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Our March/April 2010 holiday


  • Introduction
  • Facts On China
  • Beijing
  • Dalian
  • Shanghai/Wuzhen/Hangzhou
  • Wuhan & Yichang
  • Chengdu
  • Observations
  • Conclusion


    "No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat."

    Former leader of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Xiaoping in support of market reforms

    The origins of this trip to China by Roger & Vee in March 2010 are to be found in their holiday in China in September 2000 [for account click here]. On the flight back from Beijing to London, they sat in a row of three seats, the third of which was occupied by a 25 year old Chinese student setting off to Oxford University to commence a PhD in biochemical engineering. It was a journey of over 10 hours and there was plenty of time to talk and become friends.

    Hua Ye (English name Cathy) had never left China before and was a little anxious about negotiating controls at Heathrow Airport, connecting with the person expected to meet her, and establishing herself in Oxford. So Roger & Vee stayed with her while she went through the controls and then met her contact and the next weekend they visited Oxford to take her for lunch and see how she was settling down. From that initial contact developed a wonderful friendship in which Hua became like a daughter to Roger & Vee.

    At the end of her first year of study at Oxford University, Hua returned to China to marry her university boyfriend and he subsequently joined her in Britain. Zhihao Yong (English name Alex) was as warm and engaging as Hua and immediately became like a son to Roger & Vee. In April 2007, Hua & Zhihao had a baby boy called Qinyuan (English name Joshua). By then, they were living in London and Roger & Vee visited them every few weeks to see Joshua growing up and meet Hua's parents and then Zhihao's parents, each of whom came over for several months to help with the baby's care. Roger & Vee have no grandchildren and so darling Joshua became like a grandson to them.

    Roger & Vee and Zhihao & Hua regularly discussed travelling to China together. It was decided to wait until Joshua was a little older (he is now almost three) and then we thought it would be fun to visit on the 10th anniversary of Roger & Vee's first trip to China. So this explains how, in the Easter period of 2010, the five of us set out on a three-week trip to China which was less about conventional sightseeing and more about meeting the families and friends of Zhihao (now 36) & Hua (now 35) and seeing China through Chinese eyes.

    Roger & Vee with Zhihao & Hua
    in front of the Forbidden City overlooked by Mao

    Darling Joshua wearing Roger's hat
    - yes, he is big for just under 3!

    Note on names: In China, the family name always comes before the personal name and, even in families and among friends, the full name is usually used. However, in this account - except for the names of well-known Chinese historic or political figures - the Western practice is adopted of using the personal name before the family name and only using the personal name for friends.


    Many of the following facts are taken from a book called "When China Rules The World" written by Martin Jacques and read by Roger in preparation for the trip [for review click here].

    Historical facts

    Population facts Cultural facts Political facts Economic facts


    For Roger & Vee, in some respects this was like one of the organised tours on which they usually go on holiday because Zhihao & Hua made all the arrangements and everything went very smoothly as a result. They booked planes and trains and hotels and everywhere we went there were people to meet us and transport us.

    Zhihao & Hua found an economic fare to China by travelling with KLM via Amsterdam, so on a Tuesday afternoon we made a short 40-minute hop from London's Heathrow airport to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport in a Boeing 737-300 before taking the main flight - one of 8 hours 50 minutes - to Beijing in a Boeing 747-400. The straight line distance between London and Beijing is approximately 5,280 miles or 8,500 kms.

    It was 9.50 am locally on Wednesday when we touched down at China's capital. We were fortunate to have just missed a sandstorm which had hit the city over a three-day period but there was no escaping the pollution of this metropolis. On Roger & Vee's visit 10 years ago, they found a mega city of 15 million with no less than four ring roads and nine million bicycles. Today Beijing has a population of 17.5 million, there are now six ring roads, and the number of bicycles is far less with an abundance of new cars all spewing out exhaust fumes. In the intervening period, Beijing has hosted the 2008 Olympic Games which has given the city a great fillip.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    We were met by a good friend of Zhihao's called Yu - a very successful and high-earning management consultant in his mid 30s who, with his receding hair, looked like a young version of Mao. He spoke no English but made up for this with an infectious laugh and enormous generosity. Yu drove a BMW series 5 in a terrifying style that involved constant lane changing and urgent braking but took us through the capital's packed streets with considerable accomplishment and some illegality.

    It was midday when we arrived at the centrally local Beijing Hotel [click here]. Since there was an eight-hour time difference between London and Beijing, for our bodies it was 4 am so all we wanted to do was grab a few hours sleep before washing and changing. Then, at 6 pm, Yu collected the five of us for the first of a series of spectacular meals in China. He chose a very special venue: a Mongolian restaurant in the north of the city called “Xibei Ninety-Nine Yurts” which only opened in October 2009.

    It is not a building but, as the name suggests, a series of Mongolian-style yurts – portable, felt-covered, wood latticed-framed dwelling structures traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia - spread out over a wide area, each one having its own electric heater and a circular table with a rotating centre.

    The meal started with Mongolian tea heated in a large bowl and served in soup-sized bowls with soup-type spoons. The first course was seven cold dishes including lamb and pancakes. Next came hot pot with three types of vegetables and more lamb. Then came a fruit salad. Finally there were noodles. Our host Yu arranged for us to be visited by a troupe of musicians playing traditional Mongolian instruments with singers contributing traditional songs, some sung in a very unfamiliar throat sound known as hoomii. It was a wonderful start to the holiday and something which none of we visitors had experienced before.

    The five of us with four Mongolian friends

    Sizzling hotpot in Mongolian yurt

    Roger was determined to use the trip to China to engage with Chinese and discover how they view current developments in the country and, on this first evening, he engaged with Yu while Zhihao acted as interpreter. Yu explained that, in Chinese business and politics, there was corruption everywhere and he had to use bribes to make his way. He joked that the best place to do business in China was in a spa where people were naked and it was not possible to have conversations recorded. Like all Chinese, Yu felt very obligated to his parents and regularly gave them money, but, they were much less interested in material advancement than young people like him.

    As we left our yurt, it was snowing.

    Thursday morning saw Beijing with blue skies and a sharp chill. First things first: breakfast. In Chinese hotels, breakfast is not usually part of the room booking and it was too expensive in our hotel (180 yuan or £17), so we walked round the corner to a shopping mall called “Oriental Plaza” where we had a most unusual breakfast to a most unusual background.

    In a Korean fast-food place called “Han Na Shan Food”, we had honey & grapefruit tea, sticky rice with eel, some kind of fried coconut milk dish, and fruit salad – a bit of a change from Roger & Vee's usual muesli and toast. While we ate, 11 staff members lined up and stood to attention while a manager gave them the instructions for the day as if they were on a military parade ground. Then they all recited the company motto and clapped in unison like a bunch of American schoolchildren. Finally the manager inspected the hands of each member of staff.

    Suitably nourished, the five of us walked the short distance to our first tourist site: the Forbidden City or - as it is more properly known – the Imperial Palace [click here]. Its origins date from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but it was Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty who had the palace enlarged to its present size between 1406-1420 after he had transferred the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. It has since been the subject of many reconstructions.

    The complex extends over 861,120 square yards (720,000 square metres) and is said to comprise 9,999 rooms (only God in Heaven can have 10,000 - a special number for the Chinese – rooms). The palace was the residence of 24 Ming and Qing emperors and up to 10,000 staff but ordinary mortals were forbidden to enter which gave the location its usual name.

    Roger & Vee visited the Forbidden City on their trip in 2000, Hua had been there too, but it was the first time for Zhihao and little Joshua. Entering from the southern end in Tiananmen Square, one passes under the huge picture of Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, through the Gate of Uprightness, and then through the Meridian Gate into the complex proper. Here one finds a series of halls located in a symmetrical layout with the Hall of Supreme Harmony as the largest, rising some 98 feet (30 metres) above the level of the surrounding square. It is the ceremonial centre of imperial power and the largest surviving wooden structure in China.

    Female dragon to left of staircase:
    note left paw nestling baby dragon

    Male dragon to right of staircase:
    note right paw nestling a ball

    Roger & Vee in gardens of Forbidden City

    Emerging from the Forbidden City on the north side, our friend Yu was there to meet us and drive us the short distance to lunch at the “Old Beijng Cafe”. Here we were served huge dishes of noodles with various side dishes but none of us could finish the food – it was just too much. After our lunch, we split off in various directions: Zhihao and Joshua went off with Yu, Vee returned to the hotel to seek more sleep, and Roger joined Hua for a planned visit to the Great Hall of the People but found that it closed at 3 pm (it was already about 3.30 pm).

    So instead Roger & Hua first walked around Tiananmen Square (the name means ‘The Square of Heavenly Peace’) [click here], having first gone through a security checkpoint with X-ray machine. The square is the largest in the world and at its centre is the 98 foot (30 metres) high Monument to the Heroes guarded by soldiers and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall where Mao's preserved body lies (Roger saw this on a business trip to Beijing in 2001).

    South of the square are some pleasant pedestrianised shopping streets where Roger & Hua enjoyed wandering. A sign warned of various activities that were prohibited in these streets using pictorial symbols. There were no less than 20 pictures, the last one banning demonstrations.

    20 forbidden activities

    On Quianmen Dajie, there is a tea shop dating back to 1887 and a shop which sells nothing but chopsticks of every kind and cost. Then, on Dazhalan Lu, there is the famous traditional Chinese medicine store called “Tongren Tang” which has been there since 1702. Roger & Hua browsed around, viewing such 'medicines' and aphrodisiacs as ginseng, bird's nest, sea cucumbers and antlers, tail and even penis of deer. Close by is a cinema called “Daguanlou” which is the oldest in China (it was opened in 1902) where they had drinks before taking a covered scooter back to the hotel, pausing to allow the passage of the car carrying home Premier Wen Jiabao with his police escort.

    In the evening, Zhihao's friend Yu again took us out to dinner and this time we were joined by the co-owner of his consultancy company, an affable Hong Kong Chinese called Dick. The venue was a branch of the famous Quanjude Beijing duck chain, this particular restaurant being the one on Guangqumenwai Street which seats 320.

    As well as the inevitable and delicious Beijing duck, we had duck soup and walnut soup and were introduced to a favourite Chinese dish lotus root. Dick explained that, while Mandarin uses four tones, Cantonese – the main language in Hong Kong - uses seven tones [for a short discussion of Mandarin click here]. Of course, Hong Kong has a limited version of democracy and Roger discussed with Dick the prospects for democracy in mainland China. Dick felt that it was too soon to consider such change in China and argued that poverty levels and education standards need to be addressed first. Roger pointed out that India was also very large and very poor but had managed to sustain democratic institutions for 60 years.

    The evening was not over. While Hua took Joshua back to the hotel. Yu took Roger, Vee and Zhihao to collect his partner Yoki and we all moved on to a 'hutong' area to the north of the Forbidden City (hutongs are old areas of narrow streets [for more information click here]). We found a pleasant place called the “Pass By Bar” where Roger seized the rare opportunity to indulge in a dessert (banana split).

    If Yu was an example of the newly wealthy Chinese businessman, Yoki was a stellar performer in the capitalist economy that now increasingly shapes Communist China – she earns around a million yuan a year which technically translates into around £100,000 but in terms of purchasing power in Beijing is probably worth around £200,000 in London. Roger was keen to know what such aspiring Chinese hoped for China as a nation. Yu asserted that he wanted China to become like the USA now: rich, powerful, assertive on the world stage. Yoki was more temperate though and wanted a more collaborative approach from China. Roger expressed his concern at the growing income inequality in China and referenced the rising value of the Gini coefficient for the country (for explanation of the coefficient and graph showing China's performance click here). As Roger argued with Yu over the need for China to be a fairer society, he sounded more communist than Yu and Yoki said that Roger would enjoy talking to her father who is a communist official.

    On Friday morning, the five of us returned to the “Oriental Plaza” to find some breakfast but this time we gave the Korean fast-food place a miss and chose the more suitable “Paris Baguette” which had welcome croissants and coffee. The plaza is situated on the Wangfujing Dajie which is said to be the busiest street in Beijing [click here]. Western brand names and designer goods are very evident here and, as we strolled up the street, we could have easily imagined ourselves in London, Paris or New York.

    We were heading for two tourist sites that Roger visited on a business trip to Beijing in 2001. The first was the Lama Temple [click here]. This wonderful complex of buildings dates back to 1694 when it was an imperial palace but, in 1722, half of the location was converted into a lamasery, a monastery for monks of Tibetan Buddhism. Today there are many highly-decorated pavilions and buddhas to admire as one skirts around Chinese visitors lighting incense sticks and genuflecting on their knees.

    Entrance to Lama Temple

    Worshippers at Lama Temple

    Just down the road is the Confucius Temple [click here]. This was originally constructed in 1302 and imperial officials used it to pay their respects to Confucius here until 1911. Even today, there are 198 stone tablets positioned on either side of the front courtyard containing 51,624 names of the advanced scholars of the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

    Vee stayed with Hua & Joshua visiting the temples, while Roger & Zhihao were collected by Yu and taken to a 'business meeting' that he was attending. This was to consider the marketing of a new organisation called the China Foundation For Youth Entrepreneurship And Employment launched by the Communist Youth League of China's Central Committee. Roger had no idea what he was doing there, but figured that Yu wanted to show off a Western colleague and that, in view of Yu's immense generosity, it was only courteous to oblige. In fact, it proved to be one more example of the immense cultural differences between Britain and China: the meeting started late, traditional music was playing in the background, participants broke off to take calls on their mobile, and comments were made in the blunt, highly critical style that contrasts so much with the Western mode of subtlety and politeness.

    By the time we had all got together again, it was 4 pm before we had 'lunch' but it was a tasty affair in a Thai restaurant called “Sabai-Sabai” which included chicken with cashew nuts and tapioca with bits of fruit in it.

    Three days into our trip, Vee and Hua wanted to have their hair done, so Yu drove us all to a hairdressing salon cum massage parlour that he frequents in a new complex of expensive apartments. Now Yu is obsessive about massage and spends some 2,000 yuan (around £200) a month on it, so he was very keen to treat Roger to a full body massage but our Englishman was only willing to have a foot massage. When Roger & Vee were in China in 2000, they each had a foot massage in Guilin Hospital No 5, so he knew how painful such a massage could be and, before Zhihao left him with the male masseur, an arrangement was set up for an agreed signal when the pain became too sharp. The masseur was a guy from the very north of China near the Russian border who explained – via Zhihao – that he and his wife had come to Beijing for work 10 years ago, leaving behind a seven-year old daughter to be cared for by relatives. Typical of most Chinese migrant workers, they were only able to return home once a year for two weeks.

    Vee has her hair done

    Roger has his feet done

    Lunch had been so late that we did not bother with dinner but instead Yu drove us around various locations in the city. First, we went east to a place called (somewhat unoriginally) “The Place” [click here]. Covering the entire street between two new five-story, high-end retail centres and two 23-storey office towers, there is an astonishing Sky Screen which is 250 metres (820 feet long) and 30 metres (98 feet) wide. The viewing surface, clad entirely with LED modules, makes the square-footage a close second to the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, the largest single screen in the world. At night, it is an awesome sight. Second, we went north and looked at the outside of the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium [click here]. Designed by Li Xinggang of China Architecture Design and Research Group (CADG) for the 2008 Olympics when it accommodated 91,00 spectators, today it has not found an alternative use although various projects are under consideration. Meanwhile it is a tourist attraction by day and illuminated by night. Third, we headed south-west where Zhihao (accompanied by Roger) made a quick visit to his friend Kun whose wife had delivered baby daughter Ruopu just 36 days earlier.

    On Saturday morning, we returned once more to the “Oriental Plaza” and we renewed our acquaintance with “Paris Baquette” for breakfast. Typical though of how Chinese service worked, Roger was not able to have one of the bagels he spotted the previous day because they were not scheduled to be on display for another 20 minutes. We wanted to visit a tourist location about a quarter of an hour's drive away and finding a ride for the five of us was another illustration of Chinese commercialism in operation. A minibus outside our hotel quoted 200 yuan (around £20) for the ride but we managed to squeeze into a local taxi which took us there for a mere 10 yuan (around £1).

    Our destination was the Temple of Heaven, properly known as Tiantan [click here] some distance south of Tiananmen Square. Roger & Vee had visited this famous site in 2000, but then it was mid-week and they only saw the main set of buildings. This time it was Saturday and we had more time to explore the whole location. Since it was the weekend, the large park that houses the buildings was full of Beijingers enjoying the sunshine and having fun. Lots of people were gathered in groups around an instructor and a CD player and were dancing, usually line dancing but some waltzing. Other groups were observing singers and dancers. Others still were playing games: cards, football, expert kicking of a weighted shuttlecock. Some guys were practicing balletic movements with long swords. A couple of old guys were wandering along the paths 'painting' calligraphy with water and giant paint brushes on long poles. There was even a fashion shoot taking place with a very attractive young model in a splendid red dress. It was such a joyous scene that really raised the spirits.

    The temple itself was begun during the reign of the Emperor Yongle and completed in 1420. It was conceived as the prime meeting point of earth and heaven and symbols of the two are integral to the plan, heaven represented as round and earth as square. The principal temple building is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The original was destroyed by fire in 1889 and the official explanation says much about Chinese belief at the time. Apparently the lightning that caused the fire was divine punishment meted out on a sacrilegious caterpillar which was on the point of reaching the golden ball on the hall's apex. You may laugh, but 32 court dignitaries were executed for allowing this to happen. The faithful reconstruction is entirely in wood without the aid of a single nail. We also saw the Round Altar which was constructed in 1530 and enlarged in 1749. The top terrace of three now stands bare, but the spot at the centre, where the Throne of Heaven was placed, was considered to be the middle of the Middle Kingdom - the very centre of the earth.

    Roger & Vee at the Temple of Heaven

    The main hall of the Temple of Heaven

    View at the Temple of Heaven

    Door at the Temple of Heaven

    As we emerged from the grounds of the Temple of Heaven, our ever-faithful friend Yu was there to meet us and transport us to the Shicha Lakes, three artificial lakes created during the Yuan dynasty and located north of the Forbidden City. On the north side of the Houhai Lake, we found a great place for lunch called “Nine Doors Traditional Snack”. This was like a small food hall with all sorts of different options and lots of bustle, but we ate in a private room and had 13 dishes a bit like a Spanish tapas or a Turkish meze. At the entrance to the establishment was an amazing mynah bird that could recite phrases and even a short poem in Mandarin and a guy who blew pieces of soft toffee into the shape of animals representing the Chinese calendar. China was never failing to surprise.

    By the side of the Houhai Lake is Prince Gong's Palace and Song Qingling's Former Residence but both were closed (tourist locations seem to close early in China), so our group of six split up. Roger & Zhihao went for a hour's walk around the 'hutong' alleyways that chararacterise the Houhai district. It was very atmospheric.

    Door in Houhai 'hutong'

    Game in Houhai 'hutong'

    Meanwhile Vee remained with the others in Yu's minivan where they chatted about the differences between British and Chinese families. Yu could not believe that Roger & Vee's son did not regularly donate money to them since all Chinese young adults feel a real obligation to look after their parents.

    The day finished with another large meal in a restaurant called "Ashia's", this one hosted by Lei, a middle-aged female government official for whom Zhihao had organised a programme when she visited Britain a few months previously. Again the dinner was in a private room and as always we sat around a large circular table with a rotating glass centre. Zhihao advised her daughter Rui, a bright student of international trade, about her wish to study at the London School of Economics. Roger sat between two young women in their early 20s: Rui who was very fluent in English and her cousin Tian, a journalist and a mobile fanatic who texted throughout the meal (she claimed to send up to 500 texts a day at the weekend).


    It was 8.15 am on Sunday morning when the five of us left our hotel in Beijing and took taxis to the airport for the next stage of our trip – a visit to the city of Dalian. Roger & Vee had never heard of Dalian before they met Zhihao & Hua but the city is very important to Zhihao & Hua because it where they studied for four years at university and where they met each other and fell in love.

    Located at the southern end of the Liaodong Peninsula, Dalian is the only ice-free port in the region which historically has made it attractive to foreign powers. It was occupied by the British in 1858 and then returned to the Chinese in the 1880s; it was later occupied by the Japanese in 1895 during the first Sino-Japanese War before Russia succeeded in leasing the peninsula in 1898; then it was retaken by the Japanese in 1905 when they beat the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War; finally, at the Second World War, the Soviet Union occupied the city from 1945-1955. Today Dalian is a thriving, cosmopolitan city of 6.5 million.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    The straightline distance between Beijing and Dalian is 290 miles (470 km) so the Air China flight in a Boeing 737-800 – most of it over the Bohai Sea - took less than an hour. Just as we missed a sandstorm in Beijing by a couple of days, so we found that until two days previously Dalian had been suffering from the same sandstorm. As with Beijing, at the airport we were met by a friend of Zhihao's and Jun had two cars waiting to drive us to our city accommodation, the Zhongshan Hotel [click here].

    We were now five days into our trip and at this stage a combination of the jet-lag and the change of diet hit Roger and Vee in different ways. In Roger's case, he developed an acute cases of the 'runs' and needed the toilet again and again .. and again. In Vee's case, she became dizzy and, as she left the lift in the hotel to walk to the room, she passed out. Fortunately Roger saw her going and managed to lower her to the ground where she quickly recovered. But these experiences meant that Roger & Vee did not join Zhihao, Hua & Joshua for the planned lunch and city tour but instead rested up in their room for the afternoon.

    This was the stage in our China trip when we started to meet Zhihao's friends and Hua's relatives. Hua had helpfully complied a family tree so that Roger & Vee could see all the names and the relationships (both her parents have four siblings, so the lines are complicated), but Zhihao had not thought to list his friends, so Roger & Vee sometimes struggled with names.

    Roger & Vee's indisposition in the afternoon meant that Zhihao was able to spend time with his five special friends in Dalian – a very cheerful and close-knit group whom Roger & Vee met briefly at the hotel before going out for dinner.

    Hua had chosen to go to Dalian to take her degree partly because her father's sister lived in the city and this evening we were entertained to dinner by this auntie called Peiyun (a graduate engineer who has worked for a research institute), together with the auntie's husband (a mathematician who has served two terms as President of the Dalian University of Technology) and their son, daughter-in-law and grandson. The 10 of us gathered at the “Tian Tian Seafood Restaurant” and, as the name suggested, we were presented with all sorts of sea creatures to consume. As Roger's stomach continued to rumble, he had particular difficulty appreciating the sea cucumber soup. The sea cucumber is not a vegetable but an animal with spikes along its body and the skin is leathery while the body is chewy. Just what one needs one when one is struggling with an upset stomach.

    The five of us with five of Hua's relatives

    After the meal, we made a quick visit to the flat of auntie Peiyun and uncle Anxi where there was a bust of Mao and a photograph of uncle with Hu Jintao before he became the President. A good communist family.

    Next morning (Monday). Roger & Vee were still fragile but recovering and happy to have breakfast in the hotel before going on a tour. Hua & Joshua stayed in the city while Zhihao accompanied Roger & Vee on a trip organised by his friend Jun. Our destination was a town at the very tip of the Liaodong Peninsula which is in fact part of the wider municipality of Dalian. It is called Lüshun [click here] but the British used to call it Port Arthur and, during the Japanese occupation, it was known as Ryojun.

    The Battle of Port Arthur was the opening conflict of the Russo-Japanese War and was fought in the heavily fortified harbour of the town on 9 February 1904 when the Japanese attacked at night with torpedoes. The port eventually fell on 2 January 1905 after a number of battles on land and sea. Even today, the location is a centre of military activity and parts of the town are off-limits to foreigners. So Jun – whose father is in the army – had to obtain special passes for Roger & Vee to visit the Eastern Jiguan Mount where there are a few structures remaining from 1904-1905 and a small museum commemorating the battle.

    More interesting but more gruesome was our visit to the Japanese- Russian Imperial Prison Site on a small hill in the north of the town. Half the camp was built by the Russians in 1902 as a prison for Chinese. Then, from 1905-1945, it was enlarged by the Japanese who used it to hold Chinese, Russians and Japanese dissidents opposed to the emperor. Finally the Chinese used the prison after the war to house political prisoners. It was physically and emotionally chilling to tour the cells, the hospital, the torture room, and the gallows room. This was the site of the most horrendous barbarity, especially by the Japanese whose torture methods were as revolting as they were inventive.

    Lunch was a relief and was taken in a seafood restaurant in the town called “Chun Hua Yuan” (which means 'spring blossom garden'). Before going to our upstairs dining room, we visited the ground floor tanks where all the sea creatures are kept fresh for consumption. Roger came face to face with dozens of live sea ccumbers which did nothing to enhance his love of the delicacy. At lunch, Roger enjoyed the special soup with a variety of different mushrooms in it and Vee impressed Zhihao and Jun by tucking into the sea snails.

    Live sea cucumbers waiting to be eaten

    The final stop in the town was a hill called Baiyu Shan (which means 'white jade mountain'). This is the site of a tower built in 1907-1909 by the Japanese to commemorate their 20,000 dead in 1904-1905. It now acts as a scenic spot to look down on the harbour.

    The five of us were reunited for the evening meal when we were joined by no less than 13 of Zhihao & Hua's friends. The 18 of us spread around two circular tables in a private room in a restaurant called “Han Ya BBQ” for a very noisy and very happy three hours. Joshua had two little playmates who like him were aged around three. A father of one of the children persuaded the three kids to sing songs for us by offering them little lollipops. A tiny girl gave an impressive rendition of an old favourite whose title loosely translates as “If there was no Communist Party, there would be no new China”. Always a good idea to catch them while they're young.

    The three little singers

    All 18 of us

    The meal was over by mid evening and Vee returned to our hotel with Hua & Joshua, while Roger went off with Zhihao and his friend Jun to view the flashing lights of downtown Dalian and to visit a bar called “Interaction”. At the bar, a contact of Zhihao's wanted to talk to him about the prospects of his son studying in England and Roger endeavoured to talk to the son himself, a young man of 17 called Huayue. It quickly became apparent that Huayue, like so many able Chinese students, is so pressured to study hard and achieve good examination grades that he has little time for anything else, whether this is thinking about current affairs or even just having a social life. He knew little about Chinese history or Chinese politics and had no time to think about them.

    Outside the bar, Roger found a motorbike. Normally he would have no interest in such machines, but this one was a real beauty. The owner of the bike came out and explained that it was a Harley Davidson Road King Classic 100th anniversary edition and that there were only two such machines in the whole of China. He revved up the bike to demonstrate the noise and growl of the engine and he let Roger sit on it for a photograph.

    Roger on the Harley Davidson

    Tuesday morning was another bright if cool day and the five of us were taken out by another of Zhihao's friends called Bin. He first drove us to a newly laid out area called Xinghai Square (which means 'the sea of stars') [click here]. The square was built to honour Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 and is surrounded by sculptures representing different sports [for photos click here]. The location is so big that it is claimed that this is “the largest square in Asia” which is odd since Tiananmen Square in Beijing is supposed to be the biggest square in the world. We were then driven along a scenic route called Binhai Lu which rises high above the beaches hugging the coast and features splendid homes occupied by senior Communist Party officials and high-earning pop stars.

    This took us over to the Laohutan Ocean Park [click here] at Tiger Beach, a location we were sure that little Joshua would love – which he did. It was too early in the season for this amusement park to be fully operative, but we spent three hours enjoying the Coral Hall and the Polar Aquarium – both better than the London Aquarium - plus the Bird Singing Woods.

    Vee, Zhihao & Hua at Laohutan Ocean Park

    It was time for another meal which meant visiting another restaurant, this one called “Shanghai Cheng” where we were joined by three of Zhihao's friends. On the menu this time was duck's tongue. Now duck a l'orange is a tasty dish but, even overlooking the idea of eating a little tongue, this item had little to commend it since there is so little meat on it. We had now been in China a full week and seen nothing of the Chinese dishes that are Roger's favourites at home such as sweet & sour pork and chicken in lemon. So Zhihao's friends had asked the restaurant specially if they could serve sweet & sour pork, only to be advised that the chef did not know how to make this. A suitable protest was made and the chef duly came up with his version of sweet & sour pork. The problem was that nobody had told Roger about this operation and the dish only arrived as the meal was ending and he was full, but Zhihao's friends had made a special effort so Roger somehow found the room for one more dish.

    We returned to our hotel for an hour and a half's rest and then it was time for yet another meal. Dinner was in a restaurant called “Da Qing Hua” (which literally means 'big blue flower' and is the name of a type of porcelain). As on the evening before last, we ate with relatives of Hua: seven of them led by her auntie Peiyun. Roger sat with a young woman called Lin who is a journalist and she admitted that state censors check the text of her publication.

    Later Roger tried again asking political questions, this time addressed to auntie Peiyun. In response to his queries, she explained that China's big problem is the economic disparity between the urban areas of growing affluence and the rural areas of relative poverty and underlined the need to develop economically areas beyond the seaboard so that the flow of migrant workers is reduced. She acknowledged that China needs more social security to meet the needs of the old, the disabled and the unemployed and thought that such programmes could be funded by stronger enforcement of the tax regime because so many companies now pay little or no tax. She also saw the need for a tax on property appreciation to tackle the current housing boom. As far as China's position on the world stage was concerned, she insisted that China does not want to play an international role with use of its military forces except in case of disaster relief and at present it is not ready to assert a more active role in the United Nations.

    Listening in to this discussion, another relative commented that Peiyun's answers were like those that would have been given by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. This might have been because Peiyun is similarly educated and thoughtful or because of her support for the Communist Party.

    Vee & Roger as guests of honour

    More food; more conversation; more friendship

    Wednesday was our last day in Dalian and we used it to visit the Dalian University of Technology [click here]. This is where both Hua & Zhihao did their first degrees – Chemical Engineering & English – from 1993-1998 and where they met and fell in love. The university was founded in 1949, the year the Communists took control in China, and today it has some 20,000-25,000 students. The main building has a huge statute of Mao Zedong in front of it and one of the noticeboards still proclaimed the idealistic virtues of the young soldier Lei Feng five decades after his death [for information click here]. Less idealistically, graffiti gave the telephone number to call if a student wanted a false graduation certificate. Roger spoke with some management students and was photographed with them.

    From Mao to now
    at Dalian University of Technology

    Hua & Zhihao back where they first dated
    before marriage & parenthood

    Lunch was of course in a restaurant - “Mu Chuan Ren” - with friends (five of them). The menu included fried oysters, something called “squirrel fish”, and another item called “lion's head” (large pork meatballs). Vee & Hua wanted their hair done again (after all, five days had passed!), so we went over to the “Peace Plaza” where they were beautified and Roger was taken to a “Starbucks” by Zhihao and three of his friends for a rare cup of coffee and a welcome cookie.

    While waiting, Roger used the time to stimulate another discussion on the current Chinese scene. He asked Zhihao's friends if they were now satisfied with their standard of living or whether they wanted more. All three responded that they wanted more money: one felt that he needed 2 million yuan (about £200,000) so that he could buy a flat, while another insisted that he would need 10 million yuan (around £1 million) before he would really feel secure (he was wearing a watch costing almost 20,000 yuan or around £2,000). Roger then asked them what they would want to change in China if they were the President. One answered that he would want to reduce the inequalities in wealth. A second said that he would tackle corruption. But a third, responding to the second, argued that “If the water is too pure, there will be no fish” which was his way of saying that a level of corruption is necessary to make the system work.

    We were all reunited for the drive to Dalian Airport for our departure to the next destination on our trip: Shanghai. Roger & Vee were very impressed at the fellowship shown by Zhihao & Hua's friends throughout our time in Dalian and it was symptomatic of this that four of them came to the airport to see us off.


    The Shanghai Airlines flight from Dalian to Shanghai – a distance of 545 miles (875 km) - was a Boeing 737 and the journey took just under one and a half hours. Roger spent the whole flight talking to a 29 year old Indian guy called Ashish, currently living in London and working as an engineer with the Ford Motor Company. He does business in India and China and commented on how Indians think that they are an emergent superpower on a par with China whereas he believes that India simply does not have the infrastructure of China or the enterprise of the Chinese.

    Shanghai is situated at the mouth of the famous Yangtze river and its name means literally ‘above the sea’. After China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, concessions were granted to four western powers - Britain, France, Japan and the USA - and some of the resultant architecture remains. The Communist Party was founded here in 1921 and the Cultural revolution started here in 1966. Today Shanghai is the largest city in China and the largest city proper in the world with a population of over 20 million people in its metropolitan area who speak a dialect unintelligible in the rest of China. The city is not full of tourist sights but it is China's economic powerhouse with more skyscrapers than New York City (around 4,000 and growing). At the time of our visit, the city was preparing for Expo 2010 starting in a month's time and running from May to October inclusive.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    At Shanghai Airport, we were met by Zhihao's friend Yu who had spent so much time with us in Beijing. He had flown down to Shanghai to spend more time with us and take us to a couple of scenic spots away from Shanghai. For this purpose, he had rented a Buick people carrier with which he drove us into the city where we were spending one night at the City Hotel [click here]. Roger & Zhihao fancied some food and went out to a restaurant in a nearby hotel called Ren Jian Yuan.

    On Thursday, after breakfast in the hotel, Yu collected the five of us and we drove over to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University [click here] which was founded in 1896 and now specialises in communications. The prospectus lists a course for “Neo-Confucian Entrepreneurs” - an effort to combine Eastern philosophy with Western business practices. Leaving Roger, Hua & Joshua in the people carrier, Yu took Zhihao & Vee off to a 'business meeting' in the university. This was a bizarre occasion where Vee was required to role play and it is probably best not to provide any further detail of her performance which was little short of Oscar-worthy.

    This 'meeting' took two hours, by which time it was raining heavily. We muscled our way out of Shanghai, heading south-west. Our driver and guide Yu must have read Roger's mind because after an hour or so he stopped outside a service station and disappeared into an outlet of a chain with the delightful name “Easy Joy”, returning with various refreshments including for Roger hot cappuccino in a can! We drove past green fields, with lots of rape seed and fish ponds, and low-storey housing with south-facing solar panels on the roof.

    It was around 2 pm when we reached our destination: a town called Wuzhen, just north of the city of Tongxiang. This is a small place with a large history. It is two thousand years old and built on canals which has given it the nickname of 'the Venice of the East'. It is known in China as the birthplace of the writer Mao Dun (1896-1981) who was China's Minister of Culture from 1949-1965 and wrote a famous book “The Lin's Shop” based on life in the town.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    We were visiting and staying in a section of the town called the West Scenic Zone which has been the subject of a 200M yuan (about £20M) development with local householders having shares in the company and running the old houses providing modernised accommodation for tourists. It only opened two years ago, so it is still not well-known, certainly by Western tourists.

    The only access is via a visitors' centre and a ferry which takes one to the islands housing the cobbled streets, old houses, traditional shops, atmospheric gardens and stone bridges. One web site claims that “Wuzhen is at its best on rainy days” and sure enough it was still raining as the six of us arrived and checked into our house, a very old structure now renovated with excellent bedroom facilities. As the others rested and the rained stopped, Roger & Hua went for a walk around this magical location which is totally pedestrianised and therefore so peaceful and presents scene after scene that cries out to be photographed.

    Back at our accommodation, the landlord and landlady had cooked an early dinner for us. The food was similar to that which we had been eating elsewhere, but the ambience was not a private room in a restaurant, rather a small square table in a plain room overlooking one of the canals. As darkness started to cloak the town with its further layer of mystery, we all went for a stroll around, looking at old buildings and lovely gardens and buying some gifts for back home. It was completely dark, except for street lights and red latterns, when we took a boat ride around the canals and glided under the tiny bridges. When we disembarked, we called into an establishment called “The Old Wood Bar” where we imbibed some beers and listened to live Chinese rock music.

    Canal at Wuzhen

    Bridge at Wuzhen

    Hua & Vee at Wuzhen

    Zhihao, Yu & Roger at Wuzhen

    It was the quietest possible night so we all slept wonderfully. We could easily have stayed another day or two but it was Friday and we were off to another location. As we walked back to the ferry point, we came across a team of brightly dressed men in red and gold outfits who were playing traditional instruments and carrying a similarly-coloured litter or sedan chair with flowers on the roof used in traditional weddings to transport the bride. They encouraged Joshua with Vee and then Joshua with Hua to have a little ride. Further on, we found a brightly-dressed woman putting on elaborate headgear before she played the part of the bride in this street pageant.

    Wedding sedan chair

    Joshua & Vee in chair

    The road journey from Wuzhen to Hangzhou was only about an hour and a half so we were there by lunchtime. Hangzhou dates back 2,200 years and really came into its own when it became the end point of the Grand Canal in the 6th century. It was the capital of the Wuye Kingdom from 907-978 and the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty from 1138-1279. Today it is the capital of Zhejiang province with a population of 3.4 million. It is a prosperous city which had done well from the economic liberalisation, but it is best known as one of the most scenic cities in China as a result of its location by the expansive West Lake with its two causeways and several islands.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    Having checked into our modern accommodation, the Crystal Orange Hotel [click here], we walked past a large square full of kite-flying children and found a place to eat called “Old Hangzhou Neighbourhood Dishes” where our Chinese companions chose a variety of dishes including one appetisingly called sizzling squid feet.

    What makes Hangzhou so special is the West Lake (Xi Hu in Chinese) which is just over 3 kms (almost 2 miles) from north to south and just under 3 kms from east to west. So we went for an hour-long ride on the lake with a boatman working hard with long oars. The largest island in the lake is called Santanyinyue (which translates as ' Three Flags Reflecting The Moon'). The so-called 'flags' – erected as long ago as 1621 - are actually stone pagodas in the lake which are said to control the evil spirits lurking in the depths. The most prominent of the structures around the lake is the Lei Feng Tower.

    Roger, Vee & Zhihao on West Lake

    Joshua & Hua on West Lake

    After a very quick return to our hotel, we were out for dinner at a place just over the road from the hotel and by the lake called “Yishui” (which means 'near to water'). As on our last night in Beijing, this was hosted by someone that Zhihao had accompanied on a visit to Britain. Janet Zhu is Deputy Director of the Hangzhou Municipal Foreign Trade & Economic Cooperative Bureau and she was accompanied by her husband and son. Roger spent the evening chatting to the 18 year old son and was incredibly impressed by the fluency of his English (he is studying at a high school in Melbourne in Australia) and by his maturity (he demonstrated considerable knowledge and thoughtfulness). Honyi Chen was fascinated by military history, so that his 'English' name Otto is after his hero Otto von Bismarck and his e-mail name Rommel is a reference to the German tank commander. This was one young man who exceptionally was familiar with history and thinking about politics, but he was convinced that democracy would be very slow in coming to China, although he was aware of lively debates in the country's Communist Party about the case for political reforms.

    After dinner, most of our group returned to the hotel but Roger & Hua went for a stroll around the lake and enjoyed the lights of the city. Hua told Roger something about her remarkable grandparents on her father's side. Her grandfather Shuren Ye graduated from a top Chinese university and taught in the military colleges of both the Nationalist Kuomingtang before the civil war and the Communist Party after the war, but he died in his 30s. His widow and Hua's grandmother was Caizhang Liu, an astonishingly resilient woman who managed to bring up five children on her own in post-revolutionary China.

    It was just short of 10 am on Saturday morning when the six of us left our hotel in Hangzhou and set out to return to Shanghai. Ignoring the sign to the wonderfully named Fuxing Bridge [click here], we headed north-west. When we stopped for petrol, Roger & Vee took note that, unlike in Britain now, petrol is still served by an attendant. This is partly because in China labour is cheap and partly because drivers are more inclined to drive off without paying if able to do so. Another indication of the difference between driving in China and Britain is that we had to pay at two toll stations before we could reach Shanghai.

    We came into the city from the south and headed for the delightfully termed Pudong District. This involved passing the site of the Expo 2010 [click here] to be opened in a month's time and held from May to October. The China Pavilion [click here] was very clearly visible since it is 63 metres (207 feet) tall and three times the height of any other national pavilion.

    The effort and expense involved in the 2010 Expo exceeds even that for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. For instance, 18,000 households were bulldozed to make way for the site and we observed that all the housing in the surrounding area has had covered up the ugly air conditioning units that one otherwise sees outside the window of every flat in every tower block. A city-wide makeover has been conducted, costing an estimated $45 billion, including three new subway lines, a new air terminal, and a major facelift for the waterfront section known as the Bund.

    When Roger & Vee were in Shanghai in 2000, they visited the famous and distinctive Oriental Pearl Tower, at the time the largest structure in the city. The total height of this construction is 468 metres (1,535 feet) and they went up to an observation deck at 263 metres (863 feet). There was a clear view of the rash of skyscrapers taking over the centre of the city, the most prominent being the Jin Mao Tower which was still very much under construction.

    Ten years later, the Jin Mao Tower is complete and rises to 421 metres (1,381 feet), but more recently (2008) another structure - higher than either the Jin Mao Tower or the Oriental Pearl Tower - has been constructed and this stands at an incredible 492 metres (1,614 feet) - the Empire State Building in New York is 'only' 381 metres (1,249 feet). It was to this new structure, the Shanghai World Financial Center [click here], that our friend Yu now took us for a terrific experience.

    The building stands out on the city skyline, not just because of its record height but because of its distinctive design - it looks like a bottle-opener with a rectangular cut-out at the top. The highest observation platform is located along the top line of the rectangular shape.

    As we entered the SWFC, we had to go through security checks which was understandable, but we were amused to see one security guard accompanied by a canine wearing a vest labelled 'explosive dog'. The building has three observation platforms at the 94th floor, the 97th floor and the 100th floor respectively and naturally we went for the top one which cost 150 yuan (over £14) a head. The top level observation level is located at 474 metres (1,555 feet) and it has been accepted by the "Guinness Book Of Records" as the highest in the world.

    Although the weather was a bit misty, it was spectacular to look down on the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower and all the other surrounding skyscrapers and to look over to the Bund waterfront and the confluence of the Huangpu River and the Suzhou Creek. We took lots of photographers of our own and had a professional group photograph of the six of us.

    The Shanghai World Financial Center
    - the one with the 'hole' in the top

    View from the SWFC of
    Jin Mao Tower (L) & Oriental Pearl Tower (R)

    After two hours at the SWFC, we left to drive over to the waterfront on the south side of the Huangpu River and found a cafe where Yu had another 'business meeting' while the rest of us had drinks and muffins. His 'meeting' complete, Yu drove us to our hotel which was a different one from our earlier brief time in Shanghai: the Broadway Mansions Hotel [click here] which was built in 1934.

    Here Yu said farewell to us before he returned the Buick people carrier to the hire firm and went on to the airport to catch a flight back to Beijing. Yu had been with us on and off throughout our time in Beijing and he had been with us constantly during our time in Shanghai, Wuzhen and Hangzhou. He had been great fun – even if his driving was manic – and immensely generous with both his time and money.

    This evening, as so often, for Vee the priority was doing her hair so she stayed at the hotel while the rest of us went out for some dinner. Close by the hotel, we found a place which looked suitable called “Dong Zhi Jie” (which means 'brilliance of the east'). We placed our order and some soup soon arrived but nothing else. We waited and waited ... and waited. Hua made two polite requests and Zhihao made an angry appeal, but still no more food. The staff assured us that our order was coming but there was no pleasantness or even an apology. After three-quarters of an hour, Zhihao's patience snapped and to a senior member of staff he screamed out loud his disgust at the appalling service and insisted that we were leaving without paying for the soup or waiting any longer for our dishes. And, with a suitably theatrical flourish, out we stormed.

    We retraced our steps and then crossed the Waibaidu Bridge which took us to the famous location by the west bank of the Huangpu River called the Bund (an Anglo-Indian word meaning ‘muddy embankment’). The Bund is always a very lively area, especially around Huangpu Park, but this evening the place was heaving with people because of the opening a week before of a new viewing terrace. This new development – the shops below it were still to be occupied – was part of the massive facelift for Shanghai in preparation for Expo 2010 and expenditure on the Bund alone is reckoned to have cost $700 million. The view from the terrace of the brightly-lit skyscrapers on the Pudong side of the river, with the Oriental Pearl Tower particularly sparkling and colourful, lifted the heart.

    We manoeuvred our way through heavy throngs of people to Nanjing Street, the largely pedestrianised main shopping thoroughfare of Shanghai, often compared to Oxford Street in London or Broadway in New York. This evening, it seemed like a cross between Oxford Street on a Christmas Saturday and a street scene from the sci-fi movie “Blade Runner”. Every few yards, we were offered counterfeit goods – typically Rolex watches and Armani suits – by hawkers on the pavement. All the department stores were festooned with neon branding and advertisements and the place was fairly buzzing.

    Even little Joshua became excited when he saw a street 'train' to take shoppers up and down the road. So the four of us hopped aboard and travelled down to the oddly-named No 1 Department Store, the most famous in the city and dating back to 1934. By now, we were hungry, having failed to obtain the dinner we had ordered earlier, but a bright logo beckoned to us: Kentucky Fried Chicken! Roger took no persuading whatsoever, Joshua was keen, and in the circumstances even Zhihao & Hua were ready to have a change from Chinese food. So it was case of chicken wings, chicken nuggets, fries, and ice cream with strawberry sauce – yummy. Roger took some chicken pieces back to the hotel for Vee who was delighted with the offering.

    Shanghai's Nanjing Street by night


    Another day (Sunday) and another destination (Wuhan). This time, instead of flying, we were taking the train so we took taxis to the railway station where we found a seething mass of humanity. All luggage had to be x-rayed as if we were at an airport. Then there was much shouting and negotiating as we sought to find acceptable porters for our suitcases. The first porters wanted 200 yuan (around £20) to help us out, but Zhihao ably negotiated a much lower rate from an alternative group of porters.

    Our train left at 9.50 am. It was very full with some people standing but quite comfortable for those of us with seats. We travelled via Wuxi and Nanjing – two cities that Roger & Vee visited in 2000. About two hours into the journey, we bought heated trays of food and instant coffee. It was 4 pm when we reached the Wuchang station in Wuhan, so we had been on the train for over six hours. The journey was around 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) and cost us 279 yuan (£27) a head - much, much cheaper than an equivalent rail journey in Britain.

    Wuhan lies at the intersection of the Yangtze and Han Rivers and historically it was the capital of the Chu kingdom. Today it is the capital of the province of Hubei and a conglomeration of three boroughs: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. The city itself has a population of almost 7 million which makes it the most populous city in central China. It is known as the "thoroughfare of nine provinces" and it is a major transportation hub with dozens of railways, roads and expressways passing through the city.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    Wuhan is Hua's home city which was the reason for our visit. Her father met us at the station and we drove to her parents' block of flats to meet her mother. Roger & Vee could not help noticing another cultural difference: neither Hua's father nor her mother even hugged her, let alone kissed her – the Chinese are simply not given to displays of physical affection.

    Hua, Zhihao & Joshua were staying with her parents at their flat, while Roger & Vee were staying at the “International Study Communication Center” operated by the nearby Huazhong Agricultural University where Hua's father used to be a professor until his recent retirement. Already at what was in effect a hotel were three of Zhihao's relatives: his mother, his older sister and his 10 year old nephew. They had travelled to be with us from Zhihao's home province of Shandong on the north-east coast of China since we just did not have the time to go there ourselves. His father was not there because this weekend was the 'tomb cleaning festival' of Qingming.

    That evening, dinner was the “International Study Communication Center” where Hua's father & mother hosted a meal attended by lots of Hua's relatives and the three of Zhihao's. In all there were 20 of us spread over two round tables. Here Roger & Vee were introduced to another Chinese tradition: instead of there being a single toast with everyone standing in his or her place, in the early part of the evening everyone toasted everyone else and did so by going over to the person in question. This meant that there was a lot of moving about and a lot of drinking - and, if one was consuming the rice wine at 48% proof, a tough stomach was required.

    All 20 of us at first Wuhan dinner

    The youngest two: Joshua (almost 3) & Xiao (10)

    Another day (Monday) and another destination (Yichang - further west and the home of more of Hua's relatives). Taking only enough items for an overnight stay, at 6.15 am nine of us headed for the Wuchang station of Wuhan. As well as Roger, Vee, Zhihao, Hua & Joshua, there was Zhihao's mother, sister & nephew and Hua's mother. Once it was signaled that the train was available for boarding, a stampede like wildebeest literally ran for the double-decker train, we had to eject people from our booked seats, and people were standing the full length of every carriage and sitting on all the steps between carriages and up to the higher decks. Roger & Vee were the only Westerners on the train and one old man was heard by Zhihao to comment in Mandarin: “It's very strange. Foreigners on the train.”

    The reason for the exceptional crush was that this was the weekend of the 'tomb cleaning festival' of Qingming [click here] and today was a public holiday. Qingming is the Chinese equivalent of All Souls' Day in Christian countries. After having been suppressed by the ruling Communist Party in 1949, its observance was reinstated as a public holiday in mainland China in 2008. From the train, we could see graves on the hillsides decorated with coloured banners.

    The carriages were warm but there was no air conditioning. When one wanted to go to the toilet, one had to clamber over the passengers sitting on the steps and floors and then one could only open the toilet door by moving more people out of the way. The toilet itself was about as basic as it could be: a hole in the floor for squatting and no toilet paper or soap & water. Joshua did his business in his nappy which was then just thrown out of the window.

    The most amazing feature of the journey, however, was the incursions every 20-30 minutes of a vendor who pushed his or way through the crammed carriages and loudly announced his or her wares. Several sold various foods and drinks; others had newspapers or books or toothbrushes; still others offered little devices to assist the threading of needles or insect repellents hidden in little dolls (Vee bought some of both these); while the most fascinating objects were magnetic necklaces to cure neck and shoulder aches and an electrical therapy machine which replicated the effect of acupuncture. Roger was persuaded to test the acupuncture machine while passengers watched with curiosity. Electrodes were attached below each of his thumbs, the power was switched on, he yelped and jumped in real pain, and the observers shook with laughter.

    We reached Yichang about 1.30 pm after a journey of almost six hours. This was a similar duration to our train journey from Shanghai to Wuhan but we travelled much slower and about a quarter of the distance (280 kms or 175 miles) while the fare was a mere 55 yuan (£5.27).

    In 1876, Yichang was opened to foreign trade as a trading port after the Second Opium War with Britain. Today it is a city of 1.3 million and a base for visiting the Three Gorges Dam by land.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    We were welcomed by relatives and taken to a nearby restaurant called “888”. For the Chinese, 8 is the luckiest number because, when one pronounces the word, it sounds like the words for 'prosperity' and 'multiply' – so this was a very fortunate eating establishment. After lunch, we were driven to see the Chinese Sturgeon Museum [click here] where we observed giant sturgeons swimming in a room-sized tank and various other fish in sad-looking tanks. To record that the establishment is underwhelming is being kind to the fish.

    Later we were taken to our hotel, the “Xia Zhou", and later still for dinner to a restaurant at the “Great Wall Hotel”. It was another large family affair with 17 of us in a private room attended by up to six staff. The event was hosted by an uncle-in-law of Hua's who is a man of some political standing in the city. Roger was seated next to him and constantly urged by him to eat more and especially to drink more. As at the family dinner in Wuhan the previous evening, everyone toasted everyone else in the course of the meal. In response to a toast from the host which involved a description of four types of Chinese people, Roger came up with a diplomatic formula when he explained: “There are two types of people in Britain. Those who love China. And those who have not yet visited China.” (Zhihao – who was doing the interpretation – was suitably impressed).

    Another large dinner: 17 of us

    Another large dinner: tons of courses

    When Roger & Vee went to bed that night, they clocked up a new record for their extensive foreign travels: it was the seventh different hotel in seven consecutive nights.

    On Tuesday, the nine of us who had travelled together from Wuhan to Yichang split into two groups. Hua, her son Joshua, and her mother went to the town of Zigui to visit her 80 year old grandmother and the tomb of her grandfather. Her grandparents were among the 1.24 million Chinese who were forced to move from their homes because of the building of the Three Gorge Dam and the flooding of their town. They moved east and higher up the valley in 1998 and their original home town was flooded five years later.

    Meanwhile Roger & Vee joined Zhihao, together with his mother, sister & nephew, in a trip to the Three Gorges Dam [click here] at Sandouping on the Yangtze River. Access to the area is controlled by military police and involves crossing four bridges and going through five tunnels. The dam was constructed between 1993 and 2006 and it is the world's largest electricity-generating plant of any kind with 26 generators each with a capacity of 700 megawatts. However, there is very little for the visitor to see and that morning it was misty which reduced visibility significantly.

    Roger & Vee at the Three Gorges Dam
    (yes, we couldn't see much either)

    Throughout the holiday in China, Roger & Vee had seen very, very few other Westerners. In Beijing and Shanghai, this might have been because it was early in the tourist season; for the other locations, it was probably because they are off the tourist track. At the Three Gorges Dam, though, there were some tourists from other countries who were on river boat trips to see the Three Gorges themselves.

    One group was of Americans who had already been to Shanghai. They made the point that China is becoming more and more like the United States with the cities featuring multiple skyscrapers, car-clogged streets, western brand goods, and English text. It crossed Roger's mind that there is another similarity: many Chinese and many Americans think that their country is the greatest in the world but almost every Chinese and the vast majority of Americans have never seen another country.

    Hua, Joshua, and her mother caught up with the rest of us in the dam's gardens and we all returned together to Yichang where we had some lunch at a place called “Yansha”. Then we returned to the station to take a train back to Wuhan. It was the familiar mad scramble for seats with some shouting and screaming but again we had booked seats. The train had a hot water supply which we used to mix up cartons of noodles for a cheap and cheerful dinner. Meanwhile Roger received a text from his son Richard: back in Britain, Gordon Brown had called the long-expected General Election.

    After a third rail journey of some six hours, we were back in Wuhan and back at the “International Study Communication Center” of Huazhong Agricultural University,

    Wednesday in Wuhan was a sightseeing day for Roger & Vee plus Zhihao, his mother, his sister & his nephew, while Hua & Joshua spent time with her family. We were given a young guide called Zhaoli (her English name was Vivienne but she spoke very little English with us).

    First stop was a Buddhist temple called Guiyuan Si. The temple was originally built in 1658. The Arhat Hall is the most impressive part of the complex due to its 500 gilded luohan (enlightened disciples) sculptures created between 1822-1831 . Each of the sculptures features a unique pose and appearance: some are sitting, some are standing, others are reading or contemplating, while still more are simply just happy or sad. Men are supposed to proceed to the left and women to the right, counting each luohan until the number equals their age. Then they note the number that designates that statue and, on their way out, for 10 yuan (around £1), they buy the corresponding "luohan card" which tells their fortune. Vee did this and learned that she is clever, kind and generous which Roger could have told her for free.

    Statue at entrance to Guiyuan Si

    Two of the luohan at the Guiyuan Si

    Giant buddha outside the Guiyuan Si

    Next stop was the Yellow Crane Tower [click here]. Now, of course, cranes are not yellow but there is a delightful fable to explain the title of the tower. According to the legend, the tower was built by the family of an old pothouse owner living in Wuhan City long ago, named Old Xin. One day, a shabbily dressed Taoist priest came to the pothouse and asked for some wine. Old Xin paid no attention to him, but his son was very kind and gave the Taoist some wine without asking for money. The Taoist priest visited the pothouse regularly for half a year when one day the Taoist said to the son that in order to repay his kindness, he would like to draw a crane on the wall of the pothouse, which would dance at his request. He picked up a piece of discarded orange peel and used it to draw the crane which was of course yellow.

    The original was constructed in 223 of wood but it burnt down in 1884 and a new version was built in concrete in 1985. It stands 51.4 metres (169 feet) high and we climbed the five stories to the top. An ancient poem named "The Yellow Crane Tower" was written by Cui Hao and many Chinese can recite it, so the place is a popular tourist destination.

    Approaching historic Yellow Crane Tower

    Tile mural inside Yellow Crane Tower

    View from inside Yellow Crane Tower

    Lunch was at a very large restaurant called “San Wu Chun” (which translates as 'three five wine'). Then we spent two hours in the Hubei Provincial Museum [click here]. This is a wonderful place, full of marvellous exhibits, all of which are labelled in Mandarin and English. The pride of the museum collection is the output of the 1978 excavation of the tomb of the Marquis Yi who died in 433 BC in the Warring States period of Chinese history. His corpse was accompanied by around 15,000 bronze and wooden artefacts, 21 women aged between 13-26, and one dog. The artefacts included 64 bronze bells ranging in weight from a couple of kilos to a quarter of a tonne, each bell capable of producing two notes depending on where it is struck.

    Finally we visited the famous East Lake, the largest urban lake in China, which makes Wuhan such a picturesque city. Our guide Zhaoli left us here and the six of us went for a relaxing boat ride in still but grey conditions.

    Wuhan's East Lake

    Dinner that evening was at the Qian Yuan Hotel and a total of 17 people were present. The host this time was an academic colleague of Hua's father called Mr Chen. Both men specialised in the health of pigs and Mr Chen gave Roger an impromptu mini-lecture on pigs in China, a subject on which until then Roger was blissfully ignorant. It seems that there are almost 300 types of pig in China and a total pig population in the country of 650 million. Apparently 65% of the meat consumed by the Chinese is pork and the average Chinese eats 30 kilos of pork a year. How utterly fascinating, is that? Of course, pork was on the evening's menu – but so was duck's blood.

    Once again, Roger was pressured to drink more than he wanted and, once again, he resisted to the obvious disappointment of the host. In China, drivers are not allowed to have any alcohol in their blood, but that did not stop the men at the meal knocking back rice wine of 48% proof.

    Dinner for 17 and almost as many courses

    First thing Thursday morning saw the depletion of the group visiting Wuhan, when Zhihao's mother, sister & nephew set off to return by train to their province of Shandong in the north-east – a journey which took them 14 hours. Hua & Joshua spent more time with Hua's family, so today Roger & Vee only had two companions: Zhihao and a 26 year old cousin of Hua's called Fan. As well as speaking good English and having a lively personality, Fan had a wonderful dress sense. In China, most young people dress exactly like young people around the world: T-shirt, jeans and trainers. However, Fan wore a turquoise check blouse and short shorts with shocking pink tights.

    Vee with colourful Fan

    Unlike yesterday, there was no guide and no programme, so Roger made some suggestions. He had spotted a Western-style cafe opposite the Hubei Provincial Museum and thought that they might find some decent coffee there. So we located the place called “Red Island And The 5th Coffee”. Roger had a club sandwich and a cafe latte, Vee had a fried egg sandwich and a hot chocolate; and Fan ordered a banana split. The sandwiches arrived and were eaten and, while we waited for the banana split, Roger showed how he had now mastered Fan's lesson in the Chinese art of counting from 1 to 10 with one hand [for illustration click here]. Also, as he had asked a number of Chinese, he enquired what she hoped for China and she responded that she wanted China to be more concerned about the environment and friendlier to other countries.

    After about half and hour, Fan's banana split had still not arrived and Zhihao complained. We were then told that the cafe did not have any bananas. This led Zhihao to reprise his Shanghai storm against such terrible service. Under such an assault, the waiter made a concession: we would not be charged for the banana split that we had not had! Zhihao then went ballistic, slamming the table and shouting: “I won't pay. Call the police.” Clearly many Chinese establishments have no idea about customer service.

    The next part of Roger's plan was to cross the road for a return visit to the Hubei Provincial Museum which he & Vee had enjoyed so much yesterday. We spent more time admiring the artefacts from the tomb of the Marquis Yi. Then we moved on to another important part of the museum's collection called records on Juliandun – more objects from excavations of civilisations going back two millennia. Next we studied a section on the state of Chu which came to occupy land now covered by five Chinese provinces including Hubei. Finally we attended a short (20 minute) concert featuring exact replicas of the 64 two-tone bells found in the grave of the Marquis Yi.

    It was time for some lunch and, close by the museum, we found a tiny place called “Fu Zi” where we were the only occupants. We ate duck in beer with five other dishes. Suitably refreshed, we returned to the museum area and, on the opposite of the road from the Hubei Provincial Museum, we visited the Hubei Museum Of Art [click here]. We had no idea what to expect from this second museum, but there was some terrific material there, including a stunning video projected across three large screens that was the work of Chinese multidisciplinary artist Miao Xiaochun.

    Sun umbrellas in Wuhan

    As yesterday, we finished up at the East Lake. As yesterday, we took a boat ride but this time, instead of a round trip, we went all the way over to the far side of the lake. As we disembarked, we found a set of narrow walkways symmetrically laid out by the landing section. Roger suggested that he and Zhihao run in opposite directions and see who came back to the middle first. The (much) younger man won – but at least neither fell in the lake.

    Roger & Vee with Zhihao & Fan then took a taxi to the Hongyi Hotel where we met Hua & Joshua. Eventually we were joined by a friend of Hua's called Rui Feng who, together with his wife and five year old son, had just finished a Three Gorges river trip as a holiday timed to enable him to see Hua.

    He was an impressive and thoughtful guy – he met Hua when both were students at Oxford University and he owns some 5,000 books - and Roger really enjoyed talking to him about the situation in China. He was disturbed by the current values shaping Chinese society where most citizens have no morals and follow no rules but simply seek to acquire as much wealth as possible as quickly as possible. He was attracted by the more democratic systems in Taiwan and Hong Kong and liked the British evolutionary model of political change, but felt that it could take 50-100 years before mainland China became genuinely democratic. Roger urged that, in the meanwhile, China should become a more active and responsible member of the international community, starting with a more supportive position on North Korea and Iran.

    We had spent some time in Wuhan because it is Hua's home city and understandably her parents wanted to see as much as possible of her and Joshua but it was now our last day there (Friday).

    After breakfast and check-out from the “International Study Communication Center” of Huazhong Agricultural University, Roger & Vee were met by Zhihao, Hua & Joshua together with two young relatives of Hua's, Binbin & Jing. Just outside the university gates, we found a cake shop (rare in China) and then a coffee place called “Lang Yuan” that allowed us to take in our cakes. It was time for Vee & Hua to have their hair done again, so they went off and left the rest of us at the coffee place where we found a karoake machine. Binbin & Jing sang Chinese pop songs together and then Roger treated them to a rendition of Abba's “Money, Money, Money” (which seemed appropriate to the current obsession in Chinese society).

    Reunited the seven of us walked to the Qian Yuan Hotel where we met Hua's parents and Fan. The 10 of us had a private room for lunch which was as extensive as always. Afterwards all of us, except Hua and her parents, looked around the Huazhong Agricultural University campus and observed the South Lake (much smaller than the East Lake). Finally we all went round to the flat of Hua's parents, a modern and spacious place on the ninth floor of an apartment block. A picture of Chairman Mao sat above the 55” plasma television screen.

    It was time to leave Wuhan. We said farewell to Binbin, Jing & Fan outside the apartment block, to Hua's mother when we collected our luggage from the university hotel, and to Hua's father when he left us at Wuhan airport - understandably there were some tears along the way.

    At the airport, we had yet another illustration of the unfortunate lack of courtesy in modern Chinese society. We were standing outside a lift waiting for it to arrive when a young woman simply pushed in front of us. This was as senseless as it was rude: there were no other people waiting and all of us were going to fit into the lift. Vee exploded in outrage and shouted at her in English making it clear that she had to wait behind us. The woman clearly did not understand an individual word but she certainly registered the overall message.


    We took a China Southern airline flight in a Boeing 737-800 from Wuhan to Chengdu, taking just over an hour and a half. Chengdu is 980 kms (610 miles) further west from Wuhan, so we were now deep inside the territory of China – some 2,200 kms (1,370 miles) west of Shanghai.

    Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province which is too remote to have played a central role in China's history, but Sichuan was at the centre of rebellions that led to the fall of the Qing empire in 1911 and it was the birthplace of Jung Chang who wrote “Wild Swans” about her family's experience of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s [for a review click here] and of Deng Xiaoping who instigated the economic reforms of the late 1970s. Today, Chengdu has a population of 11 million. Its people are known as being laid back and relaxed, while its food is renown for being exceptionally spicy.

    Link: Wikipedia page click here

    Everywhere we had been in China, we had been met at airports and stations by relatives or friends of Zhihao & Hua and, of course, Chengdu was no exception. Two Mercedes-Benz 600s whisked us from the airport to our accommodation: the five-star (Chinese-ranking) Homeland Hotel [click here]. We reached the hotel at 11 pm so it was a case of straight to bed.

    Saturday was wedding day – the reason we had come to Chengdu and chosen to finish our holiday here. The wedding – which was actually in our hotel, the Homeland – was between Suzanne, whose family are from Chengdu, and Stephen, who is from London, who are now living in Oxford. Hua & Zhihao were longtime friends of Suzanne, since all of them live in Oxford, and through them Roger & Vee had known Suzanne for several years. Once Suzanne's relationship with Stephen had become serious, we had met him several times. In fact, officially the marriage had taken place almost two weeks before at private legal ceremony in the neutral location of Zurich in Switzerland. Today's event – like all Chinese weddings – was totally non-religious but very traditional and utterly fascinating for Roger & Vee and for Stephen's family [for a summary of Chinese wedding traditions click here].

    Consistent with Chinese tradition, on arriving at Suzanne's parents' apartment building, the groom’s party, including Stephen, his brother-in-law Charlie and their friend and representative David, was met by a cohort of Suzanne's male cousins, amidst a hail of firecrackers, who would not ‘surrender ’the bride until they were satisfied by red packets of money, hong bao, from the groom’s representative. Once both parties were satisfied as to the identity of the other, much good-natured haggling and playful questioning of the groom's intentions ensued before Stephen could gain admittance with the transfer of appropriate red packets. Stephen then was tasked with finding Suzanne's "missing" hidden golden slipper which he duly did and, once placed on her foot, he and Suzanne paid their respects to Suzanne's seated parents in a formal tea ceremony. This was followed with Stephen & Suzanne sharing a bowl of sweet dumplings together and, on payment of a final red packet by Stephen's representative to a young brother and sister posted at the door, the pair finally left the apartment.

    By tradition, the groom collects the bride from her parents' home and carries her out of the house, so poor Stephen had to struggle down four flights of stairs while carrying Suzanne outside her parents' apartment block and then 100 metres (330 feet) to their waiting car. Their car was part of a wedding convoy of 10 black luxury Mercedes and Audis with a nippy Porsche convertible carrying the photography team. Again by tradition, the bride's new home – the groom's home - is decorated for her impending arrival and, since Stephen & Suzanne now live in Oxford, for the purposes of the day a suite of rooms in the Homeland hotel was deemed to be her 'home' and Vee joined female relatives of Stephen & Suzanne to decorate the rooms with 10 quilts and sets of bedding.

    The wedding event itself was billed as starting at 11 am according to the official invitation. As guests were met at a reception area, a young man offered the men expensive cigarettes on a tray, while a young women offered the women sweets on a tray. In China, wedding guests do not give the couple physical gifts; instead they offer cash in special red envelopes. So we all presented our red envelopes to a (trusted) friend of the couple who gathered them together for later delivery to the couple.

    The wedding ceremony took place in a huge room where some 250 guests sat at round tables. Virtually everyone there was Chinese but a number had travelled from distant parts of the country. The non-Chinese contingent was tiny: Stephen's parents, aunt (and godmother), his godfather and his wife, and a sister and brother-in-law, plus Roger & Vee. As we all waited for the bride & groom to appear, a DVD played a specially commissioned photographic slide show on a projector, opening with a love poem penned by a friend of theirs from Oxford. The slide show covered respectively Suzanne through the years, Stephen through the years, shots of them together during their courtship, and official photos taken before the wedding day (with Suzanne dressed in white).

    Although we were all invited to arrive at 11 am, the formalities actually commenced about 12.45 pm. First, the two bridesmaids arrived: Suzanne's cousins Amy and Tina (both of whom are actually studying in Oxford). Then a love poem was narrated as a string instrument was played. Since Chinese wedding ceremonies do not have a priest or a best man, the event is led by a kind of master of ceremonies – in this case, a young man with a white suit and a very loud voice who shouted out all the announcements down the microphone. Standing next to him was a quieter individual who translated for the nine foreigners present.

    About 1 pm, the bride and groom arrived. Suzanne wore a gorgeous long patterned dress in red (the traditional colour for Chinese weddings), while Stephen looked distinguished in a dark navy suit with a collarless jacket. As they approached the stage, their paths were strewn with flower petals. The MC announced them, not just by name, but also by occupation and academic qualifications (Suzanne has two PhDs and Stephen is studying for one). Once on the stage, Susanne & Stephen were enveloped in artificial smoke and bubbles. A relative of Suzanne's read out the marriage certificate from Switzerland so that we knew everything was legitimate and then Suzanne and Stephen exchanged rings (a concession to western practice because the Chinese – including women – do not wear wedding rings).

    In Chinese culture, tea features prominently. so, at this point, music blared and a guy in a gold suit leapt onto the stage with a metal tea pot with a 'spout' around three and half feet long which he proceeded to whirl and twirl around him in a balletic mode, before cleverly pouring cups of tea without spilling a drop. Stephen presented tea to Suzanne's parents who offered the couple red bags and then Suzanne provided tea to Stephen's parents who passed over a red envelope to the couple. The bags and envelope presumably contained money which was a good exchange for a cup of tea. Next the amplification system broadcast sounds of babies crying which was a non too subtle suggestion that the grandparents would like at least one grandchild before too long.

    Red envelope with our gift of money

    Stephen & Suzanne in smoke & bubbles

    Puppeter with a life-size figure

    Now came some speeches from respectively Suzanne's sister who presented a Chinese fan, a former academic colleague of Suzanne's now living in Hong Kong, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China, Stephen's godfather and Stephen's brother-in-law. Suzanne & Stephen lit some special candles before being swathed again in smoke and bubbles. Again there was a concession to the western style of weddings when Suzanne & Stephen had a brief waltz to Nat King Cole's “Fascination” accompanied only by some of the overseas guests present (Roger danced with little Joshua) and then Stephen & Suzanne left the room while the guests were invited to eat..

    It was 2.10 pm when we started lunch. The menu was roasted pig with six small dishes, the main course of 14 different dishes, some fruit, and (very rare for Chinese meals) dessert. While we ate, we were entertained by a puppeter with a life-size figure that breathed fire, a female friend who played a bamboo flute, another female friend who sang a song, and someone who played a wind pipe. The ambient mood was infused with a spell of “Warm Love” by Irish blues legend Van Morrison on the sound system.

    Once the meal was over, Stephen & Suzanne returned, having each changed into another set of clothes. Stephen wore a smart light grey English business suit and tie and Suzanne wore another stunningly beautiful classical Chinese creation in ankle length silk. There were more speeches but obviously nobody had told the interpreter that this would be the case because he had disappeared. Roger urged Zhihao to take the stage and pick up the interpretation which he did and did brilliantly, looking uncharacteristically managerial in a smart suit and Roger's most colourful tie. Zhihao managed fine with Stephen's speech; but he struggled a bit with communicating the speech by Stephen's father because of the unfamiliar Irish accent; and and he really struggled with Suzanne's father because of the Sichuan dialect and a recent stroke (Suzanne took over).

    Finally Stephen & Suzanne moved from table to table toasting all the guests. The secret here is for the bride and groom to have an accomplice who accompanies them with two bottles, one containing very potent spirit which is offered to the guests and and the other containing water which is used for the newly wedded couple. This is the only way to avoid total intoxication by the third or fourth table. As each set of guests was toasted, they would leave the room, so the whole event was over about 3.15 pm.

    Roger, Vee, Joshua, Zhihao & Hua

    Vee, Suzanne, Stephen & Roger

    After the wedding, we rested in our rooms in the same hotel. Later Zhihao decided to go into town for a belated haircut and Roger went with him to see something of downtown Chengdu. Compared especially to Beijing and Shanghai but even to Dalian and Wuhan, Chengdu had more people on bicycles and yet paradoxically even more pollution (the city lies in a basin where fumes accumulate).

    Back at the hotel, Roger & Vee with Zhihao, Hua & Joshua were invited for dinner at the hotel with the parents and some other family member of one of the bridesmaids at the wedding, 17 year old Tina. The province of Sichuan is famous for its spicy food with plentiful use of chillis and, although our hosts kept assuring us “This dish is not spicy”, we struggled somewhat with the mouth-burning food, not to mention the toughness of a dish consisting of cow's tendons. However, Roger was able to have an economic discussion with Tina's father, a very successful businessman in the construction industry. He thought that China could sustain a growth rate of 9-10% for perhaps another five or so years before the rate slowed to something more like 5-6%. He emphasized the continued challenge of deep poverty in the countryside.

    Sunday was our last day in Chengdu and indeed China and, the wedding over, we were able to do some sightseeing in the city. A top attraction is a place called officially the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeds [click here] and, in the morning, we spent two happy hours there.

    Unsurprisingly there were lots of children at the base and at the entrance a large group chanted loudly “Kung fu panda number one!” before jumping in the air together (almost a state of pandemonium!). The great attraction was the black and white Giant Pandas who looked very cuddly as they dozed after devouring bamboo and absolutely delightful when they were play fighting with one another. The base had red pandas too, but most people (including us) had no idea that there were red pandas and, having seen them, took some convincing that they were in fact pandas. Like the Giant Panda, the red panda has a “false thumb” that is an extension of the wrist bone, but it looks like a racoon having a body little larger than a domestic cat and a large bushy tail.

    Roger and pandemonium

    Black & white pandas

    Red pandas (or racoons)

    On the drive back into the city centre, Roger and Zhihao engaged in yet another lively political discussion about geopolitics with particular reference to the United States and China. They debated the causes and conduct of the Korean War of 1950-1953 (Zhihao could not understand why the Americans were involved in defending South Korea and Roger could not understand why the Chinese supported North Korea) and the American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 (Zhihao – like almost all Chinese – believed that the bombing was intentional, while Roger was convinced that it was a tragic accident).

    Chengdu is famous for its hotpot called huoguo and, once in the city centre, we found a hotpot restaurant called “Liang Jia” (which means 'The Pretty Home') where we had lunch. In the centre of the table, a pot of stock bubbled and one by one we added strips of beef and lamb, a type of tofu, two kinds of mushroom, prawn balls, fish balls, duck blood, lettuce and banana. Interestingly, when we paid, we were given a scratch lottery ticket with our receipt; apparently this is to encourage customers to request receipts which in turn makes the business more liable to taxes.

    After lunch, Vee, Hua & Joshua decided to return to the hotel while Roger & Zhihao did some more sightseeing. Only a short walk from the restaurant was a place called Wuhou Ci or Wuhou Memorial Temple [click here]. The site is dedicated to Zhuge Liang (181-234) [click here] who was the great strategist to the emperor Liu Bei (161- 223) [click here] at the time of the Three Kingdoms era [click here] and the location dates from Liu Bei's funeral in 223. All the descriptions are in Mandarin, English, Korean & Japanese. As they walked around, Zhihao regaled Roger with fascinating stories of incidents from the Three Kingdoms era and Roger eventually realised that he knew some of these tales from the film “Red Cliff” [for review click here].

    Representation of Zhuge Liang

    Roger at Wuhou Ci

    Running down the east side of Wuhou Ci is a traditional street called Jinli Lu where Roger bought a few presents and Roger & Zhihao stopped to visit a “Starbucks”. Almost directly opposite Wuhou Ci is Chengdu's Tibetan Quarter where brightly-coloured Tibetan goods of every kind, including prayer wheels, are for sale. Virtually every lunchtime and dinnertime on our China trip, we had been taken to restaurants for huge meals with lots of family members, friends or contacts. On this last evening in China, the five of us simply had a light meal alone in one of the hotel's restaurants and relaxed ready for our long flight next day.

    On Monday, the alarm went at 6 am and we left the hotel at 8 am for the drive to the airport. There was time to look around and Roger finished up buying what could be the most expensive cup of coffee in the world: it was from a place called “Zongtu Coffee” and cost an amazing 58 yuan or £5.50! After this, the journey back from Chengdu to London via Schiphol – a straight line distance of 5,140 miles (8,270 km) – was almost an anti-climax. Little did we know as we landed at Heathrow Airport on Monday evening that a couple of days later volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland would cause havoc to air travel throughout Europe – we sure were lucky.


    Our trip is not an experience to summarize easily but here are some broad observations:


    This three-week trip to China involved stays in nine hotels. We made three internal flights and three six-hour train journeys. We took 550 photographs.

    It was a terrific holiday which neatly complemented Roger & Vee's trip to China a decade previously in 2000. Last time, we did tons of sightseeing, visiting nine cities. This time, although we went to eight cities (two of them revisits from 2000), we were mainly meeting people and experiencing the culture.

    We were shown immense generosity, especially by Hua's family and Zhihao's friends. For their part, Zhihao & Hua did a brilliant job in organising everything and ensuring that we were looked after and Joshua was amazingly good (and good fun) for a boy still short of three years old. Three weeks together morning, afternoon and evening made the five of us more of a 'family' than ever.

    And, after two amazing trips to China, we will follow developments in the country more closely than ever.

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