Two Planes and Two Trains

So… here we go again.  After a fairly uncomfortable night in which we both dozed intermittently, we finally checked in for the first leg of our flight, Hong Kong to Shanghai.  We were able to check our cases right through to London Heathrow.  We then found somewhere to have a cup of coffee, then we got freshened up as best we could and made our way to the departure lounge for the 07:40 China Eastern Airlines flight.

What can I say?  Shaun the Sheep.  Top 10 Celebrity Divorce Settlements.  Noodles or rice. Water or orange ‘juice’.  Boring, boring, boring.  Spent the two and a half hour flight playing on my Nintendo DS and dozing.

Eventually we arrived at Shanghai Pudong airport.  We had a good couple of hours to wait here, so we went along to the executive lounge and used our Priority Passes to get in, where we could at least get something decent to eat and have some good coffee.  I enjoyed some croissants and fruit, and relaxed in comfortable chairs in peaceful surroundings.  At 11.00am they brought out the alcohol, including a bottle of Freixenet, hooray.  So we were able to enjoy some decent booze until our flight was called.   🙂

At 12:35pm local time our plane left Chinese soil for the 13 hour flight to London Heathrow.  This time, however, we were on an Airbus 330 which was a bigger, more modern plane with AVOD, so we were actually able to choose our own in-flight entertainment (or watch nothing at all).   The meal was still the inevitable rice-or-noodles concoction, but at least they served wine with it.

After the meal the cabin crew inexplicably announced that we had to put our window shades down and they were going to dim the lights.  This wouldn’t have been a problem, but they insisted on remaining like that for the entire flight!  So, even though it was daytime they made us sit in the dark, the only light coming from the dim reading lights.  The only real respite we had was when we decided to watch one of the movies, War Horse, which is one we’d been wanting to see.  It was a lovely film, a real tear-jerker, and at least it passed a couple of hours in what was an incredibly boring flight spent in the dark.   😦

There’s not really much left for me to write.  We landed on time at Heathrow at 18:50 BST and retrieved our cases; we hoped we wouldn’t be stuck in any queues as we had to get to Kings Cross Station in time for the 9.00 o’clock train back up to Durham.  Luckily we got through immigration quickly, then we were on the Heathrow Express to Paddington.  Then the Tube from Paddington to KX where we arrived at 8.30pm, giving us half an hour to spare.

We went into the “Parcel Yard” for a much-needed pint (aaahhh… good, real English beer at last!) then boarded the train for the last leg of our journey, the three-hour trip back up North.

On arrival at Durham station we got a taxi home, arriving back in the house just after midnight.  Were we glad to see our bed!

Another excellent holiday had come to an end.  Here’s to the next time!   🙂

Wet Market and Wal-Mart

Woke up this morning feeling a bit sad, as it was our last full day in Shenzhen with Alan and Margaret.   😦

We checked the weather forecast on-line, because someone had said in Frog’s last night that a typhoon was supposed to be heading to Hong Kong and that the bridge between Shenzhen and HK might be closed if the weather was too bad, meaning we would be unable to get there and miss our early-morning flight home.  As a contingency, we checked to see what flights would be available later on.  Having discovered there was an Emirates flight each day out of Hong Kong which would go to Newcastle via Dubai, we felt a bit better as we knew we wouldn’t end up stranded, but it would cost us £500 each if we had to buy the ticket on the day.

After breakfast Margaret asked if we would like to visit the local ‘wet market’.  This is the Chinese livestock and seafood market, so-called because the fish and other sea creatures are kept live, in tanks of water.  We have come across this phenomenon before in the Far East; for example you can go into a fish restaurant and just choose the one you want for your meal from a selection of them swimming around in a tank, then a few minutes later you’ll receive it cooked and ready to eat on a plate!  I don’t think I could eat something if I’d had a chance to look it in the eye first.   😦

On arrival at the wet market it was hard to say which of your senses was assaulted first; your nose – from the indescribable  (unpleasant) smells, your ears – from the sound of trickling water to the cries of the vendors, or your eyes from the sheer sight.

Walking around the market, I found it most distasteful.  The live fish were not kept in tanks of water, but more like large plastic washing-up bowls filled with water that was flowing in from various hose pipes around the place.  However, the bowls were filled to capacity; there was no room for the fish to swim around.  We could see their gills moving spasmodically, and every now and again one would try to jump out of the bowl, its mouth opening and closing in desperation.  Some of them just lay listlessly on their sides on the bottom of the container and we didn’t know whether they were alive or dead.

As well as fish, there were tanks of eels, lobsters, frogs and turtles.  The turtles’ containers had nets over them and occasionally a turtle would poke its head out of its shell and get it stuck in the netting.  There were also bowls full of shellfish and other creatures that we were absolutely unable to identify.  We also saw packed cages containing chickens, ducks and even rabbits, and over it all was a horrendous smell of goodness-only-knew what.

There were also stalls selling fruits and vegetables and these were infinitely more pleasant than the livestock, although to be honest I don’t think I’d ever buy from a place like this.

It was with a sense of relief that we left the wet market and breathed in the relatively sweet air outside.  We decided to have a look around the local Wal-Mart, that ubiquitous US supermarket whose branches have sprung up all over the world, obviously including China.  Margaret said she could guarantee it would be quite different from any other supermarket we’d been into.   🙂

We entered the shopping precinct and went into Wal-Mart, where once again our nostrils were assailed by a horrid stench.  Looking around to try to locate its source (all we could see was fruit and vegetables) we discovered a huge display of durian fruits.  Say no more.  The durian is well-loved, almost revered in China and parts of south-east Asia, for its sweet, delectable flesh, but it is infamous for its foul stench, and indeed is banned on public transport and in public places.  It really does smell like sh*t, and it often called the fruit that “tastes like heaven and smells like hell”.

We got on the escalator to go up to the next floor and get away from the durians.  On this floor there were clothes and household goods.  The ladies’ clothes all looked absolutely tiny in keeping with the Chinese women’s petite builds; I felt like a big ungainly oaf wandering around.   😦

When we went downstairs again we found ourselves in another part of the food market.  There were ready-roasted chickens and ducks, all with their heads still on.  We had already been told by one of our Chinese guides on this trip that the Chinese eat anything with legs “apart from tables and chairs” and we’d found this to be true.  We saw the assistants preparing the meat and poultry, and I was most disconcerted to see a woman ‘dressing out’ a freshly killed turtle; she was scraping out its shell whilst its severed head and neck were just discarded to one side.  Yuk, yuk, yuk.  Horrible.  The British are far, far more fickle than the Asians when it comes to eating.  I don’t consider myself to be a fussy eater, indeed I am more adventurous around food than most, but I would be very picky indeed if I lived in China.

Once we were back in the apartment we reluctantly started packing our stuff up, leaving out only what we’d need to travel in.  We then took a shower, changed and had something to eat, as well as the usual cold beer.  Then we took a brief afternoon siesta before walking around to Frog’s for the last time to meet up with Alan.

We enjoyed a bit of a party atmosphere in Frog’s.  All the regulars were there, and some of them had their Chinese or Filipina wives/girlfriends with them.  We also heard that the typhoon wasn’t going to hit Hong Kong after all, so we’d have no problem getting across. We sat at the tables outside, and partook of a few drinks before we decided to go back to the Boat House for our dinner.

In the restaurant I settled for the Chef’s salad and it was, quite simply, the best chef’s salad I’d ever eaten.  I also shared a bottle of good white wine with Margaret while the time got closer to 10.30pm, when the private hire car was due to come and take us to the airport.

Back in the apartment, we collected our bags and Alan and Margaret gave Trevor a belated birthday card.  It transpired that they’d intended to organise a cake for Trevor in Frog’s, when everyone was there, but somehow the request had been lost in translation and the cake never materialised.  Never mind, the thought was there and the card was good; it was a Dutch one… the first card Trevor has ever had from the Netherlands.   🙂

At 22:30 hours precisely the car pulled up and we said our goodbyes amidst bear-hugs and kisses and thanks.  We’d had a brilliant time in Shenzhen thanks to Alan and Margaret and their incomparable hospitality, but now it was time to depart.

It took us about an hour to get to Hong Kong airport, where we were in for a l-o-o-o-o-o-o-n-g wait until we could check in for our flight.  We had originally intended to stay in a hotel at the airport, but the Regal Hotel was going to charge £360.00 for one night only, which was extortionate considering we’d only have a few hours in bed, as we’d need to arrive at the check-in desk about 05:00 hours.  We therefore decided we’d make the best of the benches and floors and doss down at the airport; it’s not as if we haven’t done it before.  Seeing sleeping forms strewn all over in airport lounges is a common sight, and we were just a couple more.

Pedicures and Pampering

Woke up around 8.30 this morning, after waking up in the night a few times due to torrential rain and thunderstorms.  The lightning was really bright, even through the curtains and my closed eyes.  When we got up, however, the rain had stopped and the sun was attempting to get through the scattered clouds.

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of muesli, toast and coffee before taking a shower and getting ready for whatever the day had in store.  Margaret recommended a beauty salon nearby where she goes for a foot and ankle massage as well as a pedicure.  That sounded good to me; I love being pampered and the price was about a third of what it costs back home.

We walked around to the salon and Trevor went into a little café/bar to read the English newspapers they had available and while away the time while we were having our treatments.  Margaret opted for a foot massage and I decided on the manicure and pedicure.  We sat in large, reclining armchairs while the manicurist sat on a small stool in front of us and set to work.  It was lovely and relaxing and the lady did a thorough job; it was done at a much less hurried pace than it is at home and the result was excellent.

When they’d nearly finished my fingernails, Trevor came back in to join us, then we all went off together afterwards to have a look round the local shops and maybe get some lunch.

We went to a little café we’d been to before; it’s clean and comfortable and you’d think you were in someone’s living room in their house.  Trevor and I opted for a beer and he decided to have a cheese and ham sandwich while I settled on their “special salad” as it was listed; I only wanted something light.  Margaret had a cup of tea and a sandwich.

I waited ages for my salad to arrive and when it did… what a disappointment!  It was simply a bowl filled with chopped cucumber and chopped raw carrot, nothing else.  But the problem is, I don’t like cucumber and I always pick it out of any salad I have.  So that basically left me with a bowl of raw carrot.  I’m surprised I didn’t develop long ears and a little fluffy tail.   🙂

After we came out we walked along and looked in all the little local shops.  A lot of them were selling cheap tat and designer knock-offs, but here and there you’d see a little gem of a boutique, selling all sorts of stuff from Chinese satin purses to rucksacks to lacquered trinket boxes.  It was into one of these little shops that we went for a browse around, and I soon spotted a neat little satin evening bag, in shades of pink and purple and black.  The price tag was 35 Yuan but we ended up getting it for 30 Yuan (three quid!!)  I mean three quid for an evening bag.  You pay more than that for a glass of wine back home!   🙂

When we came out of the shop the heavens opened; it had been threatening to rain again all morning, despite the persistent heat.  We tried to dodge it by going in and out of the various shops, and we ended up in a baker’s shop-cum-café, where we sat at one of their chairs and tables.  We had some coffee and I had a cake, which was a bit more substantial than the raw carrot I’d had for lunch.  🙂

Once the rain eased off we headed for home, where we changed out of our damp clothes and got dried off a bit.

At about 6.00pm we got the usual call from Alan to say he was in Frog’s, so we wandered around there and had a couple of drinkies, enjoyed the banter with the crowd, then went to a really good Mexican restaurant where I demolished a great big plate of nachos with loads of jalapeño peppers (yum) and a couple of frozen margaritas.   🙂

Then it was back to Alan and Margaret’s for a nightcap and a bit of telly.  We watched a daft American comedy film called Grown Ups, then went off to bed for what would be our last night in Shenzhen.   😦

Shopping in Shenzhen

Woke up at about 5.00am with a splitting headache and feeling quite nauseous.   😦  Got up for a drink of water and went back to bed again to try to get back to sleep, but only managed to doze on and off.

Woke up again about 7 o’clock and went to the loo, where my guts were rumbling ominously.  It didn’t feel like a hangover, but more as if I was going down with something.  Trevor was awake too, and he said he also didn’t feel too well.  We wondered if it was the fish we’d eaten on the plane yesterday, against our better judgement.

Drank some more water and looked all over for some paracetamol; anything that would get rid of this awful headache.

Got out of bed again; this time to be sick.  Felt a bit better afterwards.  Took some Imodium.   😦

When Margaret got up (Alan had already left for work about 7.00am) we asked her for some paracetamol and I took them with a glass of cold water, as well as a glass of dry ginger ale, which is really good for alleviating nausea.

I felt a lot better after I’d showered and got ready, once the tablets had kicked in and the headache had abated somewhat.  At about 10.00am we decided to go out to “Emily’s Café” to see if we could manage a light breakfast.

Emily’s is a lovely little café and I enjoyed a thirst-quenching cup of Jasmine tea as well as a lovely, freshly baked almond croissant, served warm.  By this time we were feeling more human and raring to go.   🙂

Margaret had arranged for a car to come and pick us up and take us to the Luohu Commercial City, a well-known shopping complex about a 40 minute drive away.  The area is popular with tourists and visitors and is renowned for its copies (fakes!) of famous designer goods, mainly handbags, sunglasses and watches, such as Chanel, Prada, Gucci, etc.  Apparently there are even different grades of fakes, from A to AAAAA.  The shopping complex also boasts many bespoke tailors and dressmakers, where you could get something made-to-measure and it would be ready for you in 48-hours.

When we got there, Margaret told us that the vendors would always quote their first price way, way over the top, thinking we were tourists.  Because Alan and Margaret have lived in China for over 18 months now, they are wise to the ways of the merchants and won’t fall for being ripped off, whereas Trevor and I don’t know any differently.  Therefore Margaret said if we saw something we were interested in, to leave the bartering to her.   🙂

On entering the complex it was a shoppers’ paradise.  Like most women, I was interested in the shoes and handbags, but it had to be exactly what I wanted; something that would really catch my eye.  We looked at a few fake Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags, but to be honest, they looked like fakes, plasticky and cheap and nasty looking.  I didn’t think any of them were worth the prices they were asking, even when Margaret beat them down a bit.

Walking around the dressmakers’ shops, I was mesmerised by the absolutely gorgeous evening dresses, stitched in silks, satins and brocades and decorated in sequins and seed beads, so intricately worked.  Many of the dresses were traditional cheong sams, but there were also lots of other evening dresses, some with matching wraps or bolero jackets.  I was so tempted to see if I could get one (or two!) made, but I must admit I do need to lose some weight and I didn’t want to order the dresses because (A) they wouldn’t really look nice on me until I’m a bit… no, a lot… thinner and (B) what would be the point of getting one made now, if I’m going to lose weight?  It wouldn’t fit me in months to come.  So it was with some reluctance that I had to turn away from the dresses, but there’s an incentive to diet if ever there was one.

After browsing around the shops some more, we came across a shoe shop which had a range of colourful and unusual styles.  We spent quite some time in there, with me trying lots of different styles on, and comparing one style with another and completely being spoilt for choice.  The price was shown as 168 Yuan per pair (about 17 quid) but Margaret whispered, “If you see three pairs you want to buy, you’ll get all three pairs for 300 Yuan”. (Just over 30 quid.)

So I browsed through them, and got the assistant to bring out the pairs in my size, and finally narrowed my choice down to three pairs:  a 3″ wedge in a beige colour covered in rhinestones, a strappy pair with pale green, white and beige straps with rhinestones, and a delicate mesh pair, with diamante decorations.  Margaret offered them 300 Yuan, at which the girl looked totally offended!  After bartering a bit, the girl came down to 400 Yuan, but Margaret made her final offer at 325, take it or leave it.  They still looked pretty offended and refused.  Therefore we said “OK, we’ll leave it then, there are plenty of other shops” and we left the shoes in their boxes on the floor of the shop, and walked out!

As we were wandering around the other shops, we could see the assistant coming out of the shop with her calculator in hand, watching us.  It was only when we started looking in the window of another shoe shop that she approached us and beckoned us back to the shop.  When we hesitated, Margaret said “We’ve given you our final price, 325 Yuan or we don’t want them”, and we continued walking.

At this point, the girl gave in, and agreed to sell me all three pairs for 325 Yuan, 179 Yuan cheaper than the marked price!   🙂

In another shop, I got a neat little green shoulder bag; it wasn’t a designer copy, it was just a bag I liked, and I got it for 12 quid.

All in all, a good morning’s shopping, and I was pleased with my purchases.

The car came back for us and took us back ‘home’, where we enjoyed a cold beer along with some fresh bread, ham, pickles, crackers and pâté.  We then decided to have an afternoon nap.

Later on, we went along to Frog’s where we met up with Alan and the rest of the gang.  We had a couple of drinks and enjoyed the banter; I can understand why Alan and Margaret made it their local pub.

For dinner we went along to a really good restaurant called the “Boat House”.  It came highly recommended by Alan.  I had an Aberdeen Angus burger on home-made bread, with chips and side salad.  It was delicious.  There was also understated entertainment on in the shape of a keyboard player/guitarist and a female singer.

Once we’d eaten fit to burst we went back to the apartment, watched a bit of TV and had a night cap.  What a great day we’d had, and spent in such convivial company as well.   🙂

Shanghai, Shaun the Sheep and Shenzhen

It was at 04:00 this morning when the wake-up call blasted in our ears and jolted us from sleep once more.  We had 45 minutes to be ready and down in the hotel foyer to collect our “breakfast box” (as the dining room wasn’t open at this unearthly hour) as the bus was due to leave at 5.00am to take us to Beijing Airport.

Bleary eyed and semi-somnolent, we waited downstairs with the others, some of whom were a little worse for wear, having left the hotel bar long after midnight.  We picked up our bags and our breakfast boxes, and made our way across the darkened street to the waiting bus. A peek in the goody box allayed our trepidation as to what we might find; there was some bread, ham, a couple of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, some cake, a banana and a carton of orange juice; not too bad.  We decided to wait until we were at the airport before eating it.  There wasn’t too much traffic around at this time of day.

At the airport, we checked in for our 07:40am flight to Shanghai, then ate our boxed breakfast, washed down with some Red Bull.  I wondered how many hours the flight would be late this time, but, amazingly, we were called to board on time.   🙂  We settled into our seats and it was only with the minimum of delay that the aircraft was soon soaring off into the wide blue yonder.

Once again we sat through the aircraft safety briefing which was followed by Shaun the Sheep and the Top 10 Celebrity Divorce Settlements (!!)  Don’t they have any other in-flight movies?!  The meal was the ubiquitous noodles-or-rice concoctions served with water, sweetened orange juice (yuk) or sweetened coffee (yuk).  Needless to say, we didn’t eat the meal.

After a couple of hours the plane touched down at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, and our party of 37 saw the parting of the ways with some of us flying down to Hong Kong, and the rest (including Robert) going back to good old Blighty.  I took a final photo of Robert cheerfully waving his Union Flag; I have to say he is probably the best travel rep/courier we’ve ever had, and we’ve had many during all our trips.  🙂

As we had a couple of hours to wait until our connection to Hong Kong, we decided to try the Executive Lounge.  However, when we got there, we saw that they only serve booze from 11.00am onwards, and since we’d have to leave to go to the boarding gate at 12.00, we’d only get an hour of the freebies.  We therefore decided just to look around the shops then go and have a beer at one of the many bars/cafés dotted around.

We found a place that did Heineken beer (instead of the crappy Tsing Tao lite beer), so we relaxed and enjoyed a couple before we were called to board.  It was a two and a half hour flight, once again on an A320 Airbus.  We felt as though we’d spent half of our holiday in Chinese airports and on China Eastern Airlines aeroplanes.  Yet again they were showing Shaun the Sheep followed by the Top 10 Celebrities Divorce Settlements (yawn).  When they came round with the meals we discovered they were serving fish this time and, as it was a long time since breakfast, we decided we’d try it.

Our flight MU503 touched down (on time!!!) in Hong Kong international airport.  But it was at this point where Trevor and I, once again, broke away from the rest of our party as we were going to stay with my cousin Alan and his wife Margaret in Shenzhen, across the water in mainland China.  It seemed daft going from China over to Hong Kong just to come back to China again, but that’s the way it was.

Once we’d disembarked the aircraft, we followed Alan’s advice and headed for the ferry terminal which was over in Terminal 1.  We had to wait for the shuttle bus to take us there.  It was utter chaos; crowds and crowds of people who have no conception at all of queueing.  We were hot, sweaty and tired after our early start and waiting around in airports/planes all day, so we were a bit disgruntled.  Also, I just wanted to get there as I was looking forward to seeing Alan and Margaret and spending some time with them.

The first shuttle bus that came along filled up quickly and we had about 10 minutes to wait until the next one.  When it arrived, we took a leaf out of the book of the locals and just pushed and jostled our way onto it.  When we got to the terminal we found the ferry ticket office and gave them our luggage tags.  What happens is that they then collect the cases from the carousel and load them onto the ferry for you, then you pick them up at the other end.

We’d just missed one ferry (typical!) so we had an hour to wait for the next one at 4.30pm.  We sat around yet again, then joined the lengthy queue to board the boat.  You had to take a train to take the ferry and we ran on board thinking it was about to leave any second.  But as ever, it was half an hour late (does nothing leave on time here?!) so it was nearer 5.30pm before we eventually arrived in Shekou.

On disembarking the ferry, we found one of our cases straight away, but the other one was nowhere to be seen.  We looked all over, getting tireder and hotter and sweatier and grumpier by the minute, and eventually Trevor showed his luggage receipt to one of the officials and he tracked it down for him.  Phew.

Then off we went, through immigration and passport control, until we saw Alan smiling and waving at the other side.  Finally we were here.   🙂   We got a taxi to their sumptuous apartment at Coastal Rose Garden II (what a picturesque address!) where we greeted Margaret and dumped our bags.  It was now 6.00pm and all we’d done all day was travel; buses, planes, trains, ferries and cars.

Then Alan uttered his magic words “Do you fancy going for a couple of pints in Frog’s?”  [Señor Frog’s, their local pub].  Did we ever?!  A freezing cold beer was just the ticket.  In a flash all our lethargy left us, as we followed them along the road to this friendly and colourful pub, where we met the rest of the locals, including a Sunderland lad and a bloke from Newcastle – it’s a small world.   🙂

After a couple of drinks we went to a restaurant that served Western food and we enjoyed chilli con carne and some good wine; made a change from Chinese food.

Then it was back “home” to Alan and Margaret’s for a nightcap and bed, after a very long day.  We had the luxury of a lie-in to look forward to in the morning, as well as whatever fun the day would bring.

Another Brit in The Wall

We were up again at 7.00 this morning, fed and watered and out of the hotel by 8.30am.  As we crossed the road in front of the hotel on our way to the bus, we were accosted by various hawkers selling anything from postcards, fans and sun hats to “Rolex” watches and “Gucci” handbags, all of which we refused.

The Beijing traffic first thing on a Monday morning was horrendous, and the bus crawled along at a snail’s pace.  However, it enabled us to see (and get some good photos of) the 2008 Olympics stadium, nicknamed the “Birds’ Nest” because of its shape.  We also saw the futuristic-looking aquatics centre, called “The Cube” and the velodrome.  Robert told us that the future of the Birds’ Nest is uncertain; they haven’t really found a use for it since the Olympics and it might just end up being demolished.   😦

Eventually we pulled up at our first stop for today; a look around a silk farm and factory.  China is well-known for its silk production and I was looking forward to seeing the beautiful fabrics as well as some of the clothing and household goods.

When we went in, a lady (whose English name was Mary) started by explaining the life-cycle of the silk moth, and how the larvae (worms) eat many times their own body weight in mulberry leaves before spinning their cocoon, the last stage before their metamorphosis into a moth.  In silk production, the grubs inside the cocoons are killed and the cocoons are then placed in boiling water to dissolve the gum that holds the silken threads together.  Where possible, the cocoon is then unwound into one very long, fine thread.  A strand of silk is very strong; stronger than a strand of steel of the same thickness.  We were allowed to feel the silk strands; they were barely visible they were so fine.

We were next taken to a place where the staff were creating pure silk wadding for use in duvets and pillows.  Once the cocoons were unwound, the silk yarn is then spun into skeins which provide a dense fabric which can be teased (stretched) into the layers than form the wadding for the quilt.   The layers are then stitched together and sewn into the outer bag (which is also made of silk).  The resulting duvet is extremely light and breathable, and can keep you warm in the cooler months and cool in the summer.  They finished duvets were on sale for 680 Yuan (around £68.00) for a queen-size quilt.  In addition, you could also buy the pure silk duvet covers and pillowcases, but as these were of a very fine fabric with quite ornate patterns, they were very expensive; I remember seeing a king-size set for over £400.00.

Some people in our party bought the duvets and pillows, but I was more interested in seeing the clothing.  In particular, I was looking for a silken wrap or shawl that I could wear with a plain black dress on our next cruise in January.   🙂

We went into a massive emporium; it was full of Chinese Mandarin jackets, kimonos, cheong sams, shirts, blouses and all sorts of other things.  I eventually found the scarves and shawls and bought myself a lovely, floaty brightly coloured wrap for about 50 quid.  Gorgeous; you could only wear it with something very plain as you wouldn’t want anything else to detract from the beauty of the silken wrap.  Can’t wait to wear it.   🙂

Back on the bus we continued to battle our way through the traffic to our next destination (and probably the one thing we’d all come to see), the Great Wall of China.  Originally we were going to visit the Wall first, spend a couple of hours there, then have our lunch, but as we were running quite late it would be after 2.00pm before we got something to eat (and we’d had breakfast at 7.30am).  Therefore we decided to go to lunch first, then visit the Wall afterwards.

We arrived at Badaling and went into the blissfully air-conditioned restaurant where a buffet lunch had been laid on, consisting mainly of Chinese food but also some Western as well.  We enjoyed some cold beer with the meal (as ever) and, once we’d finished, we had a quick look round the souvenir shop before assembling outside to wait for the flag-waving Robert.  He explained to us that there were two routes we could take along the Wall; the “hard way” or the “bloody hard way”.   🙂   When we looked up at the famous Great Wall wending its way over the hills and mountains into the distance, we could see crowds and crowds of people, so the advantage of taking the “bloody hard” way was that there would be fewer people.  So that was the way we went.

In the heat and humidity it was hard going, and it was very steep in some parts, making the wedge flip-flops I was wearing somewhat difficult to walk in.  I went as far as I could, but as I am not very fit I got to a point on the wall where I had a great vantage point (and took some excellent photos) and I told Trevor I’d sit and wait for him there.  So he went the whole eight towers along the ramparts, as far as he could.  I think he was one of only two of us in our party who managed it.

When we got to the bottom again (it was so steep we had to use the hand-rails in part) we had some time to spare before getting back on the bus, so we went and found a café that had shaded tables outside, where we saw a couple from our party sitting enjoying a beer.  So we joined them and enjoyed a freezing cold bottle of Heineken each, while a Chinese woman hovered by our table and tried to sell us t-shirts and fans at outrageous prices.

We got back on the bus again, pleased to be back in the air con, as we were tired, grimy, grubby and sweaty.  We still had one more place to visit today though, the Summer Palace and Imperial Garden.

We had about half an hour on the bus before we arrived at the Palace.  The driver parked the bus and we all got off, and Robert and our guide Sherry took us into the palace grounds.  There were many gilded statues, pagodas and ornate buildings.  The well-tended gardens and pavilions border the Kunming Lake, and we could see a great many lotus plants, some of them in bloom with the distinctive pink flowers.

It was very pleasant walking along the water side; in fact we hadn’t seen much water at all since we’d arrived in China, and our swimming costumes remained unworn for this trip.  We enjoyed a refreshing ice lolly as we strolled along in the shaded walkways.

When it was time for us to go back to the bus, we arrived back to a sight to behold.  Our bus driver was lying on a reclining sun-lounger under the shade of a tree, mouth open, fast asleep and oblivious to the world, while the bus was locked up and a small group of people waited patiently nearby.  The driver showed no sign of waking up so Trevor, spotting a discarded bird feather on the ground, picked it up and stealthily approached the driver, to the muted titters of some of the group, who couldn’t quite believe what he was going to do.  Sure enough, Trevor delicately tickled the driver under the chin with the feather, eliciting a snort and a grunt as the driver awoke with a start, much to the amusement of those waiting nearby.   🙂

It did the trick, however and, folding up his lounger and putting it back in the hold of the bus, he opened the vehicle up and we all trooped inside, ready for the journey back to the hotel.  Dinner was a bit later tonight, at 8.30pm, so it would give us time to have a much needed shower and freshen up, before the “last supper” as it were, as some of our party were due to fly home tomorrow.

Once we arrived back, I really enjoyed my shower, washing the day’s grime off and blow drying my hair.  Feeling as though I’d had a new lease of life, we went down to the dining room where the special tonight was Peking Duck.  Robert had also got us some bottles of red wine and Chinese “fire water”, some very strong spirit.

It was a jolly crowd around our table tonight.  The first dish they brought out was century egg.   This is an egg which had been preserved for many months until its yolk turns dark green and the white goes brown.  It looks pretty unappetising but I thought I couldn’t really judge it if I hadn’t tried it, so I took a tiny slice, expecting it to stink of sulphur and taste awful, but in actual fact it just tasted the same as ordinary hard-boiled egg!   🙂

We enjoyed the usual tasty selection of Chinese dishes and the Peking Duck was excellent, all washed down with Tsing Tao beer, red wine, and a couple of glasses of fire water.  Our group were the last to leave the dining room; in fact the staff were hovering around, waiting for us to go so they could clear the tables and finish their shift!

Eventually we all finished and, while some went up to their rooms to start packing (as it was our last night in Beijing) others, including Trevor and I, repaired to the coffee shop/bar as we weren’t ready to go to bed just yet.

We enjoyed a beer in the coffee shop before going up to our room about 11.00pm and packing whatever we wouldn’t need in the morning.  We were due to leave for the airport at 5.00am tomorrow, so we needed to try to sleep.

British in Beijing

A “lie-in” this morning as our wake-up call wasn’t until 7.00am!  We went down for breakfast in the already-crowded dining room and grabbed some food and some coffee before assembling in the hotel lobby for our bus at 8.30am.

Off we went into the busy streets of China’s capital, once again marvelling at the apparent total disregard for any traffic rules.  Often we would wince when we saw pedestrians and cyclists weaving in and out of the stream of cars, vans, buses and lorries.

We didn’t have long to travel to reach our first destination; the famous Tienanmen Square, one of the largest public squares in the world at 440,000 square metres, and the scene of the 1989 protests and massacre.

As ever, the square was crowded with tourists as well as people trying to sell postcards, hats, flags and other tat.  It also promised to be another hot and humid day.  We saw the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which was constructed between 1952 and 1958 as a national monument to the martyrs of revolutionary struggle during the 19th and 20th centuries.  We also saw the great mausoleum to Mao Tse Tung (Chairman Mao) which occupies the centre of the square and which still receives hundreds of visitors every day, with some people leaving flowers, even 36 years after Chairman Mao’s death.

Of course, one of the most famous sights in Tienanmen Square is that of Chairman Mao’s portrait which hangs above the archway at Tienanmen Gate, leading to the Forbidden City.  The gate was built in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty.

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty.  It was built between 1406 and 1420 and contains over 980 buildings with a total of over 8,000 rooms.  It is approximately a mile long by half a mile wide – incredible.   For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.  A visitor could probably spend all day in there and still not see all of it.   🙂

We spent a couple of hours looking around before it was time to go for some lunch.  We went to a restaurant for the inevitable Chinese feast, where we sampled many of the local dishes washed down with Tsing Tao beer and green tea.

After lunch, we were back on the bus and off to visit the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor would pray for a good harvest.  We could see many opulently furnished rooms with jade statues and carvings; we could look into the rooms but not actually go inside.  The heat was pretty oppressive and a lot of people in our party (including me!) just found somewhere to sit in the shade.

Back on the bus again, there was an optional trip to a traditional Beijing “Hutong”, or courtyard, consisting of makeshift sort of buildings that acted as people’s homes, probably similar to the kampongs in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960’s.  Robert came round to get the names of the people who wanted to go, but Trevor and I weren’t really all that bothered, and we really fancied some free time amid all the frenetic activity we’d taken part in since arriving in China.

Therefore, we got off the bus and Robert hailed a taxi for us, which took us back to the hotel for about 3.00pm; the rest of the party weren’t due back until about 5.30pm and dinner was at 6.30pm, so it would give us a good few hours to rest and get ready.

Back at the Dong Fang hotel we went into the off-licence and got some more beer and wine, which we enjoyed in our room while writing out my postcards, the absolute first opportunity we’d had to do so since we arrived.  We also enjoyed an afternoon power nap before getting showered and ready in good time to go for dinner.

Dinner tonight was in the hotel and was… you’ve guessed it, Chinese dishes with beer.  Just as well we like Chinese food; I felt sorry for the people who didn’t like it as there wasn’t any Western food on offer, except perhaps for a plate of chips they might bring out.  In some of the dishes it was quite hard to identify what you were eating, and we thought it best not to ask!   🙂

Once we’d finished dinner we assembled once again in the foyer to get the bus to the Beijing Red Theatre to see the play/musical called The Legend of Kung Fu.  It told the story of Chun Yi, a young boy who was taken to a monastery to live by his mother, who could no longer look after him.  The young boy dreams of becoming a Kung Fu master, and has to overcome many difficulties and temptations before he conquers and finally gets his sacred goal of enlightenment.

The play was narrated in both Chinese and English, and had English surtitles.  The music, dancing and acrobatics were absolutely terrific, really mesmerising with so much colour and use of clever lighting effects.  The average age of the actors/dancers is only 17.  They were so fit and strong.  We really enjoyed the performance; it was certainly something different!   After the show the performers were available in the foyer of the theatre if you wanted to take pictures of them.

Then it was back to our hotel for our second night in the capital.  We had a nightcap, watched the telly for a bit, then once again slept soundly.

Terracotta Army and Tea

Once again, the sound of the wakeup alarm shattered the air, and jolted us from sleep.  We had another early start and a lot to pack into this day, so we were up, washed and dressed and down at the breakfast table in good time.

After fortifying ourselves with a substantial breakfast followed by cups of good hot coffee we once again took our cases down to reception and checked out of our room, before boarding the bus again, where a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Robert greeted us cheerfully and explained the day’s itinerary to us.

Our first stop today was to a factory and large warehouse where they make replica Terracotta Warriors, using the same type of clay and firing method as they believe the ancient originals were made.  The guy showed us models of the different warriors and explained how the soldiers were ranked.  There were all sizes of replicas available, from about 6″ high to life-size 6 feet high ones.  As in the originals, the head and hands are made separately and then added afterwards, and are, in fact, detachable.

As well as the soldiers there were also horses and chariots.  The warehouse was huge and we took some time looking around, where obviously all the models were for sale.  I could just imagine buying a life-size Terracotta Warrior and putting him in our back garden!  I didn’t dare ask the price, and heaven only knows how much the shipping costs would be.  You could also stand behind a headless warrior and have your picture taken, making it appear that your head was on the body of the warrior.  The Chinese version of the cardboard cutouts you see along the front at any British seaside resort.   🙂

There were lots of things for sale in the warehouse, including jewellery, silk bags and souvenirs, wall hangings and Chinese silk screens, and other furniture.  I also came across what I’d been looking for – some good quality loose pearls, on a temporary strand.  I picked out two strands of rondelle shaped white pearls, as well as two strands of rice shaped peacock pearls; the quality was lovely and the size of the pearls was nice and uniform.  The guy gave us a 30% discount so I ended up getting them for about £150.00.  They wanted to make up some necklaces for me out of the pearls, but I said I’d take them loose as I liked to hand-knot pearls onto silk myself.  In fact, when I looked at their necklaces, they had just strung all the pearls onto the silk, one after the other, but I actually put a knot in between each pearl; not only does it look better, but it prevents all the pearls falling off if the cord breaks.

Pleased with my purchase, we got back onto the bus to go to the mausoleum that houses the real Terracotta Warriors, about 8,000 life-size figures about 2,300 years old, and one of the wonders of the modern world.

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.  It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife, and to make sure that he had people to rule over.

The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals.   The figures include warriors, chariots and horses.  Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits near by Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum.  Other terracotta non-military figures were also found in other pits and they include officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.

The figures were discovered by chance in March 1974 by workmen digging a well to the east of Xi’an in Shaanxi province.  There had been reports of pottery finds for centuries in this area, as it was only about a mile from the Qin Emperor’s tomb, but this most recent discovery prompted Chinese archaeologists to investigate, and they unearthed the largest pottery figurine group ever found in China.

One of the curiosities is that each of the warriors has a slightly difference look to his face; it is believed about eight facial moulds were used and the individual features added afterwards.  As I mentioned above, the hands and heads were fired separately and then added afterwards, so quite a few of the figures were still missing their hands or heads, as more of the pottery is still awaiting excavation.

When we arrived at the mausoleum we were told we had two hours to look around, then meet at the Tea House at the end of the park.  We entered the first vast building, which encloses Pit 1, and looked in awe at relics over 2,000 years old.  They were lined up in the pit in armies and in rank order.  In some parts of the pit you could see where excavation was still taking place, and there were many bits of broken pottery, partly re-assembled and party cleaned, still undergoing restoration.  As with most places we had seen in China so far, the place was crowded with sightseers, not least because it is the summer holidays and the children are off school.

In the next pit, we came across lots of horses and chariots as well as the soldiers.  You could tell from the shape of the soldiers’ hands that, originally, they may have held weapons such as spears, lances and bows.  The detail was amazing.

The final pit didn’t have as much in it; it was discovered two years after Pits 1 and 3 and only had about 68 figures in it and was still undergoing quite a lot of restoration.

When we’d seen as much as we wanted, we went outside to find some toilets and sit on the grassy bank for a rest.  As ever, it was a case of hoping the toilets would be “sitty-down” ones rather than “squatty-down”, but the main concern was that they were clean.  Most of the toilets we’d seen so far were less than salubrious, partly due to the fact that the used paper (and sanitary products) were just put into waste bins adjacent to the WC’s rather than flushed away.  Invariably the bins were full to overflowing and, in the heat and humidity of the day, the stench was all pervading.   😦

After the loo visit (and thorough hand-washing and use of hygiene gel) we bought an ice lolly each and sat on the grass to consume them.  We then made our leisurely way to the China Tea House at the end of the park, where we were reunited with Robert and the rest of our party.  In here, the fragrance from all the many different herbal and fruit teas was very pleasant, and we took some time choosing what tea to have from the extensive menu.  I settled on the Jasmine and I love the smell so much, as it is also good for the digestive system.  Looking at the different health properties from all the types of teas, I could be tempted to buy them and give them a try, especially those with anti-ageing properties.    🙂

After tea, Robert gathered up his flock and, leading the way with his Union Flag, led us back to the waiting bus.  We had a short ride before arriving at a restaurant for our lunch, which was the inevitable Chinese buffet selection.   However, there was one thing new today that we hadn’t yet tried: sticky toffee potatoes!  Yes, that’s right; apparently the potatoes are cooked in their skins, then a hot toffee sauce is poured over them.  You have to choose between the fine line of eating them while the sauce is still runny and soft, in which case they are unbearably hot, or letting them cool a bit and risking the toffee hardening so that you almost need a hammer and chisel to break it.  🙂  It sounded an unlikely combination, but believe me, it was delicious.  I might try making it at home!   🙂

After lunch it was back on the bus for the ride, once again, to the airport for our 2-hour flight to Beijing.  We rode through the bustling streets and pulled up at the airport terminal, with our luggage following in the van behind.  After checking in as a group, we received our boarding passes and went into the departure lounge to await our flight.  At this point I was very tempted to start up a sweep, to see if anyone could guess how many minutes (hours!) the plane would be late.  🙂

Joking aside, the flight was late once again.  Despite our frustration and tiredness (all the early mornings and lack of naps were catching up with us) all we could do was wait.  It wouldn’t be so bad if the airline or airport kept us informed, but it was just a case of sitting it out and holding on to our thinning patience until, eventually, we were called to board, about an hour and a half late.

We got on the A320 aircraft, watched the safety briefing which we almost knew by heart, then taxied to the runway and finally took off.  The overhead TV screens showed “Shaun the Sheep” (again!) and a gossip programme about the top 10 celebrity divorce settlements (again!).  Dinner was…. do you really want to know what dinner was?  Pork and rice or chicken and noodles.  Or it might have been chicken and rice or pork and noodles, along with watermelon chunks.  I think we ate the bread and the watermelon and that was about it.

I spent the two-hour flight playing Plants v Zombies on my Nintendo DS, reading my magazines and trying to nap.

Eventually the sign came on to fasten our seatbelts for the final approach and landing, as we touched down on the runway in Beijing.  Then it was the usual palaver of collecting our cases and waiting around until everyone was assembled and ready to get on the bus for the ride to the hotel.

Eventually we were on our way, and after about 40 minutes we pulled up outside the Dong Fang hotel, which was situated out of the main city in a slightly run-down area.  One thing we noticed (so did many of the Brits!) but that there was a mini-market and off-licence directly opposite the hotel!   🙂

As I’ve mentioned before, booze seems quite thin on the ground in China, so a lot of our party were off the bus and straight into the “offy”, even before we’d gone into the hotel!  I bought a bottle of white wine and Trevor got a couple of cans of beer.

Once we were in our room, about 10.00pm, we cracked open the drinks and enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort of our room while watching the London 2012 Olympics on the TV.  We laughed because four years ago we were in Britain watching the Olympics in Beijing; tonight we were in Beijing watching the Olympics in Britain.   🙂

Finally we crawled into bed and, looking forward to whatever tomorrow would bring, we slept soundly.

Off Again, on a Train and a Plane

Our early-morning wakeup call was even earlier today than yesterday: 06:30 hours, and we had to be ready to leave by 08:00am.  Fancy coming away on holiday just to be up earlier than you are when you have to go to work!

We had our breakfast, a mixture of Chinese and Western style buffet food, then finished packing as we were leaving Shanghai today to fly to Xi’an, China’s ancient imperial capital city, and home of the Terracotta Army.

We left the hotel and followed Robert-the-Rep across the road to where our waiting coach was ready to take us to the train station.  Robert carried the British Union flag on an extendable pole so that wherever we were we could see him.  We were going to experience a ride on the Shanghai Maglev Train (SMT), a magnetic levitation train (where the train hovers above the tracks instead of touching them) and the fastest train in the world.

We arrived at the station and had only a few minutes to wait until the train arrived.  Once seated inside, it set off and its rapidly-accelerating speed was shown on an LED display above the door.  Faster and faster it went until you felt as though you were on the edge of your seat.  The countryside sped by as the digital readout crept towards 431kph, or 268 miles per hour.  The time when we really knew we were going that fast was when another high speed train passed us in a blur lasting a fraction of a second!  Wow!   🙂

The ride to the airport only took 10 minutes, then we got off the train and, with a sense of déjà vu, queued with the rest of our group at the China Eastern Airlines desk for the two-hour flight to Xi’an.  We had about an hour to wait until our flight was called, so we went to the little airport shop and bought a couple of cans of Tsing Tao beer and waited around.

Once again, the announcement came over the PA that our flight was delayed.  Apparently the Chinese air traffic control change the aircraft flight schedules at a moment’s notice, so no-one should really believe what they read on the departure board.  The Chinese all seemed to take it in their stride, but I could just imagine the mutiny the airport staff would have on their hands if this was a regular occurrence in the UK with British Airways!

So I sat and played on my Nintendo DS, read my magazines, had another can of beer, and eventually we were called to board the Airbus A320.  After another delay, the plane was eventually airborne.  🙂

As it was an internal flight there was no AVOD, so after the drop-down screens had shown the in-flight safety advice, there was a showing of the children’s programme “Shaun the Sheep” followed by a gossip programme featuring the top-10 celebrity divorce settlements.  The programmes were in English with Chinese subtitles.

The cabin crew came around with drinks (no wine !!!) and a meal of…. pork with rice or chicken with noodles.  We ate the starters and the bread, had some of the meal (which was singularly unappetising) and ate the fresh watermelon chunks for ‘dessert’.

Eventually we arrived in Xi’an airport and followed Robert and his flag through the throngs of people to get on the bus, where were were able to get our first glimpse of the city streets of Xi’an.

At first, the area looked pretty uninspiring.  There were rows and rows of identical, towering grey blocks of flats flanking the sides of the carriageway.  Eventually the flats gave way to some shops and other commercial buildings, and after about half an hour the bus pulled up at a huge gate which provided the entrance to the famed city walls.

We alighted from the bus and waited while a Chinese woman, in traditional dress, greeted us and welcomed us to the city.  There were several guards standing at each side of the heavy wooden gates.  These portals were opened ceremoniously, and each of the esteemed guests (i.e.us) was given a satin cord with a ‘golden’ key to the gate, an an honour bestowed upon us.

Inside the gates, the men and women in traditional costume did a dance, a parade with flags, and some singing, all to welcome us within the fabled city walls of their ancient capital.  The whole of our group then posed for a photo with the dancers, which we could buy as a souvenir.

We then had some free time to climb up onto the city walls, which are wide enough to carry eight horsemen rising abreast.  Trevor climbed up onto the walls, but it was too hot and sunny for me, so I sat down on some steps and waiting for his return.

We then got back on the bus for the ride to the King Dynasty Hotel, where we would be having our dinner.  We arrived at the hotel at 6.45pm and Robert said dinner was at 7.30pm, so once again there was a muttered protest (among the women!) that 45 minutes was not enough time to get ready.  Our luggage followed behind us in a van.

We pulled up at the hotel, and our first impressions from its lobby was that it was very nice; all marble floors and statues.  We queued for our room key card and were assured that our luggage would be delivered to our rooms.  We were allocated room 2010.

After waiting ages for the lift, with time ticking away, we entered our room to find two suitcases had already arrived.  The only problem was… they weren’t our cases.  Any hope I now had of washing, changing and going down to dinner on time was rapidly diminishing, as Trevor went down to reception to take the cases back and find out where ours were.

After a few minutes, I heard Trevor’s key card in the lock and the door to the room opened.  Only it wasn’t Trevor, it was another couple who, by mistake, had been allocated the same room number as us!  Just as well I hadn’t been standing in my underwear or just come out of the shower; I don’t know who would have had the bigger shock!   🙂

Eventually Trevor returned with the correct cases, but now his key card wouldn’t work!  I let him into the room and decided I would just have to go down to dinner late.  He got sorted out in record time and went down to the dining room, but I was able to get a quick wash, freshen up my hair with the straighteners and change into a cotton maxi dress, so I was half an hour late getting to the dining room.

Again, the meal was a selection of Chinese dishes, all served onto the large Lazy Susan in the middle of our table.  The dishes were hot and tasty, and there was a wide selection of beef, pork, chicken and fish as well as fresh vegetables and sweetcorn soup, rice and noodles.  We also enjoyed a freezing cold glass of beer, followed by a refreshing cup of fragrant Jasmine tea.

After dinner, some of our party had arranged to go and see the Tang Dynasty show, and others were taking a trip to the Muslim quarter in the city to experience their night market, but neither option appealed to us.  It had been one of those long days where you don’t actually do much, but end up pretty tired just the same.

So we went along to the hotel bar but, once again, it proved difficult to buy just one glass of wine (you have to buy the full bottle), so I had a rum and coke with lots of ice instead.  We watched some of the London 2012 Olympics on the large TV screen in the bar, but it was hard to keep my eyes open.  We both slept soundly as we had another early start in the morning.

Sixty in Shanghai

TREVOR’S 60th BIRTHDAY

Our jet-lagged sleep was shattered by a wake-up call at 06:45 hours this morning (!!) as we were due to leave the hotel at 08:15 to board our tour coach for a very full, action-packed day.

Today is Trevor’s 60th birthday, and here we were spending it in Shanghai.  Certainly a different way to spend a birthday.  I gave him his card to open while I went and got ready; the ensuite bathroom in the hotel is weird in that it has a window between the bathroom and bedroom, effectively giving anyone in the bedroom a view of whatever you were up to in the bathroom (not always a good idea, ha ha) unless you closed the curtains first (from the bedroom side).

When we went down to breakfast Robert, the rep, was sorting out our passports and he said to Trevor “Happy Birthday!”.  He’d obviously been looking at all the dates of birth in the passports because I hadn’t mentioned it to him, because Trevor didn’t want a fuss.  The cat was out of the bag now, however.  🙂

Breakfast was a very large selection of either Chinese or Western-style food.  Some of the Chinese food looked quite strange to be eating it for breakfast; I wouldn’t fancy soup or beef or noodles, or green vegetables such as bok choi first thing in the morning.  So I played it safe and had some bacon, sausage, scrambled egg and tomatoes, along with a croissant and a cup of coffee.  The coffee was actually very good.  I wasn’t keen on their orange juice, which wasn’t really like real juice, more like squash, and was sweetened.

After breakfast we boarded the tour bus and met our Chinese guide, whose English name was Becky.  Our bus driver was Mr. Chen.  While waiting for the rest of our party to get on the bus (there are 37 of us in total) we noticed a whole bunch of ladies with fans, all dressed in Chinese pyjama suits, and moving in unison; we realised we were watching an outdoor morning exercise class!

The bus set away and we were taken through the bustling city streets.  Shanghai is China’s most densely-populated city with a population of 23 million.  Going through the traffic was manic, and we were constantly agog at some of the driving and the risks people, including cyclists and pedestrians, would take.  The rules of the road were constantly violated with lots of lane-hopping, red light jumping, stopping and starting, sharp braking and, of course, a cacophony of blaring horns.  We noticed that motorcycle and scooter riders did not wear crash helmets and cyclists on push bikes often allowed children to sit on the back of the bike as they weaved their way in and out of the stream of vehicles.

After about half an hour we pulled up at our first stop for today, a visit to the Jade Buddha temple.  We entered the sunlit courtyard, heavy with the evocative scent emanating from the incense burners, and took a look at the beautiful buildings.  The original temple had been founded in 1882 to house two jade Buddha statues brought to China from Burma by a monk named Hui Gen.  The temple was destroyed during the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Fortunately the jade Buddha statues were saved and a new temple was built on the present site in 1928.

There were lots of other statues as well as the Buddhas, some made of marble.  All were beautifully carved and painted or gilded.  There were also many silk and brocade wall hangings and carved furniture.  The atmosphere inside the temple was peaceful and calming, and the building provided us with a temporary respite from the already very hot sun.

Back on our coach, our next visit was to a pearl farm.  China produces over 90% of the world’s cultured pearls, both freshwater and salt water.  I was looking forward to this visit as I make jewellery as a hobby, and I love real pearls and hand-knot them onto silk.

In the pearl farm, they explained to us how the pearls were cultivated, by injecting the mollusc to encourage it to start producing nacre.  The lady brought out a huge bivalve (sort of like an oyster but much bigger) and said it was a freshwater mollusc.  She prised open the shell and there were quite a lot of pearls inside; baroque in shape.  Then she brought out a salt water oyster and opened it up; it had only one pearl inside, but it was rounded and of much better quality.

We then looked around the shop at the different pearl necklaces, earrings and bracelets.  There was a wide variety of different types of pearls, all of different quality according to how much you wanted to spend.  Some necklaces started at only about £20.00 and went up to about £20,000.  We saw a single, beautiful loose pearl of superlative quality; it was over 12mm in diameter and absolutely flawless; the one pearl cost over £12,500.  🙂

I didn’t buy anything as I wanted to get some loose pearls and have the satisfaction of making my own necklace, rather than buy one ready made.

After the pearl farm we were once again back on the bus to be taken to a restaurant for our lunch.  We sat at round tables which all held a central turntable onto which the dishes of Chinese food were brought; we enjoyed a variety of tasty dishes including pork, beef, cashew nuts, fresh vegetables and noodles and rice, cooked in various sauces (sweet and sour, satay, black bean) all washed down with cold Tsing Tao beer and finished with fragrant Chinese tea.

We had time to go to the loo before getting back on the bus, and this was where the fun started; hoping the restaurant would have some Western style toilets, rather than the Asian “squat” type ones.  Even if a place does have the Western style loos, they never seem to include toilet rolls in the cubicles; there is a dispenser when you first go in and you have to remember to collect some paper from it before entering the cubicle, otherwise you’re stuck!   🙂

Once we were all fed and watered it was back on the bus for a city tour and a visit to the tallest building in China, the Shanghai World Financial Centre, which stands at 1, 614 feet tall and boasts the highest observation deck in the world.  For those who didn’t want to go up the tower (we weren’t all that bothered) Robert the rep said he would take us to The Bund.

The Bund is a famous waterfront area which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River.  It affords a fantastic view of the developing Shanghai skyline and features a pleasant walkway which has several soft drink stations and benches on which to sit, simply to observe life passing by.  We walked along and watched the  pleasure boats, took some photos and waited for the rest of the party to come back from visiting the tower, so we could be on our way.

Later on we had some free time to spend in the city, so we took the opportunity to look around some of the shops.  One caught my eye; it was called “Silk King” and consisted of many floors stocked with rolls of silk as well as ready-made clothes.  The items were beautifully made and the fabric patterns were stunning.  We spent quite some time browsing through the traditional Chinese jackets and cheong sam dresses.  The sizes were all tiny as Chinese girls are far more petite and less busty than British women.   😦

Eventually I found an orange silk chiffon blouse that I liked; it was soft and floaty and had a fine gold thread running through it.  It fitted me perfectly (I think it was an XXL in Chinese!) and it was only 250 Yuan, or approximately 25 quid, so I bought it.

Back on the bus, we were taken through the bustling city before arriving back at the hotel, where we had exactly one hour to be ready to leave again, to go to a restaurant for dinner. We had also booked to see the famous Shanghai Acrobats later that evening.  On the bus Robert announced “Today is Trevor’s birthday” and everyone on the bus sang “Happy Birthday” much to Trevor’s embarrassment!  Robert then gave him a lovely, hand-made card signed by himself and Becky, the Chinese guide.

With only an hour to spare, I had to get showered and blow dry my hair and get changed straight away.  One thing we hadn’t had today was any spare time!    🙂  No rest for the wicked.

Back on the bus again, we soon pulled up at the restaurant where we sat down to another Chinese feast, consisting of many different dishes, soups, meats etc. as well as fresh watermelon.  Robert had also provided some bottles of read and of white wine – yippee!  At the end of the meal they brought out a birthday cake for Trevor, which he shared with a young girl called Lily, who had celebrated her 15th birthday last night, but we’d arrived too late at the hotel for her to have her cake then.

After dinner, we were taken to the theatre to watch an amazing hour-long show featuring the most fantastic acrobatic and gymnastic display, contortionists, high jumpers and ending with a the “ball of death”, where a massive mesh ball was wheeled out onto the stage, into which a dare-devil motorcyclist drove before riding round and round inside the ball.  Then another motorcyclist joined him, then another and another, until there were a total of FIVE motorbikes whizzing around inside this huge ball.  Some went round horizontally and some vertically, but whichever way they went they never hit each other; the timing was perfect and it was just brilliant.

After the show, the bus took us back to the hotel, where our first thought was to go for a drink in the hotel’s bar.  The bar, however, was closed for refurbishment (what?!) so we asked Robert if he knew whether there were any other little bars nearby.  There was a “Cigar Bar” just around the corner, so Trevor and I, as well as another couple, went off with a single purpose.  One thing we had noticed, even after only one full day in China, was the lack of pubs and bars; I don’t think the Chinese are all that big on booze, not the way the Westerners are.   😦

Another thing we noticed, and the Cigar Bar was no exception, is that you can hardly buy any white wine in China; they tend to prefer red.  Also, if you do buy wine, they only sell by the bottle, you can’t just buy a glass.  So I settled for a cuba libre cocktail, in which the rum was drowned by the Coca Cola.

We only stayed for the one drink as we were really quite shattered by now; we’d been up early and never stopped all day, and we were still a little jet-lagged.  We also had to pack our stuff for our journey to Xian the next day.

So it was off to bed, in our lovely air-conditioned room, ready for whatever adventures China had in store for us tomorrow.   🙂