Beijing to Chongqing


Francis’ Family in Tianamen Square

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Lao Tzu.

Our journey nearly faltered at the first step. In the comfortable Titan chauffeur-driven Mercedes beside Ioan and Anita, we sat in a motorway jam. We were going to miss our flight. However, thanks to the mobile phone and the responsive Titan employee, Jo Kavanagh, we were re-booked on an Emirates flight via Dubai and we would arrive only a few hours later than originally planned.

During the trip, I was about to experience so many new superlatives, greatest, biggest, longest and the door to door journey time of 32.5 hours was the longest I had ever undertaken. We arrived in the Landmark hotel at 00.30 on Saturday 13 October in the company of the most helpful guide, Yang Zhen Xiong, who preferred his “English” name of Francis.

13 October Landmark Towers Hotel.

Six hours later we were having breakfast preparing with palpable anticipation for our visit to Tiananmen Square. I had a vision of tanks yielding to a lone protester who stood in front of them on June 5, 1989. The reality could not have been further from that image.

With crowds of people, everywhere people, Francis tells his new “family” of 34 old and elderly English men and women that it is the peak tourist season. The weather is nice – cloudless – but hazy with pollution. We pose for a group photo. Tiananmen Square is huge and young soldiers, sailors and airmen, respectively in white, green and blue stand rigidly to attention in one-hour shifts.

Long lines of regimented Chinese in pairs, often in coloured caps for identity, follow their flag-waving leaders. There are handheld flags everywhere and we learn to follow Francis with his white Titan flag. With his much to be repeated phrase of sticky rice, we cross the ocean of people and do not attempt to enter Mao Zedong’s tomb. The crowd is good natured even curious of us, rare foreign visitors, and we exchange smiles, with them often asking us to pose alongside them in a photo. We press on. The crowds thicken, jostling and shoving to get across one of the two bridges into the Forbidden City. There’s a cursory inspection of bags before we are released like pent up sheep through the Gate of Heavenly Peace or Devout Correction or some other such highfalutin phrase into the meadow of the Forbidden City. We pass under a giant picture of a chubby-faced Chairman Mao to a land of empty, but impressively decorated, and fabulously named palaces with names like Hall of Central Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Palace of Heavenly Purity and Hall of Mental Cultivation.

The Summer Palace was uber crowded. Some films had been shot there and whetted the appetite.

Francis relates a story of the Dragon Queen, Cixi, a determined and successful concubine who overcame the empress and squandered her empire’s money on decadent expensive follies.

We lunched at a restaurant filled with Western tourists. Lunch was to become a ritual. Eight to ten of us would sit around a circular table with a Lazy Susan. Dishes of sticky rice, accompanied by a selection taken from pork (usually sweet and sour), chicken (often kung poa), beef and a vegetable, fish, Chinese cabbage, aubergines, cauliflower, egg and noodles, etc. would arrive spasmodically – ‘mind you glass’, ‘watch that spoon’ and we would use either chopsticks or rely on the trusty knife and fork. It was a chance to get to know one another. And the arrival of the soup in a large bowl indicated the end of the arrival of dishes.

We visited Mr Wang’s ‘typical’ hutong house. Mr Wang (dyed black hair) said three or four words of greeting, translated by Francis, who then told us a bizarre story about storage heaters! It seemed totally false, especially when Francis said Mr Wang received hundreds of visitors each day.

By the nearby Drum Tower in the hutong is a line of rickshaws with red canvas roofs. The ride around the locale was disappointing with no possibility of conversing with the driver. It was a quick whip around some back streets of tight grey-brick single-story houses. The streets impressed me with their cleanliness.

More impressive would have been a visit to the Fox Tower and the old city walls a few miles away, especially as in 1937  the eviscerated torso of the eigteen year-old British schoolgirl of Pamela Werner was dumped there in 1937. The murder of the daughter of the retired British Consul E. T. C. Werner was never solved, but Paul French’s book ‘Midnight in Peking’ has a plausible solution and is a must read.

We climbed the Bell Tower. A huge copper bell (63 tons) hangs at the top of the tower. It is called “the King of Ancient Bells”. The master founder, Hua Yan (华严), was in charge of the project but he could not get the metal to pour and the Emperor threatened to behead him and his workers if he failed. His beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter, Hua Xian (华仙), told her father that the furnace temperature was not high enough. On the last day of casting the bell, all the officials and artisans got together to finish the project, but the furnace temperature was still not high enough and nothing could be done to change it. At the last moment, Hua Xian suddenly burst out and jumped into the crucible. She was too fast to be stopped by her father, and only one of her embroidered shoes was left. For an instant, the fire blazed strongly and the molten copper boiled powerfully. Hua Yan, fighting back his tears ordered the bell to be cast. People called Hua Xian the “Bell Lady” to honour her foundry sacrifice for her father.

Next came an interesting tea ceremony. The five teas convinced both Marjorie and me that we should drink oolong or jasmine tea. Each of the five was lovely.

Our day was ending, we waited for the coach and Francis once again numbered us of off. We were 17 and 18. The procedure provided everyone with the reassurance that we had been ‘sticky rice’ and we were becoming a homogeneous group. At that moment, a Beijing bus arrived half full in front of a long line of Chinese. A squared-jawed young man with a megaphone began berating the crowd of passengers in the bus. He bellowed at them to move down the bus. With increasing incredulity, the queue, like bullets in a Lee Enfield magazine, pushed itself inside the crowded bus. One by one the line diminished, the megaphone-toting Chinaman issuing more and more loud commands. Finally, the overloaded bus had swallowed all the queue and with a puff of noxious diesel, it pulled off into the Beijing traffic.

14 October Landmark Towers Hotel.

6.45. The wake-up call roused me from a deep sleep. Outside there’s a peculiar brown light – the pollution? The cloudless sky promises a warm day.

I am trying learn names and faces of the 34-person group. Rather like a game of pairs or pell-mell, I’m trying to match the face to the name. At least I can do Ioan and Anita. They are a most affable couple.

In the bus, we start the day with Francis giving us a Chinese lesson. He loves to tell stories and after teaching us ‘Ni hao’ means ‘Hello’ and ‘Ni hao ma’ means ‘How are you?’, he launches into a story of horses and tigers. Mama huhu – so so – will forever stick with me.

The Bird’s Nest stadium is a complex arrangement of steel girders. It’s impressive, yet I find it hard to breathe and the air tastes of smoke on this sunny day. China Daily reports that the air quality index reached 141 (Excellent air is below 50; 141 falls in the moderately polluted category) by 8.00 am in south east Beijing yesterday. Is it worse today? ‘Residents,’ said Ma Jun, director of the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, ‘should wear masks or use air purifiers.’

Our next stop is the Sacred Way or the passage through which each departed Emperor passed on his final journey to his tomb in the hills. There’s a moderate flow of tourists posing alongside the fabled beasts which line the route through which departed souls pass on their final journey. It has a feeling of a Valley of the Kings, without the heat or dust. We walked along a short section.

The Beijing Dragon Land Superior Jade Gallery has a very large car park. Ominously six coaches are already parked. On arrival, we are giving a brief introduction and watch a man chiselling into a jade ball within a ball. We were quickly ushered into another room and given the jade 101. Translucence and a high pitched ring denote high quality (and high price). The showroom is an industrial shed full of glass cases below powerful lights. It is the forced opportunity for eager young English-speaking girls dressed identically in dark suits and white shirts to sell their wares. We buy nothing; the prices look high.

Lunch in a large room of dark wooden pillars with overhead crossbeams is another Lazy Susan affair but not as good as the day before. The rather disappointing experience is underscored by a visit to the toilets which reek of urine.

Along with what feels like most of Beijing, we walked along the Great Wall at Badaling. It is steep and unstepped. At regular intervals square turreted towers have been built. Looking over the wall, the trees are displayed in the autumn colours of reds and browns and persistent dark greens. The wall stretches in both directions up and down the mountainside as far a the eye can see. At the seventh tower on the south side we can go no further. Beyond, the wall is under repair. I take a photo of Ralph and Ioan and with Marjorie we all walk back laughing about the tower being the seventh heaven. Ioan’s says it’s the Inn of the Seventh Happiness. When I mention it is the Sixth Happiness, quick as a flash Marjorie says, ‘The sequel,’ we all laugh even louder. We are happy and gelling as a group. Coffee in the souvenir shop was a rip off at 35 Yuan. Until Iaon got his Ready Reckoner out, I thought we had a good deal.

15 October Landmark Towers Hotel.

A bad night’s sleep is ended at 6.00. We breakfast with Ian the only deaf tourist. It’s a sobering experience. He is a very nice man who epitomises the cheerfulness of the blind or deaf. I wished I could sign, but we make out.

We leave at 7.00 to meet Alice. Marjorie is still angry with me for forgetting the camera battery charger, so no more photos, although her phone can double as a camera. At 8.00 alone with Alice (Zhou Chao), we visit the Summer Palace which we had missed on account of our delayed arrival. It’s a very grey day, bad air quality again. Even at this early hour, the crowd of Chinese is considerable. We see in the first courtyard a qilin with the head of a dragon, horns of a deer, tail of a lion and feet of a horse, according to Alice.

The palace is a collection of imperial buildings from 1750 – large rooms inaccessible to the public who peer darkly through dusty protective glass at dowdy furniture.

We walk along a long external corridor, know in Chinese as the bat – the word for happiness. It’s a different experience just us and Alice. We guess her age. I say 27, Marjorie says 30. She’s 38 with a five-year-old daughter!

The large lake adds peace and beauty to the extensive gardens. A highlight is the marble boat, ordered by the Empress Cixi in the French Renaissance style. Of course, it cannot be sailed.

We rejoin the group ready to depart at 10.30. We will fly to Xi’an. Beijing was a dull city with so many high rise buildings and the major roads are clogged with slow-moving traffic, barely a pedal cyclist to be seen. Anita says when she came in ‘95, there were five million bicycles and few cars, today there are five million cars and few bicycles.

The Chinese Eastern airliner has a Mickey Mouse livery, advertising, using a giant mouse in red spotted pants, the new Shanghai Disney resort. Let’s hope it’s not a Mickey Mouse flight.

We arrive in Xi’an at 3.00pm. It is sunny and hot, 20ºC.

Maggie (Wu Ju) is our new local guide. She is careful to tell us that she is not from the majority (92%) ethnic Han population. She speaks good English and promotes the joys of Xi’an, where the air is much clearer. We speed to the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, a large Buddhist Monastery in the centre of town.

Dinner is in a large hall with many other tourist groups, It’s a serve yourself scrum. The only good thing was the chef who made noodles from scratch before my eyes, pulling and stretching the dough before slitting it lengthways.

The day’s final entertainment was the fifteen-minute water show in the centre of town at 8.30.

We arrived at the Golden Flower hotel to find our room delightfully decorated with two swans made out of towels on the bed, a display of fruits, two small bottles of Remy Martin VSOP and a card wishing us a happy anniversary. They were seven days early, but it was a much appreciated lovely gesture. Drinking the brandy should help me to sleep.

16 October Golden Flower Hotel.

We slept well in the luxurious room. Breakfast the usual scramble of discovery. So many people, so many items to source- toast, fried egg, tea, milk, plates, cutlery and fruit etc, etc, from so many different places

The entrance to the Terracotta Army is vast. 150,000 visitors per day is meaningless until you arrive at the coach park with over a hundred coaches and a car park with thousands of cars. Before the ticket office – a new large building clad in grey sheeting- there’s a mass of Chinese who advance through the forty or fifty electronic turnstiles for a quick security scan. A meandering path of five or six hundred yards leads us to the complex proper.

The Terracotta Army was decreed by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, who died in 210–209 BC. In the first hall, we see two greenish bronze chariots named by archaeologists as the High Chariot and the Comfortable Chariot. Each is pulled by four horses and the Comfortable Chariot has a canopy. They were found in a terrible state but have been painstakingly restored. Next comes the army (in a different hall, Pit One) of 6000 life size soldiers. The soldier’s or warrior’s purpose was to protect the Emperor in the afterlife.

Pit One is actually six or seven pits, each stretching two hundred or so yards and each full of warriors three abreast. At the front they are undamaged, further back they lie in pieces as the result of tomb raiders. Sounds familiar?

Annoyed by the frantic pace of Maggie, Pauline and I linger at the back looking at the kneeling archer in a glass case. We notice the faded yellow on his trousers and the red flashes on his tunic. The soldiers must all have been painted before entering their final chamber. All the time there are jostling Chinese everywhere and the reliable Francis behind us, sweeping up any unsticky rice grain. The whole place is a staggering reminder of the importance of death in ancient societies. We buy a guidebook.

Next comes a lesson in Chinese Calligraphy. It’s a very enjoyable experience and we learn the basic seven stokes from a charming lady who is an excellent teacher. They make up all Chinese characters. We use them to make the word ‘Yong’- – For ever. It incorporates all the eight characters and is a basic unit which children copy when learning to write.

She shows us happiness, . It is made up of four elements: clothes, a roof, food and land. If you have those you are happy. Simple! I am beginning to understand how Chinese works!

There’s, of course, a chance to buy a painting. I look at a revolutionary poster of Mao and Zhou Enlai from the 1960s. She is surprised I recognise them. There are two others in the picture.

Who’s that?’ I ask

Lin Biao,’ she replies.

I draw a finger across my neck, ‘Mao got rid of him, didn’t he?’

No,’ she says, ‘he died in a plane accident.’

The Moslem Quarter in Xi’an is probably the most vibrant and crowded street food market I have ever experienced. We wander around for half an hour cheek by jowl with Chinese before we see a western face. They are Germans. Little shop fronts serve hot food below plastic signs or behind young men calling out the offering: hot, fried seafood, pork kebabs made directly from a pigs carcass hanging to one side and butchered in front of our eyes, noodles made in pans of boiling water, nuts, sweets, ice-creams, all manner of foods. Some stalls had simple cafes behind with plain stools and low tables, and everywhere Chinese and more Chinese. We cut down a dark alley by the great mosque and down another alley there are market stalls (two pandas 20 Yuan, we decline) we finish off with two raisin cakes for 6 Yuan. It was easy to find a taxi back, although the driver had to use his mobile phone while driving to find the hotel!

Total Cost for the two of us : 4x fish starter – 10 Y, Fried octopus – 20 Y, Pulled pork in a bun – 15 Y, two ice creams – 36Y, Raisin cakes – 6Y, taxi there and back – 35 Y. Total 122 Y and a great night out.

They say things go in threes and today I have had three new superlative experiences: the street food market, the first ride in an electric coach and the biggest museum crowd.

17 October Golden Flower Hotel.

Another white night. I lie awake with persistent questions. Was Lin Biao murdered?* Censorship or fake news, which is better? How much do Titan get for taking us to the forced selling ‘opportunities’? And how much influence do female role models have on young girls? (Maggie adopted her English name after learning about our Margaret Thatcher.)

[*China claimed Vice Chairman Lin Biao and his whole family died on September 13, 1971, when an aircraft crashed, but the West believes he was eliminated. The exact events of the “Lin Biao incident” have been a source of speculation ever since. The Chinese government’s official explanation is that Lin and his family attempted to flee following a botched coup against Mao. That’s the version our calligraphy teacher was fed. ]

We fly to Guilin. It’s the usual performance, a new airport boldly constructed in steel, concrete and glass, regimented access to the first security check- very superficial – followed by a second, more rigorous check, completed when a young woman does a very thorough, and somewhat enjoyable, body search.

Guilin is warmer but still cloudy and we visit a tea institute to kill time because we have to arrive after three at the hotel. Disappointingly, no tea refreshment is offered.

Our new local guide is Zuo Hong Ding or Effie. She has a laugh like a hyena on steroids. At first it was amusing, but soon it became rather irritating. However, she is interesting and seems very nice. Herbal remedies, foot massage, London musicals and karaoke constitute the loves of her life along with travel which her husband dislikes.

From our ninth floor window we see cone topped mountains all around like giant dumplings or oversized Bactrian camels and directly below is the ‘Walking Street’ in this city of one million people.

Before dinner, we promenaded the central lake crossed by seven bridges to work up an appetite for a delicious dinner around a Lazy Susan laid for nine. After dinner, we walked to the pedestrian area and I bought Marjorie a pearl pendant for 350 Y down from 580 Y, however, I still had the feeling we could have done better.

After tasting some teas in a tea shop, we bought 100 gm of lychee flavoured tea for 150Y and for 50 Y more we bought 50gm of jasmine tea. Seeing we were easy prey, the salesman (Lee Hong Ding from Yongshuo) took us around the corner to look at some paintings done by a friend. We ended up buying a 200 Y picture (down from 300).

We wandered the lively market area among shoe shops and clothing outlets. Outside a food shop a man with an enormous mallet repeatedly hammered nuts in a dough before cutting it in mouth-sized cubes – very tasty. There were the familiar food stalls, but it was much quieter than Xi’an. Near the hotel, heavy waterproof tarpaulins covered the narrow passages between the market stalls crowded with bric a brac – colourful beads, lacquered boxes, old foreign coins (recently minted) and cheap jewellery (silver and jade).

At 8.30 we gathered at the back of the Lijiang Waterfall Hotel. By now friendships were forming and we stood with Mike and Linda to watch water cascade down the face of its twelve stories to stirring music somewhere between Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto and the traditional Chinese five-tone scales.

18 October Lijiang Waterfall Hotel.

A good night’s sleep!

First thing in the coach we encounter Effie, she is in a rumbustious mood.

Effie: ‘Ni hoa ma?’

After some hesitation a few voices say: ‘Hao,’ then ‘Ding ding hao.’

Effie: ‘Oh la la!’

Next she shows us some tai chi, we have to imagine holding then cutting a watermelon and getting our ying and yang in harmony, it at least wakes everyone up.

Li river cruises are big business. At the dockside are nearly a hundred boats each with a capacity of about a hundred people. We are getting used to mass tourism, Chinese style.

Effie tells us: ‘From Daxu old town to Yangdi village is mama huhu. From Yangdi village to Xing Ping town is ding ding hao. From Xing Ping town to Yangshou county is mama huhu.’ She positively bubbles, with glee in her eyes and laughter in her voice.

As we make the four-hour cruise, we see even more boats moored up. On the upper deck a guide barks at everyone in Chinese on the beauty of the river and surrounding hills. It’s a cacophonous experience. At least we see some traditional sampans with blue and green hulls low in the water. We are amid the karsts, and green-clad peaks like mathematical curves – hyperbolas, parabolas, and elliptical shapes, and sheer-faced sandstone cliffs. In one cliff, we make out a man on horseback, in another a crown, in another a bat, then a woman with a baby. The hills make all shapes and the cliffs are so high, so sheer.

The river is very shallow and the boats follow each other in a line separated by about two hundred yards. At Yangdi village the serried ranks of blue sampans have gaily striped canvas stretched over their iron-framed superstructures.

We eat our packed lunch below deck at tables of eight – broken Pringles, a triple decker sandwich, a banana and some sweets with a bottle of water. The outer packing was more impressive than the contents. At a certain point on the river, the Chinese become excited They hold up the 20 Yuan note and pose for a photo of the same scene.

It has been noticeable how the Chinese speak to one another. In groups, the leader shouts sergeant-major style at them, unfortunately there is no mute button. Is this the consequence of a one-party state?

In Yangshou, Effie shows us the frightening height of the flood waters in July last year. The high point is over ten meters above the current river level.

We gather together after a brief foray in the market. The persistent clop, clop, clop of a ragged beggar’s crutches approached. Bent double by some terrible deformity the group parted before him like the Red Sea with no single contribution to his cardboard box scrawled with the word “Begging” in English. To my shame, there are no good Samaritans in our group.

We buy four teacups for 60 Yuan.

The best thing about the Pearl Museum is the Lavazza coffee.

After a quick chat about pearls given by a lady who in her earlier life had been a madam in a brothel, we watched a fashion show. Eight sullen, but beautiful Chines girls, wearing pearl bracelets, necklaces and earrings, paraded for our benefit. We proceeded to a large brightly lit shed with thousands of pearls and twenty shop assistants in rose-coloured uniforms.

Marjorie had booked a table at the Manxin Hotel during our walk around Guilin yesterday. It stood on the edge of the central lake overlooking the Sun and Moon Pagodas. When we arrived were surprised by the fact we could not pay by card, having only 140 Yuan in cash, we chose our meal carefully via a helpful mobile phone app which translated English and Chinese both ways. We asked for a beer and got Lemon and honey water! It was lovely anyway. We ordered.

Marjorie chose garlic pork, I chose mussels. We could see the prices, 38 and 42 Yuan respectively- OK for our limit.

Rice?’ I said.

One Yuan.’

We’ll have two!’

The meal was delicious served in elegant white crockery. To finish we had scented green tea.

The bill came to 82 Yuan. We gave the young girl 90 but she had no change. I had a one-yuan coin, so she took that and only charged us 81 Yuan. The restaurant had emptied and we were about to leave, when the manager, with whom we had reserved the table the previous day, arrived. He spoke English.

The food was excellent, well cooked,’ I said.

Our chef is from Thailand,’ he said, while the four young girls and three young boys stood around all smiles.

Everyone was happy. We strolled home past the well-lit Sun and Moon Pagodas and their coloured reflections in the lake.

19 October Lijiang Waterfall Hotel.

The 5.30 alarm awakes me from a restless sleep. We have a flight to Chengdu and we are given a shiny pink breakfast box whose contents are not so shiny.

Guilin airport has a soothing roof, all curves and wavy lines. Éblouissant, the French word for the blinding brightness of a whitewashed villa on the shores of the Mediterranean comes to mind, and the floor is cool smooth grey granite, feng shui in action. It’s a beautiful airport.

Now would be a good moment to comment on the Chinese dedication to public cleanliness. We have seen three cities and barely a discarded fag end. Men and women, employed I assume by the municipality, work at all hours, brushing, sweeping and collecting anything from a public area. In Guilin, we saw a man working at 9.30pm.

Light rain welcomes us in Chengdu, but even in the drizzle there is the haze, and driving into the city following a river of red taillights the reason is clear, the internal combustion engine.

The Dorsett Grand Hotel has forty two floors; we have a room on the twenty second with fine views.

We have a group lunch- Lazy Susan, mind your glass, etc. Nothing special.

Marjorie wants to go to the zoo but we have no cash so we go the Bank of China to change some. It is an incredible palaver. I get short tempered and walk out. Marjorie suggests the hotel, but they only accept new notes, ours are used. So with our tails between our legs we return to the Bank of China. This time Marjorie applies and has to complete two forms – name in full, address in UK, occupation, passport number, social security number, address in China and place of birth. After carefully typing all the information into a computer, the teller asks us what currency we wish to exchange! There is no mention of the rate, but I had seen a screen in Chinese which I took to mean £1=8.7208 Yuan.

We pass the teller ten £20 notes. He spends minutes examining each note rubbing it and looking at it from different angles. One note is suspicious, the tiniest fragment is missing from a corner. It is rejected. We settle for exchanging £180 and now Marjorie completes a third form. All forms are in triplicate and we leave with the Yuan. Now, we can get a taxi to the zoo. The whole procedure has taken an hour!

At the zoo, we are in luck. It is free to over sixties and we have our passports, but disappointingly they don’t even look at them. They wave us through.

We go directly to the giant panda enclosure. A few Chinese gather behind the plate glass of one of the three pens. We look at all three and have a close up view of one panda eating bamboo only the thickness of the plate glass away. A few Chinese drift in and out; it is calm.

We see a wide variety of animals: monkeys, bears, deer, Siberian and Bengali tigers, lions and, for the first time (another first), a takin which looks like a bison has mated with a camel. At the hippo pool we mistake a submerged hippo for a floating island, he is huge, then his mate comes up to the glass and opens his mouth wide, very wide, extremely wide, directly in front us. It could swallow me! We are looking directly into its pinky white throat and can almost smell the enormous yellow teeth.

It has been well worth the 23 Yuan taxi ride. We take the metro home. It is easy and costs only 6 Yuan for us both. Everyone – 90% at least – in our carriage is staring at a mobile phone and during the complete journey we see not one western face.

We dine at a nearby restaurant, again no Westerners in sight, but at least we can see the raw ingredients of the dishes laid out on a long table. By choosing a card from next to the dish, we select our meal. The helpful waitress indicates by gestures it’s hot when we point to one dish. We change our mind. Once again the food washed down with beer is excellent and cheap, although we didn’t like the bony chicken dish. Final bill is 134 Yuan.

20 October Dorsett Grand Hotel.

A good night’s sleep! Pandas today; Marjorie is excited.

Chengdu like China is building. High rise apartments sprout like mushrooms on a September’s day springing up everywhere. Yellow cranes perch beside buildings under construction, pecking at them and lifting pipes and concrete into position high above the ground. If you want to see how thirteen million people can live in a small space, come to Chengdu.

Unsurprisingly, the panda centre is crowded, it’s just the density of crowds at certain cages that will become astonishing.

Our first glimpse of two pandas high in the trees is shared with over three hundred Chinese. It already feels like a circus.

The baby panda enclosure crams more people per square foot than I have ever experienced (another first), it is chaos. What must the babies think?

Horrendous,’ says Marjorie.

And that’s the Panda Centre, queues, crowds and cameras held aloft over the heads of other onlookers with everyone trying for a photo of a panda. I come away thinking how may corks can you fit into a bottle while Marjorie reminds me that when she visited a panda centre a few more miles away in December 2008, there were only a dozen other visitors and she could hold a red panda. That’s China, it’s exploding.

The coup de grâce? The thirty-yard (ten-minute) queue for the ladies near the exit.

Huanglongxi lies on the banks of the Brocade river. The new town, built Disneyland-fashion in the style of the old town, is only fifteen years old. It too is thronged with Chinese tourists. Gaudy outlets sell every tourist requirement from cooked meats including chicken’s feet to tacky souvenirs. Over a hump bridge we access the genuine old town dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The streets are narrower, but the buildings are in general good repair. We have tea in an old house overlooking the river.

Back in Chendu, we have dinner in the Hongyangdong hot pot restaurant. Like aliens from outer space, the only way to communicate is via the mobile phone app. We are seated after about fifteen minutes, and then with some difficulty we order. The hot pot or yuanyang has a central dividing barrier and is placed in the empty hollow in the centre of the table. The gas underneath is lit; the food arrives. We place some mushrooms in the tomato broth, Marjorie tries one in the chilli-laden darker soup. It is far too hot and she drinks a mouthful of beer. We stick to the less hot tomato soup. Placing only one or two pieces of food in the hot pot is wrong. Our waitress seeing our novitiate manner comes to the table and tips all the food into the pot!

Now comes the challenge of picking pieces of meat or mushroom out of the simmering soup with our chopsticks. Periodically, the table clearer in a light blue overall, waitresses wear crimson uniforms, comes to our table and smiles at us saying unintelligible things in Chinese.

We finish and our waitress suggests we try a final noodle course. We accept, but on trying to eat it incorrectly the table-cleaner is at our side showing us how to do it, pulling the long stands high above the pot before showing us that next we should place them in our mouths.

We were clearly an oddity. At the end Marjorie wrote on a piece of paper: ‘Thank you very much. You are super helpful, delicious.’

The waitress took it away for translation and returned all smiles. An enjoyable evening was over, we paid 107 Yuan and left chanting, ‘Ding ding ding hao.’

21 October Dorsett Grand Hotel.

We awake at 7.30 with the heavenly prospect of a leisurely breakfast, no rush today.

Francis has not highlighted one building of interest in Chengdu, only the central square with an enormous statue of Mao in a white stone. That’s China in so many places, egalitarian and boring, but the city is contented, there is no rough sleeping, no graffiti, and little poster advertising.

The railway station is modern (what else did I expect?) and after a security, passport and ticket check, we enter the cavernous hall over two hundred metres long and a hundred wide. Our bullet train will leave from one of the twenty six platforms. I go in search of a newspaper, there are none, a free press is banned. There’s little diversity of opinion, perhaps that’s why they could modernise so quickly. No one reads newspapers in China, it’s only the mobile phone they stare at.

The train speeds to Chongqing at up to 295 km/hr past easily forgettable, uneven terrain with little sign of large scale cultivation, only small squares of carefully tended market gardening.

The first stage of our journey is complete.

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