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Round the World Journey

Beijng onwards

CONGO (BRAZZAVILLE) | Saturday, 18 November 2017 | Views [202]

Up early and on the bus to Tiananenman Square where security as expected is tight. I find it puzzling the Chairman Mao still has such a high profile. His face adorns a huge poster near the entry to the spectacular Forbidden City, built in the Ming dynasty. It is a huge complex and i wanted to get there early to avoid the crowds. But even on a freezing cold day in November I failed to do that. I followed guide book advice not to ignore the side temple/ hall exhibitions eg of clocks, many built in 18th century England, and the beautiful calligraphy, but by the time I made it to the main halls the tour groups were there in the masses. Still you could not fail to enjoy the beautiful architecture and finery on such a colossal scale. 

A walk up to the Drum and Bell towers took me though some old hutongs but I wasn't that impressed with the squat, grey brick buildings that looked quite modern.  No more than a century old. Then back to the amazing and free National Museum on the side of T Square so more tight security checks, soldiers and police in large numbers, and screening by double rows of civilian guards inside. After a long day with a lot of walking, i could only take in the basement Ancient China display but that was spectacular with the quality of bronze work from 15th c BC onwards, and teracotta work particularly noteworthy. But the highlight for me was the jade burial suit for Emperor Liu Ziu - quite staggering. Dinner in the opulent Oakwood residence on the other side of town with Kathryn Irwin working for Unicef. Good to catch up and get her news.  She is undecided whether to stay longer.

Kathryn's driver arrived bang on 730 am to take us over to Mutianyu and the Great Wall of China. Much to my surprise this is a Ming and more recent reconstruction - and not of Han heritage. i need to dig deeper to discovere if there are Han foundations. Still the wall was mighty impressive and a good climb with around 2500 steps in all to the highest section we reached. It too half an hour or so to reach the Wall having ignored the option of the cable car.  There were further steep stretches as we passed more than 10 watch towers. The final section was particularly steep and difficult to transverse as it was occupied by hundreds of students who appeared to be on some kind of graduation trip and who occupied one section for a phote en masse. 

Back in Beijing, we visited Lama and Confuscious Temples. The former seemed recently re-constructed although of ancient heritage and was busy with worshippers. The Confusician Temple was pleasant enough, and again probably re-decorated quite recently but did contain an excellent pavillion used by the Emperor for speeches in connection with the Imperial Academy and civil service examinations. The museum claimed schools went back to BC times. 

The driver, a nice chatty guy who had worked at Unicef recommended a restaurant in one of the back alley hutons that turned out to be excellent if expensive. Based aorund a courytard we paid 150 yuan for 7 courerses that were truly delicious - from tofu, salad, an omelette type dish, chicken, beef/ pepper dish, baked mushrooms and other things in bamboo leaf, and broccoli.  I finished off the day backtracking along the main huton road that i had explored a few days earlier but this time stuck to the main throughfare which was lively and full of nice shops and cafes - better in my opinion than the back alleys.

Sunday - another early start and visit this time to the Temple of Heaven just a few minutes walk in the cold from my hotel, the Happy Dragon RJ Brown.  The park is huge and it took a good 15 mins to walk from the East side over towards the centre where the temple os located. Interesting shape and architecture, if again recently renonvated I suspect.  I managed to miss the West Gate so ended up walking a mile or so extra to find the nearest metro. With the key transfer station out of action, unbeknow to me before I went past it in both directions, i was late for Beijing International Christian church. Great service with about a thousand foreigners (no Chinese allowed) present.  

Going to Tiananamen Square entailed lengthy security queues but it was worth it to visit the little known Emperor's Temple in the People's Cultural Hall which on Sundays is evidently a favoured backdrop for wedding photos. Still it was a lovely sight. I revisisted the National Museum and took in several exhibitions including more Han treasures - but the highlight was the one to commemorate the recent 19th CCP congress. Huge paintings, many featuring armed forces, space and technology innovations, and folksy peasants in the countryside... 

A farewell drink with Kahtryn Irwin and late trop home. 

I just about got up as planned to leave the hotel at 745 but didn't arrive at the Summer Palace until gone 9.30. It is up north on the opposite side of town - and by that time, an  hour after opening time, the tour groups had alrady massed which put a bit of a dampner on the first few courtyards. Still the crowds soon thinned as I transversed the 1km Long Corridor and climbed up the Hill of Longevity to visit an ascetic temple. Embarassingly, the British and French torched this amazing palace twice - during the Opium Wars and as revenge for the Boxer Rebellion.  They did a good job with the re-build but it must have been even more stunning to have seen the orignal Ming construct. The walk along the Western Path across 12 old bridges over the massive Kunming Lake was the highlight. The views to the Park of Fragant Hills and a nearer 8 storied Pagoda across the frozen lake were stunning, fringed with pampass grass and decaying lotus leaves.

After a whole morning at thsi massive sight, I took a bus over to the Fragant Hills and particularly enjoyed the Temple of Azure Clouds which houses the remains of China's modern founder Dr Yun Sat who overthrew the Imperial Family. Quite a juztaposition after the morning visit. Locals flock to this park in Autumn to see the leaves. There was some colour, mainly yellow. but i was apparently a week or so late to see the crimson red leaves. A visit to the Nijuie Mosque was less satisfying since i had seen even better Musilm Tang fusion in Xi'an but the day was topped off by a bowl of ramen. Nice to have some different food even if the soup was rather thin.

A 9am bullet train got me to Shanghai in 4 and a half hours at 225mph. Pretty imrpessive apart from the lack of carriage doors to prevent the draft and end of carriage noise disturbing me in row 1.  After booking into my functional hotel, i went straight to the beautiful Yuyuan Ming era garden which was better than i imagined despite further UK and French reprisal bombings in the 19th C.  The garden was typically Chinese, built around courtyards and pavillions and teaming with both carp and jagged rocks, wistful pines and artfiul walls and bridges. Quite different from Japanese gardens but an art form, imbued with meaning and style. I wandered around the reconstructed old town and down to the riverside. It has been raining and was a bit drissly so the skyscrapers were clouded over but still spectacularly lighting up the gloom. I walked for half an hour along the river towards the Bund before heading back into the fairly busy streets, full of stores and eateries. I was stopped by 3 or 4 women, most wanting to sell things, one guiding me, and one of dubious intention... 

I should have stayed in bed but am used to getting up at 7 or earlier so maintained the habit. The hotel breakfast costing me £2 was awful with no western comforts whatsoever, not even milk for the coffee, so I headed to McDonalds. It was kind of exercise day because despite the rain the shopworkers were assembled on E Nanjing Street before work to showcase talents including pushing large tables and trays of drinks, badminton and dance.  I had to wait for the Shanghai Museum to open but it was worth the wait - a fantastic seletion of Tang sculptures, ancient and more modern ceramics, calligraphy and bronzes. Sadly my photos were largely lost so after a visit to a quick visit to the French Concession, I went back to the Yuyuan Park area to track down the nice lady who had sold me a dodgy memory card. A quick argument ensued but a nearby shop sold me an authentic card and as suspected my card was a fake - the wrong colour and without id number on the back, so I headed back and to be fair asked for just a third of my money back which i got. Irritating enough and even more irritating to be stopped repeatedly and asked if I wanted watches, bags or a massage! Some of the offers were worse.

The rain had stopped so the views of the Bund, which means muddy strip by the river, were spectacular as the lights lit up and shone across the river. Shanghai really is a spectacular city with a range of fine art deco and victorian buildings including the splendid British delegation, former YMCA and a building used by Christies. Cash is king and mamon rules but at least I stumbled across 2 churches, both sadly closed.

Up early to get the 830 train to Suzhou - a nice, modern, smart, fast one that only took half an hour.  Having quickly dropped the bags at the hotel, check in took a bit longer as ever but i got going to see as much of this historic city as i could given that the train agent have booked me on a similar train time tomorrow onto Hangzhou. I could do with longer here really - the town is full of historic gardens, rather like a mini Kyoto. Fortunately, the 2 temples were free to get in to today - an 8 story pagoda North Temple, and an impressive hall in the Western Garden Temple. I also visited the Twin Pagodas, all that remainn of a more ancient temple. The two big draws are the Garden of the Master of the Nets, the Garden to Linger In and the Humble Administrators. There isnt that much which is humble about the latter. It is huge with a lot of expensive looking halls and pavillions. The Net's by comparison was much smaller but still exqusiite, making use of courtyards to disguide the relative lack of space. I saw a couple of other inspired gardens as well - the Couple's Garden and the Garden of Harmony. The Garden to Linger in was extenive and framed with masses of chrystanthenums that provided colour alongside the autumn leaves. It was noticably warmer today - around 20 degrees which was nice after the recent cold spell and cloud in Shanghai. The leaves were noticeably more colourful than in Beijing - so  I have just about arrived in time!   So much more that I could see if I had more time.  This really is a beautiful town with a couple of scenic area alongside the narrow canals and bridges.  

Another train ride got to Hangzhou with a bit more time to explore than usual. On first impression, the guide book seems to have gone a bit OTT since although pleasant this is a huge town with the commercial centre bordering the celebrated lake. The lake is massive, about 40km in circumference, and pleasant enough with a couple of lakes and overlooked by hills with the odd pagoda visible in the distance. The Autumn coloured leaves added charm. Walking away from town, the vistas improve particularly once you reached the causeways. However, the obvious antiquity of this sight is only really evident in a few scattered places. As ever, many of the temples and buildings are relatively recent reconstructions - done well enough and pleasant to look at but not that authentic in feel. The exceptions included the Song Dynasty stone carvings that have survived next to an old temple. Different in feel and ascetic to those such as Longmen.  

My day was partly ruined by the guide book telling me porkies about where to book a coach ticket. That is after an incredibly frustrating hour at the train station where i was passed from queue to queue and still failed to change my evening train to a morning one. In the end i requested a refund and decided to get a book. I had to go from the central booking office all the way out of town to the western bus station but at least I know where the bus station is now, and how to get there.

My day improved with the arrival of a colourful Chinese guy who insisted and taking me back to town in a taxi. Barely a word of Englosh, he used translator and was refreshingly frank in his assesment of life in China.  My mood improved, I walked the other side of the lake- to the west, and onto a boat to the pleasant island in the middle of the lake.  I could hvae stayed here longer but think that 2 days is enough to avoid spending even more on entry tickets. I also found 2 reasonable ramen shops that provided a culinary respite from the usual more oily diet.

Fed up with China Train i cancelled my train ticket because it would have arrived at gone 10pm and took a bus instead. That was fortunate since the bus took me the whole way to the Huangshan mountain area which is some 50km on from Huangshan City. Work that one out.  The journey was fine apart from the poor lady in front retching from time to time and spitting horribly into a bucket... The hotel is a good one although the reception and corridors are scruddy. Doesn't look as if the corridors have been vacuumed for months... Still the rooms are clean and tidy and they kindly took me to the bus station where i caught a bus up to the cable car. Foreigners are getting free entry to the mountain this Winter - yippee - which saved me 100 yuan. The ride was a bit scary given how high we went up the mountain. This is the most stunning place i have seen yet. Granite rock outrcips, covered in scenic pines. The Chinese identify all sorts of animials and occurences from the shapes of the rocks and treets eg couples tree, the lion rock etc but i just enjoyed the amazing panoramic views with clouds covering the tops of the mountains in the distance. The poor coolies are paid 1.80 per kilo and apparently can carry up to 100kg. They get a bit less coming down.  The paths are steep and i counted the steps. I did about 5150 at the summit going up and down peaks and viewpoints and somehow missing the entry point to the Western Steps which are apparently murderous going up. It was probably just as well since tired from that ascent, i counted a further 5150 going down the Eastern steps which was keen and ankle jarring and unexpectedly long and tough.  I shall sleep well tonight but will remember this place fondly - i can quite see why it had its own school of ink brush painters.

The hotel guy kindly droped me off at the bus station again and I got a direct train to the village of Hongcun - which is a Unseco sight and which dates back to medieval times and earlier. It is apparently set out in feng shui style but I just appreciated the beautiful lake, mountain backdropped dripping in mist from the persistent morning rain, richly and ornately decorated houses with black tile roofs which are extravagantly piled one upone another forming several layers. There was some fine stonework and skilled wood cargings. Many of the houses were of similar style  - limited in size due to population pressures - so often 2 stories and 3 rooms with an open space in the middle to catch water. Must have been freezing in Winter. People were still using the narrow waterways to do washing and even to wash vegetables - not sure about that. Still this is a beautiful place indeed, spoilt only by the tour guides with their microphones making a racket. Luckily it is a bit out of season but foreigners (I was the only one I saw all day) benefited from a 50% discount on the oddly configured 104 yuan fee. Another quick dash allowed me to take some photos overlooking picturesque Tachuan just up the road although by now the clouds were a bit too thick to bring out the best of the mountain backdrops. Another bus took me to another Unesco Village XIdi which dates back to 1047 and which housed the fleeing Tang Emperor. The entry archway signifies the village's grand history but sadly its lkae was being drained for some kind of work. The village is large and extensive which over 100 well preserved buildings and unusally many fine courtyard gardens. Again, size was restricted so grandeur is expressed through the quality of crafsmanship. Xidi had less tour groups and was all the better for it. Stunning!

 The 28th was dark, damp and misty -ideal for travelling and as it happened in spent the day in the train before reaching Guilin. The hotel was out of town but easy enough after one trip by bus. I fed the lovely local dog who was hanging around outside.

A 630 start got me to me Yangshuo before any rush. That was largely put to bed by the season although I enjoyed the Autumn leaves. It was unexpectedly mild despite the cloud and soon the limestone karts came into view all around the city as the sun rose around 7. It really is a surreal sight - the most surreal since she American salt plains. The are sharp, sometimes squat or tall hills of varying shapes. I enjoyed cycling past moon Hill - couldn't see the point of paying to climb and onto Longton village which has ming heritage but is unrestored and preserves some cultural revolution scribbling on walls although most has been rubbed out. The village had a sad air. Goodness knows what horrors took place here.

Yangshuo grew on me but I got tired of the touts. Felt sorry for many trying to sell trinkets, postcardo or boat trips. Most don't seem to do any business at all. I'm not sure how they make a living. But I don't think people are starving now. I also lost my temper with a cruel guy who dragged his poor dog around in the air by its lead. Ironically he was one of the few who understoodles English.  Sightseeing was a bit tough and I failed to make it to Dragon Bridge by boat refusing to pay 190 yuan by boat and having a merry dance on the wrong buses.. I was glad to get back after wandering around town rather lost. 

 Longji rice fields were about 2 hours away by bus. Going at 730 I was the only passenger. ..Dazai is well situated close to a couple of the premier view point but there is so much building going on that I fear it is losing some of its charm. It was 530 steps up to the hotel and doublessing that up to 9 dragons and 5 tigers the next day. Sadly unlike my first day when I enjoyed good views the Saturday morning views were clouded over. It is also past harvest so the fields were bare. I somehow managed to leave my passport behind leading to an hours panic until my hotel phonedeals the Dazai one and located it. But it still meant a 430 alarm clock wake up and 630 bus to make it there and back in time to get my scheduled 330 train to Kunmin. That was a long 7 hour trek but on a comfortable high speed train. No time to lay in either with a 930 train to Dali. That was a 6 hour trip on an older more cramped train but arriving to the minute.

Once you get to old Dali  - it's an hour on the bus from the station - it is delightful. I particularly enjoyed seeing the 1920s Catholic Church built in local pagoda like style. The old town has been revamped for sure but is chocca with character and nice cafes. It is overlooked by hills and runs down to a huge lake. A real resort town.

A 1530 train got me to Lijiang by 530 although bizarrely it was a sleeper train. I just made it to the old town in time for sunset. It is a very evocative old town with many canals and kerb drains. 

A bus got me the next morning to Leaping Tiger Gorge the start of which is pock marked with work on a high speed link to Shangri  la. I walked the opening stretch with an English guy Runpert who has been working for Forsters in Hong Kong. The 28 bends steeply up hill was tough but not as long as some other mountains in China and the descent was remarkablyour quick to commence. Getting to middle Gorge along a high winding narrow ledge looking down hundreds of meters to the river was breathtaking and I enjoyed the Autumn colours. For most of the time the only company was docile looking moutain goats. The descent to lower Gorge was tougher and rocky. I decided to go right down to the riverside which involved very steepee steps and ladders. Lonely Planet said that a path downstream took you to my guesthouse,  Walnut Tree. It didn't say you had to climb sharply upwards.  I was exhausted. To cap it, it then transpired that the Walnut was 3 km uphill the mountain. I could see a light high up the mountain side.  Surely not? Yep that was the Walnut. I just about made it and slept soundly despite the strong winds during the night.

I met the poor dog next morning and took him for a walk, got a longer rope and encouraged the nice young guy to be kind to him. I also gave him a name - Sootie. The problem is the uncle who owns the place apatently.  But often I see poor dogs, cats and birds over confined. 

This time we were allowed to use the compartments back to Kunming. So the 7 hour journey passed quickly.  I sent a few more things back home and got ready to fly to Mandalay with a good night's sleep. Farewell China.

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