shops, Chongqing was the best, most conveniently located, and quickest service. Anti-rabies shots may not be the most trendy, searched after tourist item, but it is the one we have gained solid experience about and can write a Michelin starred guide book about. . We bought some pastry in some typically Japanese-style luxury type of bakery, just for the experience of tray, gloves and pincers. We also found one of the few remaining old Chongqing variations on skyscraper in bamboo (or something similar) and still visibly inhabited
and just next to it the ultra modern variation with its top lost in the clouds.P1020960.jpg

We enquired this time about the 4D film we had seen advertised, but the film was only to come out in premiere by the next week. Once more we boarded the subway, to Ciqikou, this rather well preserved but very crowded handicraft and other Chinese touristy ancient part of town. Shops with special cookies, sweet or savoury, making noodles from a plump mass on the street, very colorful flowery spun sugar creations, P1020962.jpgetc. ,P1020964.jpg women with numbered wheel of fortunes that stripped the Chinese gamblers from their cash, views on the river, historic teahouses, or teahouses having had some historic guests, etc. a lively world that would certainly make us miss our next destination if Xiaolou and I didn’t keep an eye on our failing telephone watch: we needed to get back in time to get our tickets for the cruise on the Yangzi Kiang leaving from Chongqing the same evening. And before that I had to find out exactly when we would get back on land and where and how we would get back to Beijing in time for a last mountain week-end with Mr Sun and his family.
This has proven the toughest bit: getting the right information. In spite of my enquiring at about 10 different places from about 20 different people I never found out the correct information until we were actually already seated on the train from Yichang to Wuhan, two full days later. We had bought 2nd class tickets on a grand glitzy passenger boat cruising from Chongqing to Yichang, through the famed three gorges. A line employee picked us up and guided us on foot to the harbour where all the cruise ships were lining up, at the tip of Chongqing’s central peninsula. Quite a colorful show: some of the boats exhibited the shape of pagoda’s, others were floating casino’s, and still others looked dismal or shabby: Ours, on the last jetty, rather fitted in this last category.

On the quay we bought the laser spot we had already spotted in Xian, and flying plastic birds. We followed our guide onto the boat and quickly stored our luggage in our assigned room, and while we had some time before departure, went off again to see some more of Chongqing from the esplanade. The night has already fallen, but the sheer size of Chongqing was no less impressive: P1020973.jpgskyscrapers on all sides of the confluence of the rivers in front of us, the cruise boats impatiently waiting for a signal to depart, moving sails in LEDs flaring up on a dozen of high rise buildings across the river, the fully lit opera house just opposite, and the fresh breeze in our faces. With his new laser light, Xiaolou could reviewed with precision all the surroundings, pointing at kilometers distant details with his green beam.

Leaving the esplanade, we met a young Chinese pimpled girl, that accompanied us to a nearby restaurant. She seemed to be happy just to sit and chat with us. She said she had already eaten and that was her excuse not to take anything to eat. Xiaolou on the other hand had by now already decided what his favourite Chinese dish was: sweet-sour aubergines. The girl was a sales assistant in a shoe shop, she confided shyly, but she too wanted to travel some time perhaps in her life. We said goodbye to the sweet girl, and hurried back to our boat, that we couldn’t afford to miss, while our luggage was already aboard. In fact with the mass of wrong information we have been fed with since the beginning of our journey, in retrospect it was quite a risk to leave the boat at all, and certainly to come back just before the announced departure time.

Our second class cabin was also on the second deck. Second class basically means four bed room. The first claas on the top deck contained double rooms, and the third class on the lowest deck 8-bed dorms. After a while our room mates appeared: not two, but three people: a couple and their 10-year old boy. A little irritated by these Chinese arythmetics, we gradually rolled into friendly conversation: they were from Yan’an in Shaanxi, the stronghold of poil dans la soupe, that we had carefully avoided to visit. Their son soon became best friend with Xiaolou, and both were most happy to spend the cruise together.
Finally under deafening hooting, our ship moved and slowly moved out of the harbor, and out of the lights of Chongqing.

New friends: sweet Chinese shoe shopkeeper, family from Yan’an

Posted by Pat2014 15:47 Archived in China Tagged chongqing Comments (0)


Gorges and Goddesses

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11th-14th August
Cruise on the Yangzi Kiang

In spite of his shabbiness, our boat moved swiftly over the wide river. And quietly: no engin noise in our cabin. But the unpleasant surprise came from the evidence that there was no place on the whole boat to sit down out on the decks and enjoy the views, except for the aft deck where seats could only be obtained for extra cash. I found this outrageous: a cruise ship going through marvelous famed scenery and no place to actually sit and enjoy it. I refused to pay the extra. Xiaolou was allowed to stay and sit on that part for free, if he wanted, but I was going to stand on the front deck. In fact it turned out that I was better off in the front because the wind made it very pleasant.
Also I am not sure why Chinese choose to go on this cruise, because most of them just stayed in their cabin, with hardly any view at all, for most of the journey, but at least as a result the open front decks were not too crowded. Even though the boat was full.

The next morning the boat halted at Fengdu, the ghost town. As a flock of sheep the tourists followed the touts, but I was very hesitant to pay yet again another extra. Besides nobody seemed to be able to explain why Fengdu would be worth our while to visit, and why in a group instead of in the company we chose. So we let the well trained flock of Chinese tourists go on land ahead of us, and we would see by ourselves. On the opposite side of the river, a rather big city loomed up without movement and without lights, which prompted Xiaolou to name that side of the river, the ghost town. However Fengdu got this nickname mainly because the series of temples and shrines we were about to visit, are all somehow linked or dedicated to the nether world. Taking full advantage of this reputation, they even had some labyrinth meant to represent the Chinese version of hell. However primitive and poorly made, it still managed to scare Xiaolou thoroughly.

The series of temples built on this hill, is quite impressive, and features among others a double bridge which, if you cross it with a soul unworthy of heaven, will open up and drop you in the rather shallow waters flowing (or stagnating) about half a meter beneath it. Only the left part of the bridge is supposed to have that particularity, and it is guarded by subcontinental Indians in full ornate costumes. The queue to cross the bridge was long enough, but nobody seemed to be interested in crossing the right part. As far as we could see, the bridge hadn’t opened recently and nobody had gone down. We just crossed the right part. P1020977.jpg

Higher up we saw bronze like bowls containing water, that splashed up as fine rain as soon as the metallic (but not bronze) handles of the bowls were rubbed. We were not sure what ghost caused this upward rain, but I guess he must have strong physical or chemical acquaintances. P1020978.jpg

We bought a retractable metal sword, ideal for taiji quan, and absolutely useless to hurt, let alone kill anybody. Nevertheless this sword was never fated to go back home with us, because the security airport authorities decided later in Beijing that we could not take it with us on the plane, and so it stayed in China.

Back on board of our ship, we saw a flat river boat loaded with a bright strikingly yellow bulk material pass on the river. Was it gold or was it sulphur ? in view of the adjacent hell, it must have been the second.P1020981.jpg

Our next stop on the Yangzi kiang, was for the bizarre geological formation of Shibao, a huge rock in the middle of the river, topped by a temple of course. This time though instead of paying again the extra cash and following the Chinese tourist crowd behind the uninteresting tout, we took a completely different way to get around the rock from the other side. P1020986.jpg

The main difficulty is of course to keep an eye on the time and decide whether the information you were given about the departure time of the boat was correct. We even found and bought a map of the Yangzi Kiang's three-gorges area, which we were cruising. Fortunately because again no such map with much tourism information had been available on the boat. At least now we knew what towns we were seeing and what we were missing.
By night we arrived in Wanzhou, that Xiaolou abundantly lit with his green laser light. At some point his laser light was met and crossed by a fellow laser light in opposite direction coming from the harbor.

A little later while peacefully playing cards in our cabin with our little room mate and his mum, we were rather forcibly dragged from it to one of the adjacent cabins to have a round of ‘white wine’ toasts with its occupants (in fact the father of the family in our cabin and his work colleagues).
The trouble is that as only ‘honoured’ guest of many hosts, you have to empty your glass (and all the participants check this compelling detail) every time someone of your many hosts gets it in his head to raise his glass. Our little room mate was laughing all along at this ironic situation where a guest who is meant to be honored and pleased, is actually been coerced into great difficulty. Our family’s mum weakly tried to defend me. Xiaolou worried very much about my dire situation and mental health, and urged me to stop.
After a few glasses, I managed to tell them in Chinese that I was already drunk, so there was no point in having me drink more unless they wanted me to vomit too. That calmed their ardours, and slowly I was able to make my way back to our cabin, in general merriment.

During that night we passed one of the three gorges. This cruise must be dubbed ‘the joke for sightseeers’. However in early morning the sun rose and and lit the second gorge with its weak, pinkish colour and offered some splendid views. One of the more famous peaks along the gorge carries the name Goddess Peak.
Shortly after the ship halted for yet another tourist excursion (payable in extra of course): the visit of a smaller side-gorge in a smaller boat. Again we had our doubts about its being worth our while, and decided it would be nothing more than what we were already enjoying. This was confirmed when we asked the tourists that came back two hours, later. As a consolation we took pictures of ourselves in front of the poster idealizing the small valley we were now missing. So we could always make believe we had gone there too.

The ship was now heading for the last of the 3 gorges and the large 3-gorge dam ahead. I enjoyed the breeze and the views, even if standing most of the time, from the narrow but mostly empty front decks. Xiaolou in the mean-time was playing with his mate all over the ship, and I had given up trying to find them, although that was probably the best activity to find on board.

Somehow on the boat or even before, Xiaolou had picked up a catchy Chinese song : ni shi wo de xiao ya xiao pingguo (you are my small, small apple), but he never managed to fathom the deep meaning of this highly intellectual song.
The only other foreigners on board were a Viennese couple , first class passengers but by then they still were not very sure what first and class exactly meant.

When we finally arrived in view of the huge dam P1030007.jpg and disembarked, we still had no clue how to make it in time for our next morning’s flight from Wuhan. Most certainly though, we had to hurry and try to find the quickest way. So we climbed up the hill, carrying our luggage that had always become more and more cumbersome and bigger during our journey, rather than using the funny looking motor pulled mountain trains, and we arrived on top before the bulk of the other boat passengers. This in turn enabled us to catch the last places on a bus going to Yichang city. And fortunately by collecting a little money from a few passengers needing to go to the train station and handing this collect to the driver, the bus was hijacked to go to the station of Yichang even before going to the official destination. At the train station, after the by now usual queuing up, running around from one to the other counter, we managed to take the right tickets to arrive in Wuhan in time.

This high speed train took us in about 3 hours to destination, but our ears and mental health were put at a test during the trip, and made us decide this time definitively that Chinese ears are different or more plausibly the stuff between the ears. In the train we have many neighbours on 4 different sides: front, back, left and right, not to mention left back, left front, right front and right back. So far so good, but when they all think they are alone in the train, and all set their tablets or mobiles with films, games and radio as loud as if they were by themselves. Without earplugs or earphones, this train experience, but unfortunately this one was no exception, was unbearable at least to me. Our sleeping beauty Xiaolou had fortunately for him managed to stay aloof of all this by sinking into his dreams. Minding your fellow passengers, would in most cultures be rated basic politeness or just being civilized, but obviously this part of civilization has not fully recovered yet since the general wipe out of all basic human interaction rules during the Cultural Revolution. Pushing without even a hint of apology, jumpng the lines, gaping at others or at situations which are one of their business , abrupt shouting at one another as usual way to make conversation, etc. are probably remnants of the same social catastrophic experiment, but maybe it is also engrained deeper in the Chinese and maybe they are just more physical and straighter to the point. Even if it has to be said, they don’t appear as particularly physical in their other contacts or straight to the point in other circumstances, on the contrary. Anyway these unpleasant characteristics of some of the interactions with the Chinese sometimes exceeded my patience, especially when I was tired. At one moment I decided to return the compliment, to shout back, to push back, to gape back, etc. and oh did I enjoy that, and even better, the Chinese too seemed to enjoy it.

Posted by Pat2014 04:19 Archived in China Tagged yangzi kiang Comments (0)

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