China in the New Year (11): Yichang to Wuhan to Xiamen to Longyan

February 20th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

After five days in Yichang celebrating the Chinese New Year with Hua’s relatives on her mother’s side, the last two days have been largely taken up with travelling.

First, we took the train from Yichang back to Wuhan. Here we were joined by six relatives of Hua’s father who had driven over from his home town a couple of hours away. That evening, the 12 of us had dinner in a private room of a restaurant called “Lotus Flower And Fragment Water”.

It was so cold – in spite the presence of a heater – that everyone kept on their coats. Indeed it has been bizarre in the past week seeing people wearing coat, scarf and even hat in the private room of a restaurant, the public areas of a hotel, and even in people’s flats because the ambient temperature was so low.

Next – together with Hua’s father – we flew from Wuhan south to Xiamen, the south eastern port city across the strait from Taiwan. This meant a welcome increase in temperature from a freezing -6C in Beijing and only 5C in Yichang to 21C. We were met at Xiamen airport by an SUV sent by a professional colleague of Hua’s father and driven inland – at some speed – to the city of Longyan almost two hours away. The final half of the journey was in hilly terrain with around 20 tunnels, an illustration of the huge number of construction projects that are transforming China.

Our first night in Longyan is in a luxury hotel where accommodation and dinner have been provided by the previously mentioned professional colleague of Hua’s father. This guy owns a huge pig farm with 2,500 sows and the production of some 50,000-60,000 pigs a year. I would have entertained him with my specialist knowledge of pigs but sadly my Mandarin was not up to it.

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China in the New Year (10): even more Yichang

February 18th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

PStill in Yichang – the home town of most of the relatives of Hua’s mother – it was a day like a game of football: of two halves – in this case, historic and modern.

In the morning, a group of us visited the Yichang Museum which has over 500 artefacts on display out of a collection of around 50,000 dating back 5,000 years, including some fine porcelain figures from the Ming dynasty and furniture from a 19th century home.

Then, in the afternoon, a different group us went to see a film – my first Chinese film in China. It was “The Monkey King 3” in 3D (which worked well) and fortunately – as apparently with all Chinese films – there were subtitles in English as well as Mandarin.

And, here in China, the food keeps coming with multi-course lunches and dinners. Each meal though has small variations and this evening’s speciality was chicken’s feet. The predominant meat though is pork and Hua’s fsther, who is a pig specialist, advises me that there are 700 million pigs in China.

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China in the New Year (9): still more Yichang

February 17th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Now that New Year’s Day in China has come and gone, we were able to be tourists again. So today we visited the nearby Xiling Gorge Scenic Area at the eastern end of the Three Gorges which proved to be a very enjoyable location where we spent around three hours but could have taken all day. Out of season, there were very few other visitors (and not one other foreigner) so it was particularly atmospheric.

It is an extensive area and we concentrated on two parts: the White Horse Cave and the Three Visitors Cave.

At the White Horse Cave, we started with a boat ride underground and then toured the extensive system of tunnels with stalactites and stalagmites illuminated with different-coloured lights. I have been to some similar locations around the world but this is one of the most impressive. Opposite the cave was the chance to do a bungee jump which I declined – not that it was too high, you understand, but too cold.

At the Three Visitors Cave – named after three famous Chinese poets of old days – we viewed not one cave but a collection of them which displayed inscriptions from famous Chinese sages down the ages. There was the chance to shoot arrows at straw figures moored in the river – an allusion to the famous Battle of Red Cliffs (look it up) – and I took one of Joshua’s ten arrows and hit a straw man’s head with my only shot!

Meals with the family in various apartment blocks continue to be an amazing culinary experience and this evening 12 of us sat down at the usual circular table with the usual food carousel for a meal with a new record of 19 dishes. A fundamental part of the Chinese New Year tradition is that people call on relatives to wish them well and are presented with a multi-course meal. For a young couple at this evening’s dinner, this was their fourth meal of the day and their fifth in two days.

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China for the New Year (8): more Yichang and more Zigui

February 16th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Today was the Chinese New Year and, on our trip to China, it was very much a day of two halves.

The morning was spent in Yichang, mainly in the 22nd floor flat of Hua’s relatives, but we did go for a walk to a local hypermarket which seemed to stock absolutely everything including fruits and vegetables that I did not recognise. Other than in the store, this city of 1.4 million seemed deserted with all the shops and cafes closed and everyone at home with family.

The afternoon was spent in Zigui, a town of about 300,000 about three quarters of an hour ‘s drive away. As well as celebrating the New Year with another group of family members, we marked the 89th birthday of Hua’s grandmother with a large cake. I asked the birthday girl about her memories of the Second World War and she told me that she remembered all the aerial bombing by the Japanese and the terrible destruction of buildings and loss of lives.

For two hours in the afternoon, we went for a walk through central Zigui and it was a totally different experience from Yichang. There were lots of people out, plenty of entertainment for the children, and almost a carnival atmosphere. I tried some raw sugar cane and took some photographs of the temple celebrating the famous poet Qu Yuan who was born here in 340 BC. We went as far as the Yangtze River and, while the weather was now remarkably mild, it was too misty to see the nearby Three Gorges Dam (which I visited in 2010).

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China for the New Year (7): Yichang and Zigui

February 15th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

I am now half way through my two-week trip to China to coincide with the Chinese New Year and today was New Year’s Eve.

The Chinese New Year sees the largest annual mass human migration in the world. China’s Ministry of Transport has estimated that almost three billion individual journeys will be made as part of this year’s month-long ‘chunyun’ or ‘spring rush’ as the Chinese travel to spend the New Year with relatives in their home town. So today China’s streets were deserted since everyone was at home with relatives.

Red lanterns, red knots, red couplets are everywhere, on doors, on windows, on hoardings, on buildings. Television is awash with entertainment shows involving much singing and dancing with performances in various ethnic costumes. Children receive red envelopes containing money so Joshua is enjoying himself.

On New Year’s, Eve, I joined some of the relatives in travelling from Yichang to Zigui which is just under an hour away by car. We were there to visit Joshua’s great grandmother on his mother’s side who is 89 tomorrow. She was relocated from her village, because of the flooding of the Three Gorges to build the dam, and lives with one of her daughters and family.

While in Zigui, we followed a New Year’s Eve tradition by visiting the local hillside cemetery to honour Joshua’s great grandfather on his mother’s side – flowers were presented, three bows were offered, and substantial amounts of three types of ‘money’ were burned to enable him to live comfortably in the after life.

In the Chinese New Year festival, the most important meal is on New Year’s Eve, so – back in Yichang – dinner today involved a record 17 dishes. But nobody was allowed to eat the fish which is left untouched as a symbol that, in the year ahead, there will always more than enough to eat.

The evening was occupied with a spectacular television show to mark the New Year with every kind of performer – including representatives of China’s 56 ethnic minorities – in huge synchronised displays, immensely colourful costumes, and plenty of special effects. We followed the tradition of staying up until midnight.

So Happy Chinese New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Dog!

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China for the New Year (6): Yichang

February 14th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

After just one night in Hua’s home city of Wuhan, we travelled by train to the smaller city of Yichang where most of Hua’s mother’s relatives live and where we will celebrate the Chinese New Year.

When I made this journey in 2010, the station in Wuhan was old and dark and seething with humanity who were all standing, pushing and shouting. Now the station has been completely rebuilt and brightly light and still awash with humanity but these days all seated and studying their smartphones.

Last time, we travelled in an old double-decker train, with every seat and corridor space occupied, and it was a local train that took an incredible six hours. This time, we travelled on a modern single-decker train, still at first with every seat and corridor space occupied, but it was an express train that took only two hours. This is the pace of progress in today’s China.

Yichang may be much smaller than Wuhan but it still has a population of 1.4 million. It is close to the Three Gorges Dam, which I visited in 2010, and the population of the wider prefecture was swollen substantially by the relocation of some of the 1.3 million people who were displaced by the dam. We spent the late afternoon and early event in the 22nd floor flat of a family member and 10 of us sat down at a circular table to eat a dinner with an amazing 14 dishes.

Since we left Beijing, I have not seen another foreigner anywhere.

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China for the New Year (5): Wuhan

February 13th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

On our two-week trip to China, after three nights in the capital Beijing, we flew – a flight of one hour 40 minutes – to Wuhan, the home town of my Chinese ‘daughter’ Hua.

Wuhan is one of the largest cities in the world of which you have never heard. It lies at the intersection of the Yangtze and Han River and is the capital of the province of Hubei with a population of 10.6 million which makes it the most populous city in central China. One of its current claims to fame is that it has the ninth largest number of skyscrapers in the world (104).

Hua’s parents live in a large flat on the ninth floor of a ten-story apartment block and Hua and her son Joshua are staying with them, while I am accommodated in the nearby International Academic Exchange Centre of the Huazhong Agricultural University where Hua’s father used to be an academic specialising in the treatment of pigs.

I was at the flat for dinner which was attended by seven family members and involved a total of 12 dishes served simultaneously on a revolving circular table. I was pleased to be commended on my chopstick skills.

Afterwards we went out to an empty area where one of the middle-aged members of the family set off a firework display to celebrate the New Year, even though technically it is forbidden to have private fireworks because of the issue of pollution. At regular intervals, we were each issued with two foot-long sparklers so that we could make circular light displays.

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China for the New Year (4): more Beijing

February 12th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

Still in Beijing, in total contrast to our first night here – when I was awake with jet lag – I slept well. So well in fact that, when my alarm failed to go off at 7.30 am because the battery in the iPhone ran out, I did not wake up until Joshua banged on my door at 8.35 am after I had been asleep for nine and a half hours (more jet lag!).

One way and another, it was 11,15 am when we climbed into a cab (Hua always paid with the Chinese WeChat app) which took us to Qianmen Dajie – a recently restored pedestrianised street near the south side of Tiananmen Square dating back some 570 years with now lots of brand name and exclusive shops. It was milder today: ten degrees different at 5C.

I had some photographs taken of me with various bronze statues. Then, at Joshua’s request and to his delight, we spent more than an hour in the Beijing Madame Tussaud’s – an outpost of the original one in London. The quality of the waxwork models was quite high and there was a good mixture of world and local figures with plenty of photo opportunities. Two young people actually asked to be photographed with me  – an exotic foreigner.

After some lunch, we walked along Dazhalan Jie, a centuries old pedestrianised shopping street where there were some colourful old buildings and – as everywhere in the centre of the city – a substantial police presence. Another cab took us to our afternoon venue which was totally different from the morning one: the Niujie Mosque in the Muslim quarter of the city. Apparently there are some 35,000 mosques in China and this one is the largest and the oldest in Beijing, dating back to 996, but today’s mosque looks much more Chinese than Arabic.

A third cab took us to the hotel that was the location of our evening entertainment. There was time to spare but nothing to see locally, so we spent an hour at the Friendship Tea House drinking lots of Chinese tea, chatting, and using our phones (the tea house had WiFi).

When we returned the short distance to the Qian Men Jian Hotel, we had a small dinner in the Fu Gong Restaurant and then attended a Beijing opera show in the Li Yuan Theatre. The performance involved excepts from two traditional operas and sounded like squealing cats but the make-up and costumes were amazing. A fourth taxi had us back at the hotel towards 9.30 pm after a very varied outing of 10 hours.

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China for the New Year (3): Beijing

February 11th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

On our first full day in Beijing, we visited two major locations in and around the enormously expansive Tiananmen Square. The security in the square is phenomenal: one can only enter through guarded points where Chinese citizens have their identity cards electronically scanned; at a further security point, all bags are x-rayed; and everywhere there are police and military, not to mention the plain clothes personnel.

In the morning, we went to the National Museum of China. The building was completed in 1959 and the present museum – a merger of two former ones – was established in 2003 so everything is very modern. It receives 7.6 million visitors a year, making it the most popular museum in the world (just before the National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.). There are 10 galleries presenting the history of Ancient China from prehistoric times to the Ming & Qing Dynasties – everything from a burial costume made of pieces of jade linked by gold tread and a couple of the world famous terracotta warriors.

Somehow I managed to drop my iPhone without noticing it and amazingly about half an hour later it was presented to me by a museum attendant who had searched the building for me. I have my name on the back of the mobile so it was clear that it belonged to a foreigner and, at this time of year, I was virtually the only foreigner in the place.

In the afternoon, we visited the Forbidden City, entering on the north side of Tiananmen Square where the entrance is still dominated by a huge picture of Mao. The enormous complex is said to comprise 9,999 rooms (only God in Heaven can have 10,000 – a special number for the Chinese). The palace was the residence of 24 Ming and Qing emperors and ordinary mortals were forbidden to enter which gave the location its unusual name.

This was my fourth time in this amazing location so I did not need to take many photographs and just savoured the experience as far as the cold would allow. But it was so bitterly cold (around -10C) that the wide moats were totally frozen and Hua’s iPhone literally froze up. Again I was almost the only foreigner in sight and I was asked to be included in a photograph with a local.

In the evening, we ate at a restaurant specialising in Beijing duck and enjoyed entertainment involving music, dancing, puppetry, juggling and more. A splendid end to a wonderful day.

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China for the New Year (2): arrival

February 10th, 2018 by Roger Darlington

My two-week trip to China began with some problematic flights with Air France. Thanks to snow in northern France, our flight from London Heathrow to Paris Clarke de Gaulle was delayed by about three quarters of an hour and we worried if we would make our connecting flight. We did – but only just. Then we found that we sat on the aircraft for a long time while they de-iced the wings and, in the end, we took off almost an hour and half late. It was a turbulent take-off and landing and, as we descended to Beijing, poor Joshua repeatedly threw up.

Here in Beijing, we’re spending three nights at a wonderful boutique hotel located in a hutong (the old pre- modernisation remnants of the city) near the Houhai Lake on the northern side of the centre of this vast city of some 22 million. The Shichahai Hotel is dedicated to the preservation of the art of shadow puppets and, as we ate a light dinner in the small covered courtyard, we watched a performance of this amazing art form that predates cinema by about 2,000 years.

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