Friday, August 28, 2009


as asked by not one but two of my offspring.: ...”What are the Terracotta Warriors made of?” Answers please on the back of a postcard.

Xian is a city with a population of about 8 million people. It is also undergoing massive reconstruction, and much of this is due to it being the location of the Terracotta Army. What I had not known previously was that Xian – historically known as Cháng'ān was the capital of China for over a thousand years including the duration of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907). (I can’t help myself with the historical details – I blame my education.) Because of this it is an archeologist’s paradise. As you drive from the airport to the city there are burial mounds in every direction – emperors, empresses, princes, princesses, concubines, rich courtiers....

A word now in praise of A&K. When one sees the word ‘Museum’ crop up on ones itinerary it isn’t guaranteed to gladden the heart, even with an old foggie like me – but we visited four museums in the 48 hours we spent in Xian and every visit was superb. Basically our guide in the city made sure we saw the highlights including this lady – one of 13 ‘Fat ladies’.

The porcelain we saw was simply astonishing in that it looked exactly like the kind of things up market stores like Heals and Harrods would sell today – simple, classic designs – yet they were 1500 years old.

It would be an unusual visitor to Xian however who did not come away saying that the visit to the Terracotta Warriors was not the highlight of their stay there. Reidski and I did go to the exhibition in the British Museum last year, but nothing could ever prepare you for the first site of 1200 of these unearthed warriors in row after row, there to defend the Emperor Qin Shi (BC 221-210) throughout his afterlife. I deliberately avoided looking until such time as I was stood right at the front and would have a clear view of them. I nearly collapsed when I did focus upon them.

Qin must have been truly remarkable. He was the first Emperor to unify China- and lets not forget just how fucking big China is. How would one even start to unify an area that huge even with the communications and transport systems we have today? He standardized money, as well as weights and measures, and he began the construction of the Great Wall...not personally like – he had many thousands of minions to do that – even after he had set many other thousands of minions to work on his tomb.

For those who don’t know the story of the discovery of the warriors in 1974 9 farmers were digging a well when about 12 feet down they discovered a sizable chunk of one. They took it along to the museum and – not unusually Xian being the aforementioned archeologist’s paradise, there was a visiting archeologist there who was intrigued enough by this particular find to go back to the area and start digging. Thus began the unearthing of what they believe will total an army of 8,000 warriors by the time they have finished. I should say – by the time they have finished digging that particular section. Qin’s tomb is over a kilometer away. He was preparing everything he would need in his afterlife and so far they haven’t found a single woman. Even in the event that Qin was a confirmed bachelor he would need them for the cleaning – there is so much more to be found – let alone what will be in his tomb itself. Scripts that have been unearthed talk of rivers made of mercury and stars made of diamonds and pearls. I really hope I live long enough to hear what is actually in there.

Incidentally, if the farmers had dug one metre to the east they would not have found anything. They just happened to come across a warrior in the very front row, and in the left hand corner.

The museum, very sensibly, is built on the site of the discoveries. The Chinese seem to do this quite a lot – another museum we visited in Xian (The Hanyangling Museum) is actually underground so you walk alongside the treasures from an emperor’s tomb at the level they were discovered...over 3,000 of those thus far!

Millions of people have visited Xian since the Warriors were discovered, and so it was interesting to learn that the 9 farmers received $400 in recognition of their find – between them. This was after all Communist China and everyone had the same income. However, as they saw the area transformed financially because of their find they went back to the authorities and argued they should be entitled to more. That argument ran and ran. Following the death of Mao though a deal was reached whereby the farmers take turns in the museum gift shop (home of the £12 fridge magnet) and sign the guide book. For doing this they get a percentage of each book sold. There are only four of them left alive now.

The museum gift shop also sells, in addition to signed guide books and vastly overpriced fridge magnets, life size terracotta warriors. Some of these (my children please take note) are made from terracotta. Some are made in solid jade. “Who in their right mind? “we wondered, “would buy one of them?” This question was partially answered on our return to England. My car was at the home of or friend who funded this trip. She lives in Loughton, Essex. As we drove in our mini bus down her road I saw a terracotta warrior in her neighbour’s driveway. No one believed me so we had to reverse and have a proper look, but sure enough, just round the bend from where Anne lives someone who may or may not be in their right mind, has a life sized terracotta warrior in their front garden. There truly is ‘Nowt so queer as folk.'

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


If one stays in the Peninsular Suite at the Peninsular Hotel Beijing one gets the free* use of a brand new Rolls Royce during ones stay. In fact the hotel has two such vehicles, as well as 6 7 series BMW's - all in the company colours of a very dark and sophisticated green. These cars are parked in a perfectly synchronised formation in front of the hotel foyer.

Spare a thought then for the poor taxi driver who on the morning of our departure from Beijing had the misfortune to bump into the front of one of these extremely expensive vehicles provoking consternation amongst the hotel staff, and hilarity amongst every passer by.

*Although if you are tempted I should point out that the suite in question costs five grand a night.

This is not a complaint but

Because we were travelling with Abercrombie and Kent hereafter to be known as A & K, who provide very luxurious tours indeed, there was an assumption made that we were all 13 of us extremely wealthy. Our retail ‘opportunities’ offered as part of the trip included visits to pearl markets and silk factories where it would have been nice if there was a single item for sale that we could actually afford. My guide book warned to be alert for trips to the Great Wall that could include unwanted diversions to cloisonné workshops and jade factories. Ours managed to include both of these, the first of them cunningly disguised as a toilet stop.

As I mentioned before we left, the thought of the toilets in China filled me with horror, but in fact all facilities that the clients of A & K were confronted with were better than anything we encounter in England. On this particular morning though our guide said we would stop for the toilet break at this spot because they were much cleaner than those by the Wall itself. They just happened to be at a cloisonné workshop.
This is a multi-step enamel process used to produce jewellery, vases etc. Hummm- all very nice stuff, but rather on the pricey side. I was just about to buy a Christmas decoration for the tree when my son pointed out to me it actually cost £12.00 rather than the £1.20 I had calculated. If only he had been there to save me from buying the fridge magnet which cost me a bloody fiver. A rather expensive toilet stop – it cost one of our party over 200 quid!

Small diversion here on the subject of fridge magnets. As Reidski well knows (he has a fridge covered with magnets from my various trips) I do like to get fridge magnets when I am away. The one in this story cost me a fiver. They wanted £12 for one at the Terracotta Warriors museum (they didn’t get it though as thankfully I had sussed the exchange rate by then). £1.50 for the exact same magnet in Xian itself – and £1.00 in a village outside Shanghai. So shop around for your fridge magnets in China people!

So onwards to see The Great Wall. We went to Mutianyu (90 kilometers northeast of Beijing) which opened in 1986, which was designated by the Beijing Government in 1987 as one of the 16 most scenic spots in China. This section of the Wall was begun in A.D. 600 and reconstructed 1,000 years later. The main section stretches for 2.5 kilometers, and is punctuated by 22 watchtowers, including three connected bastions to the lowest part of the pass. We were very lucky to be there on a beautiful clear day and we could literally see mile after mile of the Wall wending its way over the mountain tops.

Now I appreciate that 2.5 kilometers doesn’t sound like far, and that the following risks making me sound like a right out of condition slob, but I did get to the end of the section that is open to visitors, along with three others from our group of 13, and if I have done anything more strenuous in my entire life, then the pain of that particular exercise what ever it may have been must have been so dreadful I have managed to get rid of that memory completely. I wish these photos could show exactly how steep it was – especially in the last part which is the last bit of Wall you can see in the middle picture – because I can’t describe how tough the going was. It was also extremely hot and humid. It also took simply ages. In fact we were supposed to have been back at our coach when we still weren’t quite at the end. Being a law abiding sort of person myself I was worried that we should turn back but as one of the other four said we weren’t ever going to get the chance to make this walk again, and anyway – “The coach won’t leave without us.” So we did make it....a triumphant moment, only slightly marred by the realisation that we now had to get all the way back.

The coach did not in point of fact wait for us. (Although our guide did, and we caught up with the others eventually via a taxi ride.) Our guide told us that it is very rare for his clients to walk the entire stretch of Wall - especially rare for clients of A & K who generally just take the chair lift up, take a few photos, and go back down again. I am so very glad I did it. My h ours spent at the gym have not been in vain.

After a wonderful lunch in which I must have consumed about a million calories at least, we went on to visit the Ming Tombs, which comprise the burial chambers of 13 Ming Emperors plus countless wives, concubines and assorted high ranking eunuchs (complete with their precious parts we hope).
The site of the Ming Dynasty Imperial Tombs , which is stunningly beautiful, was carefully chosen according to Feng Shui principles, which are still taken very seriously in China today (more on that when I get to our trip to Shanghai).

A seven kilometer road named the "Spirit Way" (Shen dao) leads into the complex, lined with statues of guardian animals and officials.

This is me with My Little Pony. Thankfully we did not have to walk all the 7 kilometers – some of us still hadn’t dried out from our earlier walk.

The day was rounded off with the aforementioned visit to the jade factory. “Oh lovely – the finest quality apple green jade used for this necklace. A mere £90,000 too. Moving swiftly on....” As I say, the expectation was that we could afford this stuff. I don’t even think I like jade very much myself.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Random bits from Beijing.

First impressions were amazement at the beautiful Terminal 3 at Beijing airport (designed partly by Norman Foster, and larger than all five Heathrow terminals combined), and astonishment at the sheer number of ultra modern skyscrapers in the city. Everywhere we visited we heard the same story of massive investment in building work over the past 10 to 15 years transforming the appearance of the cities. Most of the investment though is centred on the Eastern side of China whilst the middle lags behind considerably and the West is still virtually untouched by modernisation.

So dramatic is the redevelopment in Beijing that it took one individual to draw attention to the fact that if some of the old buildings were not preserved no one would know what the original Beijing looked like. Because of his foresight an area has now been protected called the Hutong and we visited a family living there. Madam was none too impressed with the changes that had taken place around her – least of all the now thriving night life that has sprung up in this quaint and previously quiet, part of town. She did however take our visit as an opportunity to try and flog us some of her husband’s paintings which she displayed on her wooden clothes horse. They were very good.

It is now 30 years since China was once again opened up to the outside world, yet throughout our trip, and most noticeably in Beijing, we were the object of curiosity and interest. We kept being asked to pose for photographs with the Chinese, and others would none too subtly video our group, although my blond haired, blue eyed daughter was in particular demand – we should have charged for each photo taken of her! Whilst initially this seemed unexpected in Beijing it was explained that the vast majority of tourists to Beijing, not surprisingly really, are Chinese. Many of these tourists are from areas that scarcely ever see a Westerner and it was these people who were so fascinated by us.

The changes Chinese people of my age have seen during their lifetime are quite staggering – let alone what their parents’ generation have experienced. Our guide in Beijing was born in 1964. When he was growing up if he didn’t want to eat up all his dinner his mother would say “But you must eat all your food. Don’t you know that in America and Britain the poor children are starving?” The first wave of American tourists soon put paid to that illusion!

Less than a hundred years ago there were still eunuchs at the Imperial Court. Some actually volunteered for ‘the cut’ as it could be a lucrative career. The actual operation was performed by a ‘knifer’. The patient would be given a herbal infusion meant to anaesthetize (let’s hope it was effective), and was then held down and sliced with a specially designed knife. A metal plug was then inserted in the urethra and he was made to walk immediately. No food or urination was allowed for three days. The plug was then taken out and if he could urinate at that point it meant he would probably live. The severed penis and testicles, known as the ‘Precious’ were carefully kept by each eunuch as they needed to be shown when ever they were on the brink of progressing to a higher level of service. Sometimes they got nicked so they would have to borrow a colleagues ‘Precious’. They also needed them when they died in order to gain entry to heaven as men – though some may feel it would all be a bit too late by then. The reason the eunuchs were required within the Imperial Household was to ensure that only the Emperor and his male heirs got to shag the concubines and that their offspring were guaranteed to be the Sons or Daughters of Heaven.

Chairman Mao must be spinning in his grave. Designer goods were on sale all over the city – as well as some very convincing fakes. Attitudes towards Mao seem to verge from veneration, through acceptance that he did some good things as well as having made some horrendous errors, to those of the teenagers “Yeah. I’ve heard of him – but he’s ancient history man!” If you can see some writing high up on the hillside on the photo of the Great Wall ,that says something like ‘Worship Mao,’ and only appeared a few years ago. Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world – it is said to be able to hold a million people, and the queue of people waiting to see Mao in his mausoleum wound round the square at least twice. The people we saw waiting must be there still – although we were reliably informed that his body was badly embalmed and decomposed so was replaced by a wax work copy.

Our guide told us that when the massacre occurred he had a group of Australian tourists who cut their trip short because of it. He thus had some free time and the brother of one of his friends was missing so he went round the hospitals to see if they could find him. This man was a medical student who had just qualified. He had not been one of the protestors but had gone to the Square to assist with some of the students who had been on hunger strike. They eventually found him in a mortuary with four bullet holes across his chest. The Chinese government says 27 people died in the square that day. Following the massacre the paving in the square was all replaced with marble. Locals say this is because blood doesn’t stain marble.

Some of our family and friends were worried we may have been caught up in the typhoon that hit Eastern China whilst we were there. I guess the rain that fell in bucket loads on the first Sunday afternoon must have been connected to what was going on elsewhere, but it was the only time we got rained upon – as the photo hopefully shows there was rather a lot of it that day.

Coming next – how I sprinted up the Great Wall of China. Or should that read how I staggered up the Great Wall of China????

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I just don't know where to begin

So how about with Beijing, which was where our holiday did in fact begin....albeit not without an anxious 'We are going to get sent back' moment.

The Chinese are taking no risks with swine flu. Upon our arrival at the airport all staff were wearing face masks. We had to walk through sensors which took our temperatures automatically. Imagine our alarm when my daughter and another girl travelling with us were then immediately hauled into a medical check area for further investigations. Thankfully both of them passed the subsequent checks and we were allowed to enter The People's Republic of China. And thus began a truly sensational twelve days.

Whilst in Beijing itself (or Peking if you are from Southern China)we visited the Summer Palace; a family living in the Hutong which are some of the typical housing areas of which the majority have been demolished to make way for the skyscrapers that now constitute most of Beijing; The Forbidden Palace,The Temple of Heaven and various restaurants and markets.

The most surreal moments occurred in a park adjacent to the Forbidden City. We saw a middle aged Chinese woman dancing to music by a traditional Chinese band. We stopped and applauded her. This prompted three other women to join her and commence dancing to some Chinese tune, whilst urging us to join them. I threw dignity to the wind and joined in, as did my eldest, and after a while the remaining teenagers in our party. We made it through the dance and thought that was enough - a large crowd having already gathered to laugh at the Westerners attempts at Chinese dance styles. But no - the band then broke into (and this was somewhat incongruous) 'Jingle Bells', and followed this up very swiftly, and before we had time to make our escape,with ' I Come from Alabama with a Banjo on my Knee.' We were finally allowed to leave after participating in a Chinese folk song in which we got the hang of the chorus which consisted of shouting the word 'Hoy!' very loudly. Apparently the song translated to say that if you smile every day you will look ten years younger. We certainly made lots of Chinese people smile that day.

Have so much to say about this incredibly wonderful country that I have no doubt I will bore the arse of anyone who still pops by this place - but please stick with me over the next few weeks - I really do have a wealth of wonderful stories to share.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Vacation, vacation

Well unbelievably I am off to China tomorrow. I won’t actually arrive there until Saturday morning – complete with my first proper experience of jet lag no doubt. My trip will include Beijing, Xian (this will be so helpful if my A-Z travels ever get as far as ‘X’!) , a three day cruise down the Yangzi River, and will end in Shanghai* where my son will get to celebrate his 18th birthday. (When I was his age I had never even been on an aeroplane.)

We are so incredibly lucky to have a friend as wonderful and generous as the lady who is paying for a total of 13 of us to have this amazing trip.

I know it is going to be a series of extraordinary experiences although I am hoping to avoid the experience of the public toilets there if remotely possible (described in my guide book with words like ‘squalid’ and filthy’).

I have never been anywhere humid before and so the fact that the humidity is currently up to 92 in some of the places we are going to doesn’t mean an awful lot to me right now – maybe just as well huh?

Don’t know if I will get on- line whilst I am there but I will try really hard not to alienate visitors to this place by droning on infinitum about the wonders of the Orient for too long after my return.

Back on the 20th. Till then I love you (in different degrees depending upon whether or not I sleep with you), and leave you (but I will be back soon).

*Note for Yorkshire Pudding – I had thought we were going to Hong Kong but arrangements were altered. I think I have more than enough to look forward to regardless.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Don't miss

Manuel on Paris.

"I was determine not to let any small incidents of fisting get in the way of enjoying my trip."

Monday, August 03, 2009

Has my absence made your hearts grow fonder?

Never mind – I’m thick skinned and I plough on regardless ;-)

Reidski and I have had a few days away and we stayed in Lancaster.

We got up early the first morning there determined to make the most of our time in the city. Our first trip was to the Tourist Information Office – which was shut. So we walked up to the (very impressive) castle – which was shut. Undeterred we walked down to the Maritime Museum (strange but true fact – Lancaster used to have a thriving port) and you will already have guessed that that was also shut. So having got up and about early we found ourselves killing time in Reidski’s idea of hell – the local shopping centre. I can tell you that Lancaster shopping centre looks remarkably like every other shopping centre in the UK.

We did eventually visit both the Maritime Museum and the Museum of Lancaster. Returning briefly to a previous topic regarding how when one lives in a place one never does what is on ones doorstep, Reidski had been in Lancaster for less than 18 hours and went to its Maritime Museum. He has lived near Greenwich for more than 18 years and only went to the Maritime Museum there last April.

Picked up one or two little snippets of information in the museums as one does. I learnt that John of Gaunt (Father of the Lancastrian king Henry IV, and known in Shakespeare as 'Time- Honoured Lancaster") spent precisely 9 days of his life in Lancaster. I also learnt that before the railways travellers went to the Lake District on horse drawn coaches across Morecombe Bay when the tide was out. We went to Morecombe Bay and very attractive it is too but what with all the quick sand around I wouldn’t want to cross it by any means other than boat. It was very easy to understand how this disaster happened there.

Should you ever find yourself in Lancaster this pub was superb.

We came back via the Peak District, stopping off for a walk round Buxton which I have just learnt is the self styled Cultural Capital of the Peak District, and continuing on for a bite to eat here. The Good Pub Guide describes this place as an’ Unpretentious local with very tasty home-cooking’, and very accurate that description is too. I had what the menu listed as ‘Chicken fillet’. The sauce it came in had no fancy title but was described as being ‘delightful’ – which was true. Reidski had a steak sandwich which came in a ‘cob’ the size of a dinner plate and the ‘few chips’ that according to the menu were served on the side was actually a chip mountain. We both agreed the place had obviously not been altered one iota in the past forty years and it was a surprise for me just now when I found the place has a website . It was an even greater surprise to find in this ancient village pub, the trendiest toilets that I have ever encountered.

We finished our break with a walk in beautiful Dove Dale.

No pictures yet as Blogger doesn't seem to want to co-operate with them just now.

And now back to work – groan – for all of four days before I jet off to the Far East – hooray.

More on that to follow.

Much more I suspect.