Next morning we set out from Beijing to visit a restored part of the Great Wall, at Badaling. We had been warned to take jackets as it can be quite cold. It was warm and most of the time we carried our jackets about.
The car park is at a dip in the undulating path that the Wall takes as it wends its way up hills and down into valleys. We had a choice: the very steep section up to the next watchtower to our right, or a less challenging climb to the left? The steeper climb promised more spectacular views and most people were going that way. We looked hard at that daunting climb, took a deep breath and followed the other sheep.
People were in general very excited about being on the Great Wall of China. There was a small group of American students and one girl just had to leap up and yell “Yay! I’m on the Great Wall of China!”.
Naomi was excited about it too, but didn’t leap up and yell. Better idea, let’s text the kids. But it’s the middle of the night for them, I protested. Ah, but this is their only chance in a long time to receive a text from the Great Wall of China. They’ll think it was worth the brief interruption to their sleep. And the texts were duly sent. Jonathan got his revenge by texting us in the middle of the following night. Our night that is. Late afternoon for him. Serves us right I suppose.
We made it to the next watchtower and looked back at where we’d come from.
Note: The video below is high bitrate. Playing time 1:33.Vodpod videos no longer available.
We were warned that getting back down was even harder work than climbing up. It’s true. The steps are not all the same height so it is hard to get into a rhythm. It feels very awkward.
Next up Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen means the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” which is ironic given most Westerners’ immediate reaction to the mention of the name.
Somewhere there is a video of me taking this photo.
And indeed, here it is:Vodpod videos no longer available.
The black lady in red and black, seen at the start of the video, was on our cruise. We don’t know her name but she was only ever seen dressed up to the nines, in heels and hat, even at breakfast. If she were called to a celebrity cocktail party at a moment’s notice, she’d be ready.
The Olympic Countdown Clock in front of the Museum of Chinese History. If you can be bothered you can work out the exact moment this photo was taken.
Monument in front of Mao Tse Tung’s Mausoleum. The Mausoleum was shut so we could not pay our respects to the great man.
But his photo is prominently displayed. He is still a highly revered figure, despite the end of the Cultural Revolution and China’s move away from the fundamentals of Communism.
We stayed overnight at the Grand Hotel Beijing. Room very much in the old colonial style but with incongruous modern touches such as an electronic illuminated bedside control panel for all the lights, air conditioning etc. There was a nice view from the window.
Arch outside the hotel. I think this was inspired by the one in Manchester.
From the Temple of Heaven our coach took us to the Forbidden City, a large rectangular complex of palaces 1km North of Tiananmen Square.
Compared with Hong Kong and Shanghai, Beijing struck us as very ordinary looking. A fairly dull city with a few extraordinary historical treasures dotted about.
The journey was painfully slow thanks to the abominable traffic in central Beijing. Heaven knows how they’ll cope with the Olympics.
The Forbidden City was home to the Chinese Emperors until 1911 when Puyi, the last Qing Emperor, abdicated at the age of 6. Big decision for a 6 year old. You’ve probably seen the film about him, The Last Emperor. He lived on in the Forbidden City for a while after losing his Emperorship, was later booted out and ended up working as a gardener, of all things, before dying in his 60s.
The Forbidden City, so called because it used to be off limits to the populace at large, covers a vast area, some 720,000 square metres, and is now open to the public as a museum. Like the Temple of Heaven, a lot of money has been spent on restoring it, and work continues.
Just inside the Meridian Gate there are five bridges crossing the oddly curving Golden Water River. They represent the five virtues preached by Confucius: kindness, integrity, decorum, wisdom and fidelity. He had the right idea. We could do with more of all of those today.
Only the Emperor was permitted to walk on the bas-relief walkway:
Some parts have not been restored and probably won’t be. It would be too big and expensive a job, even with the Olympics coming up.
The Emperor’s Throne.
We collected photos of memorable or amusingly poorly translated signs. This one refers to another kind of throne. The star rating is presumably because you can actually sit on it, in other words it’s not just a hole in the ground. Finding decent loos was not always straightforward in China.
Another photo-worthy sign in the garden area. A funny signs special will follow.
The aforementioned perilous hills:
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Next port of call was Xingang, the port of Tianjin. Now spending time in Tianjin is as about as attractive a proposition as a picnic sat in the middle of the Castner Kellner chemical works near Runcorn. But the reason the ship stopped there for two days was to allow passengers to visit Beijing which is inland, about 2 hours away.
Much as we love exploring on our own, and much as we hate coach trips and guides who exhort you to “follow the pink umbrella”, we did not fancy trying to organise a DIY trip to Beijing. There are lots of must-see sights and they are very spread out. This was one time that an organised trip made sense. We had accordingly used Holland America’s website to pre-book a two day excursion to Beijing and the Great Wall.
Our first visit was to the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan) in the southern part of Beijing, a shrine built in the reign of the Ming emperor, Yongle (pronounced something like “yawn-gleur” as I’m sure you know and emphatically does not rhyme with “dongle”).
This is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (or Hall of Annual Prayer depending on the translator):
It’s in remarkably good nick to say it was built in the 1420s. Actually, the People’s Republic have just spent several gazillion Yuan restoring it in time for the Beijing Olympics. This is what it looked like before it was cleaned up.
The temple complex was very busy. Almost impossible to take a picture without someone getting in the way or jostling you. It all makes for very inefficient photography – everyone trying to take pictures at the same time and ruining everyone else’s shots.
You cannot enter the hall but you can take pictures of the inside if you can fight your way to the front of the crowd and prop your camera on the railings to keep it steady.
Our guide Amy (real name Wu Long … something …) had a purple umbrella for us to follow.
My senior baby, Jonathan, bought me a real bow tie, the type you actually have to tie, to wear for formal dinners on board ship. To him, having spent 2 years at Oxford where every other night is a posh do of some sort or other, tying a real bow tie is no longer a dark art. For me it was a challenge. He tried to teach me before we set off on our holiday but I really needed a bit more time and practice.
It brought back to mind the time, and it seems so very long ago, that I had to stand behind him to knot his schooltie on his first day at Altrincham Preparatory School. Oh, the irony.
Well on the first formal evening I followed the instructions that came with the tie but could not get it tied properly so resorted to my trusty ready-tied bow tie with a fastener.
For the second formal evening we allowed an extra 30 mins but after many attempts we were getting more and more exasperated and no closer to any kind of attire I would dare be seen wearing in the ship’s restaurant.
We got there in the end, but only after resorting to the Internet. I found this website which has a video of how to do it. Thank heavens for the Internet and the ship’s wifi which we could access from our stateroom.
Naomi wouldn’t let me take the tie off – I was forced to wear it to bed. My friend in the photo is Dam Dam. Holland America Line provided every stateroom with a complimentary stuffed panda toy for our trip to China. We called ours Dam Dam after the ship, the Statendam. Naomi had previously been on another HAL ship, the Oosterdam. Every HAL ship is a something-dam.
On days we were in port, from the quayside you could look along the portholes and there would be a cuddly panda in nearly every one.
We sailed out of Shanghai at lunchtime on 24 April so we had the opportunity to view a good stretch of the Huangpu through to its confluence with the Yangtse and the East China Sea. It is an extremely busy stretch of waterway.
There was not a great deal of clearance when the Statendam passed under the bridge.
I first recall hearing of the Yangtse River when I was in my teens, on a Monty Python record, “Monty Python’s Previous Record”. I guess they called it that to generate yet more mirth for fans by confusing record shop staff. “Can I have Monty Python’s Previous Record please?” “Ah, that would be the one they released last year … what was it called …?” “No, it only came out last week”. “Eh???”
Anyway, there was a sketch about English goalkeepers all happening to feel moved to write poetry about the Yangtse, done very much in the style of a BBC football magazine or ITV’s “On the ball” with lots of quotes from football managers. The snippets of poetry are of the standard you might expect from real goalkeepers and would probably not stand comparison with the collected works of Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz.
I tried to find a transcript online. The only one I could locate appears to be the work of a Japanese gentleman so instead of Brian Clough we get “Brian Craft” and other transcription errors.
His (unedited) effort goes like this:
Narrator[Terry Jones]:Yang tse Kiang. The Great Yellow River which from time in memorial has fascinated and tantalized the hearts and minds of men from all corners of the earth. Bob Wilson, Arsenal.
Bob[Graham Chapman]: A Wondrous river. Broad banks are swelling, home to a race of fish.
Narrator: Peter Shilton, Leicester.
Shilton[Eric Idle]:O Yangtse. O Yangtse, Beautiful river. River full of fish.
Narrator: Sprake, Leeds-united.
Sprake[John Cleese]:Yang tse Kiang, river of the eastern dream. Teeming with carp and trout and perch and bream.
Narrator: Why is it that so many of Britain’s top goalies feel moved to by the river yangtse. Brian Craft.
Craft[Eric Idle]: Well, I must remember, David, are the these goalies, especialy Wilson, and on occasion, Gordon West of Everton, are the romantics, the dreamers. The Yangtse is symbol for them, for them it’s a box, David, a temple is far as a spiritual a continuity.
Narrator: Bill Shankly.
Shankly[Michael Palin]: O it’s a river of many moods. To young goaly like a Peter Shilton, Yangtse is a beautiful river. To more seasoned goaly like Phil Parkes of Wolves, Yangtse a river bring me to of dissolution lampishen another it is good.
The sketch ends up with a cracking song, sung to the tune of “Blue is the Colour”:
We love the Yangtse, Yangtse Kiang
Flowing from Yushu down to Ching Kiang
Passing through Chung King, Wuhan and Hoo Kow
Three thousand miles, but it gets there somehow
Oh! Szechuan’s the province and Shanghai is the port
And the Yangtse is the river that we all support!
[Clap! Clap! Clap Clap Clap! Clap Clap Clap Clap:] Yangtse!!
Thanks to Python I ended up confused between the Yangtse and the Yellow River. They are entirely separate rivers.
Having said that, the Yangtse is said to be relatively yellowish in colour, the Huangpu grey and the sea blue. We did see the difference in colour at the confluence.Vodpod videos no longer available.
The pictures below are mostly of boats on the Huangpu.
I had hoped to see some junk boats on the rivers of the East, but this was not exactly what I had in mind.
The riverbank is in China, but the houses could be Berkhampstead.
Close to the confluence.
Next morning we went to the old part of Shanghai and the area around Fangbang Zhong Lu. It is horribly commercialised. The Chinese here seem to be turning their own historical legacy into a kind of Disneyland. The old shops weren’t too bad although you do get pestered by people running up to you and trying to sell you stuff – mostly fake Rolexes. It’s all “Hey! Hey! Looka! Looka!”. We’d had a bit of this in Hong Kong, particularly by the Star Ferry and on Nathan Road, so we weren’t that taken aback.
Far worse is the bazaar area by the famous old Huxin Ting teahouse, close to the entrance to the Yuyuan Gardens. The whole area is a tourist trap, even if nearly all the tourists are Chinese armed with Japanese digital cameras. There’s even a Starbucks and MacDonalds. Most of the buildings are new but in the traditional style. It’s like something from Epcot.
The teahouse itself is genuine enough, the building dates back to 1784. Huxin Ting means “mid-lake pavilion” and it does indeed sit in the middle of a lake. You get to it over a zig-zag bridge called Jiu Qu Qiao, the Bridge of Nine Turnings, supposed to stop evil spirits. Apparently evil spirits are not so good at turning corners. Might explain why you never see any at the centre of Hampton Court Maze.
The Huxin Ting teahouse is claimed to be the inspiration for Blue Willow pattern china. Hmm. Don’t see it myself. What do you reckon?
The Yuyuan Gardens were filled with American tourists on coach trips. I did manage to find a few peaceful bits where I could fire off a few snaps without being jostled.
I like the Dragon Wall. The dragon is only allowed to have 4 claws because 5-clawed dragons are reserved for the Emperor in Beijing.
After our Maglev round trip we headed for Pudong, Shanghai’s new high rise business area across the Huangpu river from the old colonial Bund waterfront.
We went to the observatory atop China’s tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower. The Jin Mao is the 5th tallest building in the world, narrowly beating 2 International Finance Centre (2ifc) in Hong Kong which we had visited earlier. Both are taller than the Empire State Building in 9th.
The Jin Mao and 2ifc both have 88 floors, a number the Chinese regard as lucky. At 2ifc we could only get to the 55th floor. At Jin Mao the observatory floor is right at the top.
The building under construction alongside the Jin Mao, and which will be taller when complete, is the SWFC building. Now I know that with a population of at least 13m (some claim 18m) Shanghai is bound to have at least some fellow Sheffield Wednesday Football Club fans as residents. But enough to justify the tallest building in Shanghai? Could Owl mania be that strong in the East? My dreams of grandeur were dashed when we found it was the Shanghai World Finance Centre building.
The Jin Mao has its own post office in the observatory from where you can send your postcards of the Tower.
The Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower is a weird pink molecular model shaped thingy.
A blimp on the Shanghai skyline.
Our ship, the Holland America Line ms Statendam, seen from across the Huangpu.
The video below briefly shows the outside of the Jin Mao Tower and then our return from the Pudong side of the river back to the Bund using the interesting but quirky “Tourist Tunnel”. It is a means of transport combined with a rather cheesy tourist attraction. We saw it mentioned in a guide book and decided to give it a go, since we needed to get back to the Bund side of the river, but had no idea what type of “attraction” it was. It was also quite hard to find the entrance on the Pudong side. We spent quite a while exploring the riverfront before we tracked it down. It is quite fun, in a weird way, and parts of it oddly reminiscent of the bit in 2001 A Space Odyssey where Bowman travels through the stargate.
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Later that evening, we went on our first organised shore excursion, a visit to a Chinese acrobat show. Below is a short video of our coach journey back to the ship. It really shows off the bright lights of Shanghai. We get views of the Radisson hotel, the Westin hotel (with lotus leaf crown) and behind it, over the river, the Oriental Pearl TV tower, then the Shanghai Museum (lit up in yellow) at Renmin Park, the giant electronic advertising display mounted on a boat on the river. Strangely, however impressive the modern skyscrapers, the most imposing part of the journey was the view of the old square colonial buildings of the Bund as we descended towards them on the flyover. We get a close-up of the Bund waterfront buildings and eventually arrive at the ship.
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Not captured on video, immediately afterwards a fellow passenger nearly fell in the abovementioned Huangpu. The woman I had sat next to at the acrobat show lost her footing as she was walking the gangplank to reboard the ship. For one ghastly moment it looked like she would fall in the narrow gap between the quay and the boat, but Naomi’s lightning reactions saved the day. There was some brief but desperate grappling and teetering, then one of the Statendam crew got a hand on the unfortunate elderly lady and ensured her survival. She was a bit shaken but thankfully fine.
Maybe most visitors to Shanghai don’t put the Magnetic Levitation train (or Maglev for short) at the top of their must-see list, but we were determined to go on it and decided to head there first.
The shuttle bus from the ship dropped us off at the Silk Exhibition building on Dagu Lu (“Lu” meaning street), close to Renmin Square (“People’s Square”) and Renmin Park (work it out for yourself).
We found the underground and set about making our way to Longyang Lu station from where you can take the Maglev to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. My pronunciation of Longyang Lu was just good enough to secure a couple of tickets. We found the right line and platform. Thankfully, the lines are colour coded and Western numerals are also used. Station names are shown in both Chinese characters and roman letters.
The trains are comparable to, say, the London underground but they have internal LCD video screens broadcasting adverts. Announcements of upcoming stations are in Chinese and English.
Once at Longyang Lu you exit the station to access the futuristic Maglev terminal immediately outside it.
Maglev train coming into Longyang Lu terminal.
The Maglev train takes a little over 7 minutes to cover the 30km to the airport, briefly attaining a top speed of 431kph (269 mph). There is an electronic display in each carriage showing speed and elapsed time. The view out the window leaves you in no doubt about how fast you are going. Cars on the nearby elevated motorway look stopped. It takes about a second to pass the sister Maglev on the parallel track, travelling in the opposite direction.
Technically, to my mind at least, the Maglev is a form of very low flying aircraft. There are no wheels in contact with rails, at least when not in station. The entire train is suspended above the track by a magnetic field, probably by only a few millimetres and moves by linear induction motor. The lack of physical contact between train and track means no friction, hence the amazing speed. I expected the train to glide silently but it does make a noise. A fairly steady one, rather than the ker-chunk ker-chunk of a normal train, and probably caused by the induction motor.
I speculated whether there may be a Millimetre High Club by analogy with the Mile High Club as applicable to conventional air travel. If so, participants would have to be quick given the short journey time. No, we did not attempt to enrol.
Once at Pudong airport we decided to take a look around. We had a “Palin moment” at an airport restaurant where we stopped for a drink. We devised the term in honour of Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, who has had a successful post-Python career making popular TV travel documentaries such as “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Pole to Pole”. The success of the programmes I think flowed from Michael being game to sample customs or culinary delights peculiar to foreign cultures in a very affable, cheerful, slightly clownish and thoroughly British way. It was in that same spirit that Naomi responded to what actually turned up when she ordered tea with milk. Well it wasn’t PG tips. The waitress brought a teacup and a lidded glass jug containing what turned out to be tea already mixed with milk and flavoured with orange and probably other things. There were some large leafy floaty bits as well. It was odd but nice. Naomi took it in a charmingly Palinesque sort of way.
The airport is modern and has unusual but attractive roof architecture.
Our first port of call in the PRC proper was Xiamen, within shouting distance of Taiwan. Xiamen is very different from HK. Some impressive new buildings but most are older and the overall look is far shabbier.
As at most ports, we hadn’t booked ourselves on an organised shore excursion, preferring to explore for ourselves, armed with some ideas from the port lecture. The options seemed to be to go xiaoping in the main xiaoping street near where the shuttle bus dropped us off, or to take the ferry over to Gulangyu Island (or Gulag Island, or Goolagong Island or whatever we felt like calling it). We had already done a lot of xiaoping in Hong Kong and Gulag Island seemed the better bet as there seemed a fair bit to do and see there.
We wondered almost at once whether the DIY approach had been such a good idea after all. Port lecturer Abilio had told us there was a free ferry and a tourist ferry. We wanted to avoid anything too touristy so hoped to get on the free one, but instantly hit the language barrier. We’ve never been anywhere where we had not even the basics of a language in common with the locals. We went into a large building near the drop-off point which looked like the ferry terminal but wasn’t. The right place was 200 yards along the quayside. We eventually got onto a ferry but had to pay – we could not find where to get the free one. Not only that but we weren’t even sure if we were headed to the right destination as the boat went off right around the island, not directly across to the island ferry port. Just to add to the confusion, nearly everyone else on the boat was a very excited Chinese person, armed with a camera, rushing from one side of the boat to the other and gabbling with glee, like an army of schoolkids. The ferry supervisor kept shouting at them – heaven knows what he was saying.
We later found out most Chinese are restricted as to when they can take holidays, in particular to national holiday periods and there was one coming up. This particular island is their “pleasure island”, a holiday resort with a sightseeing golf buggy service, marine world, beaches, cable car and theme park honouring the local Chinese hero Koxinga (Zheng Chengdong or something like that) who retook Taiwan from the evil colonial Dutch and fought off the Manchurian invaders in the 1600s.
Our ferry went all the way around the island before coming into port, for the benefit of the happy, snappy sightseers. It was indeed the tourist ferry, the tourists being for the most part the Chinese themselves.
There are some surviving colonial buildings.
Backstreet near the ferry port.
Buggy rides go all around the island.
Once in the theme park you can ascend to Sunlight Rock, the highest point of the island. The 360 degree panoramic view is excellent, but the vantage platform is small and crowded with overexcited jabbering Chinese holidaymakers, as evidenced by the video below which also includes footage of the cable car ride between the two main areas of the park.
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At the other end of the cable car ride is an extensive aviary.
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View of Xiamen from Gulangyu Island.