Greetings from Sydney! More than a week of clear blue skies and some days of real warmth (24º) is easing my transition from the hot misty sweat of Sichuan to the cool grey of English summer. I'll be back in the UK in less than a week's time, and am mighty excited at the prospect of seeing friends and family for a month. Given that it's going to be a busy time, I'm taking this opportunity to write up the highlights of my lovely holiday in Sichuan.


Juizhaigou and Songpan

I got out of Beijing the day my Mandarin course finished (June 28th) and took a fast, air-conditioned train for 30 hours towards the southwest, alighting shortly before 5 am on the morning of the 30th in Mianyang. The day on the train was good to unwind, read, practise my Chinese and gaze at China's landscape - my first sights of real mountains in China. From Mianyang I caught an eight-hour bus north to Jiuzhaigou, a area famed for its incredible natural beauty, whose name means 'nine stockade gully' (there are numerous Tibetan settlements). I spent the next two days in Jiuzhaigou, and its scenery did not disappoint - still deep dark green or shallow turquoise lakes, burbling brooks, bouncing big waterfalls, butterflies and Tibetan prayer flags everywhere. The only problem was the throngs of other tourists. Chinese people on holiday don't have much time, so they typically spend just a day in the park, rushing from one famous spot to the next in the free buses plying the park's fork-roads. This is fine, except I found it quite hard to get away from the road (I was inadequately map-laden) to explore, and those buses would just RACE by! But I still managed to find a couple of places where there was no one, and even the famous spots were quiet between buses. Striking off through some woodland I crossed some barbed wire. I soon noticed a big stone cave, which gave an impression of inhabitation. I remembered that there are at least wild pandas in Jiuzhaigou, so I started thinking about big scary bears - and then spotted a pile of bones nearby. Oops! I hurried back into the open and out of the wood, not wanting to become someone's dinner…..

From Jiuzhaigou I headed south to the lovely town of Songpan, which is inhabited mostly by Tibetans and the Hui Muslim minority people. Songpan is the friendliest place I have been to in China yet! It's a small old town, but judging from the amount of building labour in the streets in five years time the people may no longer be living in thin wood and paper houses but in concrete and brick comfort. Nice for them maybe, but I was glad to have had the chance to see the old Songpan. I made friends with a woman called Xiao Hong, who beckoned me into her home and stuffed me and her friends with noodles, and then dressed up in smart clothes and after showing me off to various people took me to see the town's two mosques. That evening I returned to her home and we sang karaoke together (she called herself a 'peasant' and her home is very humble, but she does have a DVD player!) I was very glad that the teacher in my extra reading and writing class had taught us the words (and how to read the characters) of two classic Chinese pop songs.



Horse Trek to Huanglong

The next morning I jumped on a horse (for the third time EVER). Except that the first time I attempted a mount I almost plunged headfirst onto the road on the other side of my patient beast, strangled by my now rather dead 'Perfect Girlie Carry Bag'! Second time, with bag converted to trusty mini backpack and with more guides on hand to heave-ho, I made it up there, none the worse, and we set off. Songpan (unlike most places in China) usually gets more foreign tourists than Chinese because of its horse treks to the surrounding countryside (no speedy buses involved….). But my group included three Americans and one brave Beijing software engineer who had BROKEN AWAY from his guided tour!!! His English improved massively over the next three days and he got to see how westerners like to holiday.

Out into the countryside we rode, birds tweeting, butterflies flitting, carpets of flowers between Tibetan settlements and lots of happy children waving. What bliss! Well, that lasted I suppose a couple of hours. We stopped for a snack (sweet bread) on one of those carpets, and I successfully got back on the horse without help. But then we began jolting and scraping up the side of a mountain to a 4000+m pass. Suddenly my right knee and ankle joints were feeling all twisted and wrong. It got trickier heading down the other side of the pass, our lovely horses slipping and stumbling a bit, picking their path between mud, stones, and a less than half-built road (which busloads of Chinese tourists were still attempting to drive along). Ow ow ow, we were all inexperienced and all getting very tired as the hours wore on. All I could think was 'please can we get there soon…..'. So of course in such a helplessly negative frame of mind I distinguished myself by being the only one to fall off!!! My horse just seemed to want to go through this bushy tree, and I didn't want to get decapitated! Luckily we were back on spongy carpet by this point, so I was not at all hurt, and within half an hour we had arrived at the edge of the Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) national park, our destination. We collapsed in fœtus position while our guides made us tomatoes and sugar to revive. After half an hour or so we heaved ourselves up for a little stroll, and then I helped the guides make our dinner and so learnt how to make noodles.

Huanglong is an incredible place. In Turkey I had not made it to Pamukkale, famous for its calcium pools of water. But seeing Huanglong I was so glad I had not bothered with Pamukkale as the Yellow Dragon far outshines. We spent the whole of our second day (on foot!) wending upwards through this valley of multi-coloured pools, walking on top of the water (on a boardwalk), gasping at the views. This sounds superlative, but it was all the more amazing that day because there were very few other visitors thanks to the roadworks and the sun was shining bright until late afternoon. Back at the camp some other horse trekkers had arrived, including two Hong Kong/American girls who speak Mandarin so there was lots of Chinese conversation round the fire that night, and I realized just what a difference the 12 weeks of study has made, even if my Chinese is still not that great (and falling fast since leaving China, I might add….). Our ride back the following day was much less painful though still tiring - my stirrups were shorter which seemed to inhibit my joint pains, and I spent the whole time pretending to be a cowboy.

In Songpan that night we were treated to dinner at the home of Mr Ha (as in ha ha ha!), one of our guides. He tried to get us drinking bai jiu (literally 'white spirits', it is strong rice liquor), but we let him have most of the bottle as 4 of us were taking the 6 am bus to Chengdu the next morning. The woman next to me on the bus was sick out the window - something I've heard about, but had never seen before. Glad I wasn't the one in the window seat….




I spent several days in and around Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province), moving slowly in the heavy sweaty heat, a real change from the fresh sunny air further north. I hired a bike for a couple of days - good change from a horse, and this machine was definitely working better than the brakeless wonder I had used in Suzhou in May. I saw cute and furry big and baby giant and red pandas in a breeding reserve just outside the city, living in what seemed to be pretty comfortable conditions, if albeit very hot and moist compared to their natural habitat. I also made a trip to Leshan one day, and wandered up and down the sides of the world's biggest statue of the Buddha - 71 metres of sitting giant, carved into a cliff face above the river. I chose minibus rather than express bus back to Chengdu - and the trip ended up taking several hours longer than it had in the morning (partly because of breakdown) but I got to see more countryside and chatted to an eleven year old girl off to boarding school in a nearby town, who has never been to Chengdu ('my mother tells me there is a fine zoo').


Yangzi River

Time for yet another mode of transport: boat! It was my first time to use a waterway for the whole of my big trip, having failed to get a boat from Oman to Iran in January. Every day boats head down the Yangzi River from boiling hot and steaming Chongqing (formerly known as Chungking), a large industrial city south-west of Chengdu. The Yangzi River (Chang Jiang, or Long River, in Mandarin) starts in Tibet and goes all the way to Shanghai on China's east coast. As well as a river trip getting me in the direction I wanted to go (towards Hong Kong), another famous Chinese scenic spot, the 'Three Gorges' (Qutang, Wu, and Xiling), lies between Chongqing and Yichang. The gorges are going to change dramatically in a year or two as the Chinese government is building a massive new dam (displacing 1.25 million people). I got a third class cabin berth (out of four): eight bunks, a small basin and a clapped out air-conditioner. It turned out that those in first and second class had a rodent problem!! Most of the passengers on these huge boats are holidaying Chinese people, but they are also a fairly cheap mode of transport (in 5th class - i.e., no seat, no bed) for people travelling down the river. But the people just going from A to B have to wait as the boat stops at places deemed of tourist interest. I amusingly and unwittingly found myself part of a Chinese tour, complete with purse-lipped I-don't-care-much-for-moaning-westerners tour guide and silly plastic sunshades (to be worn at 'all times'). In my group too was a nice American guy (going 4th class) who has been studying in Japan researching medieval history for the last two years and whose parents were born in China (so was constantly being told 'you're not a real American'). Peter could speak ok Mandarin and his Japanese meant he was great at reading characters. We also made friends with a funny young guy from Guangzhou (travelling 1st class) who could speak a little English as well as Mandarin and his native Cantonese.

After the first night on the boat we were got up at 5 am to visit a temple complex called Pingdushan, which has become famous for having lots of underworld type temples - rather grotesque plaster statues, mostly, but some nice upturned eaves and a chair lift up and down, feet swinging above pretty gardens and old people doing early morning taiji quan. We went through the big gorges over the course of our second day on the boat, and also had a side-trip out to three little gorges. At one of the temples we stopped at I suddenly realized I was walking around with a huge hole in the seat of my trousers (never mind the rip in my shirt sleeve). These trousers (purchased only March 1999) have been patched numerous times since March thanks to my worn-out orange silk shirt (purchased c.1988), including a large patch on the other half of the 'seat' just three days before in Chengdu! Realising that the second day in the saddle must have just been too much for them and that I would soon run out of shirt to use as patch, I left them stiff with sweat in the bin in the communal 3rd class shower room on the boat. Don't buy Ann Taylor for travel-sturdy goods!



Hong Kong and Sydney

The gorges themselves were beautiful - rising in misty peaks away from the banks of the very wide very brown river. But sad as it may sound I think the best bit on the boat for me was the journey through the lock as we reached Yichang at the start of the third evening on board. The lock has got to be one of the biggest in the world, as it fitted not just our huge boat but another as well, and the water level had to sink over 65 metres (there was a gauge painted on the side) for us to be able to get out the other side!! Suddenly at Yichang our vessel developed a mysterious 'problem' (lots of passengers getting off, if you ask me), and we had to quickly move to another boat conveniently moored adjacent. When we reached Yueyang at about 2pm the following day I was quite ready to get off that boat forever.

In Yueyang I took a fast overnight train south to Guangzhou, arriving at 4.10 am on the morning of the 16th (which prevented me feeling the two-hour time difference when I got to Australia!!). Rather than spend any time in Guangzhou I got an express train to Kowloon at 8.30 am and was in Hong Kong soon after 10. Thanks to more groovy transport I was able to check-in for my flight and get rid of my heavy bag, and spent the day going up to the Peak for those famous views and spending slightly silly money in summer sales. Then, for the first time since October, I was able to take advantage once more of all those miles flown when working, by using my British Airways silver card (before it expires on July 30th) to have the best shower of my life in Cathay Pacific's business class lounge, even though I was flying economy. Despite my efforts at showers on the boat (was it river water?????) and a clean-up session and fresh t-shirt in Guangzhou East station at 6 am, I had really been stinking in those designer clothes shops in Central. This shower, a new sweater, some clean trousers I'd been saving and a bowl of noodle soup and other nibbles freshly prepared in the lounge meant I was feeling like a quite different kind of girl when I boarded the aeroplane. And I was just about presentable for my cousins the Playousts when they met me at Sydney airport the next morning!

So now I'm having a wonderful time in very sunny and warm winter Sydney (warm until today, that is)! Last Saturday I went to the wedding of one of my oldest friends, Mary Byrne. They had chartered a ferry to pick people up at various points around the harbour to take to the chapel for the ceremony, and then later to take everyone to the reception, like film stars. This was brilliant! So was the light and the colour of everything around the harbour - a lovely change from Beijing, where even out at the Great Wall there is a haze. And let's not mention Tehran, Shiraz, etc…. I'm catching up with other old friends out here too (Anna Moore and I are going to a Korean health spa tomorrow night) and making a couple of new ones, so my reclusive time has not exactly been that - but it's a good transition into the Western world. Haven't quite started on the Chinese language revision I was planning on doing, but I have tried speaking to people I can hear speaking Mandarin round and about, with very surprised reactions! And I have been populating a spreadsheet full of information about photographs, bus tickets, etc, while Richard has been writing the application needed for the database. So now you can see version one of his labours in the Picture Gallery - with our first search capabilities. Take a look and let us know what you think!

See you soon! I will be checking e-mail frequently while in England, so if you don't have my phone number, send me a message!

Lots of love,


The tiles on this page are of furs hanging outside a Tibetan shop in Songpan, Sichuan Province. |Click here to view the original photo|