Facts and Factoids

  • Officially called the People's Republic of China (PRC), this is the world's second most populous country, exceeding 1.4 billion (just recently overtaken by India).
  • China is the world's third largest country.
  • China is the world's largest economy by GDP, at purchasing power parity (around one-fifth of the world economy),the second-wealthiest country and the world's largest manufacturer and exporter, as well as the second-largest importer.
  • It has the world's largest standing army by military personnel and the second-largest defence budget.
  • The Chinese flag was chosen via a competition - there were 2992 entries. The red colour represents the Chinese Communist Revolution. The stars stand for the unity of the Chinese people. The four small stars around one big star show that unity should revolve around one centre.
  • China spans the equivalent of five time zones (but only recognizes Beijing time)  and has land borders with fourteen other countries (tied for most with Russia). The country is divided into 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). The national capital is Beijing, but the most populous city and financial centre is Shanghai. Wow.
  • Football was invented in China - but table tennis (or ping pong), one of the national sports, actually came from Great Britain
  • As in Japan, the number four is widely avoided - it sounds too similar to the word for death

What's in a Name?

Trawling the internet throws up several nicknames for China. Perhaps most common is the “Middle Kingdom”. The Chinese believed that China was the centre of the world, surrounded by inferior cultures and civilizations. But the name “Land of Dragons”, also emerges. The Chinese believed that dragons are sacred creatures, symbols of power, strength, and good luck. The dragon also represented the emperor, who was believed to be a descendant of the mythical creature. Closely related is the alternative epithet,“ Land of the Red Dragon”. (Though Wales also lays claim to this one.) Red is considered lucky in Chinese culture. Finally, China is sometimes referred to as the “Celestial Empire”. The emperor was seen as the son of heaven, related to the divine beings who were in charge and gave rise to divine culture.

An Exceptionally Brief History of China

  • The Chinese have a long history.  They  trace their origins to a cradle of civilization in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. This the only culture in the world to have a continuous recorded history of 5,000 years, beginning withthe The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors - a group of mythological rulers and sheng (sages). The first was the wise, Yellow Emperor. He promoted the Tao (or the Way).
  • A long series of dynasties followed ensuring the development of Chinese culture, writing, literature, philosophy and  inventions like gunpowder, paper and paper money. It  began with the  Xia dynasty in the 21st century BC and ended with the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. The empire’s fortunes waxed and waned, but the Qing nearly doubled the empire's territory and established a multi-ethnic state. This was the basis for modern day China, as the Qing found themselves at increasing odds with European colonial powers.
  • Buddhism reached China from India in 67 AD and also had a profound effect on Chinese culture.
  • The Chinese monarchy finally collapsed in 1912, a result of  the Xinhai Revolution, when the Republic of China (ROC) replaced the Qing dynasty. The warlord era gave way to civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in World War. The civil war ended in 1949, with the CCP establishing the People's Republic of China on the mainland while the Kuomintang-led ROC government retreated to the island of Taiwan. Today, both claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.
  • The CCP went through several manifestations and the Cultural Revolution, resulting in much hardship for the people. Today, China is governed by a UN recognised CCP,as a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.

What to See in China?

If you’re a traveller, there can be few words more evocative than China. It's not the easiest or most welcoming of places to visit and it's huge. But solo travel is much more possible than it was. The choice of sights, both cultural and scenic, is exciting and overwhelming. The food is a gastronomic experience too. It varies widely across the country (you'll need to practice with chopsticks or you'll go hungry in some places), but in essence the Chinese eat everything. Rats, snakes, dogs, and many other less-consumed animals (pangolin anyone?) form some of the iconic Chinese dishes. Mostly with rice, of course. (N.B. Fortune cookies originated in San Francisco).

My first Chinese visits were to Hong Kong, then a British Overseas Territory. But you can read about my other trips:

July 2016 - Beijing has changed a lot since the nineties

The nine million bicycles of Beijing have dwindled considerably, since 1995. There are occasional  ranks of shiny Boris style bikes and at least nine million cars instead, probably more. Beijing has a population of 22 million. Whilst we are on numbers, it is one of the oldest established capital cities in the world and it has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Ming Tombs, and Zhoukoudian, as well as parts of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal.

I've flown in on my way to Xinjiang province and the Karakorum Highway. Beijing is still chaotic and difficult. I have an atmospheric and charming hotel in the alleyways of the old city. It feels authentic and quiet around here; there are wooden temples decorated with the typical red globe lanterns and buzzing little workshops. But when I venture out to revisit some of those heritage sights I’m pushed and shoved by people teeming ant-like,in and around all the buildings and walkways, umbrellas held aloft. The teeming is accompanied by spitting and loud spluttery gargling, reminiscent of a conversation between Bill and Ben. The locals are struggling with the weather as well as me. It’s almost unbearably humid. The forecast says ‘sunny’ but everything is shrouded in grey smog. I’m told there is a three week sauna every year and this is it.

Tiananmen Square

Time to revisit the sights. The huge Tiananmen Square (765 metres long) contains the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. This is where Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949; the anniversary of this event is still observed there. Each flagstone is numbered to make events easier to organise. We know it best, of course, for the 1989 public protests and the massacre that followed.

Tiananmen Square always astounds with its vastness and the galleries and party buildings lining the sides are still impressive. But the atmosphere has gone. The square is sanitised and has manicured flower beds. No more kites and kite flyers. My middle aged guide shows me black and white photographs. He was here representing his school for Mao’s funeral in 1976. My guide says the kite sellers were secret police anyway.

The Forbidden City of Beijing

The Forbidden City is a palace complex, the must-see of Beijing. It's huge. The wall surrounding it seems to stretch forever along the busy road - nearly a kilometre just on one side. It dates back to the early fifteenth century - it was built as the winter residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, (1420 - 1924). The Forbidden City was not only home to the Chinese emperors and their households, it was the ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government for over 500 years.

The complex covers 178 acres and consists of an astounding 980 buildings, encompassing 8,886 rooms. It's surrounded by gardens and temples. The Forbidden City is listed by UNESCO, as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. It's considered both the world's most valuable palace and the most valuable piece of real estate anywhere in the world. Just the name is hugely evocative. I remember it featuring, most poignantly, in the film Empire of the Sun.

Obtaining entry to the Forbidden City - officially known as the Old Palace Museum – isn’t easy. There are thousands of tourists and winding security queues all around Tiananmen Square. Once bags have been checked and persons scrutinised there are still more crowds inside waiting for entry, tickets and other group members. Once in, despite all the discomfort, (my tee shirt is sticking to me), I can’t help but marvel once again at the colourful carving and intricate layers of palaces.

The Temple of Heaven

The major sites are spread out and the traffic makes sight-seeing a slow business. My guide chatters away to the driver in Mandarin most of the time and ignores me. In the south of the city, The Temple of Heaven was constructed at the same time as the Forbidden City. but this is a complex of religious buildings, used for annual ceremonies of prayer to heaven for a good harvest.

There are three main sections. The first is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the main, three storied triple-gabled circular building (38 metres tall, Sadly, it's not the original, which was burned down by a fire caused by lightning in 1889. There's also the
The Imperial Vault of Heaven, surrounded by a smooth circular wall, the Echo Wall, which can transmit sounds over large distances. You reach it over the Vermilion Steps Bridge. Finally, The Circular Mound Altar, an empty circular platform with three levels of marble stones, each decorated by lavishly carved dragons.

The Temple of Heaven is magnificent, as far as I can tell, through the murk.

The Summer Palace of Beijing

The Summer Palace, on the northern edge of Beijing is described as 'a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces' in Beijing. It began life as an imperial garden in the Qing dynasty. There's Longevity Hill 60 meters high and created from the excavted soil when they dug out Kunming Lake. (The lake now provides most of Beijing's water.) The grounds of the Summer Palace conatin over 3,000 various Chinese ancient buildings, pavilions, halls, palaces and temples. These in their turn, house a collection of over 40,000 kinds of valuable historical relics from each dynasty. I don't think we will be seeing all of those today. There's also the famous Seventeen Arch Bridge, connecting the eastern shore of Kunming Lake and Nanhu Island. It's the largest of the 30 bridges.

The Emperor's Summer Palace is much more comfortable than the rest of the city. I can see why they built out here. Gardens cling to the edge of a lake with stone Willow Pattern bridges and drooping trees. There are some amusing ‘English’ explanations – ‘when the Japanese came there was a puppy emperor’.

Ming Tombs

The Ming dynasty certainly left a legacy in Beijing. Most of their tombs 13 of them) are placed in a necropolis here. The necropolis lies in a bowl, beneath the mountains, to the north of Beijing, a site specially selected so that evil spirits from the north are deflected. The tombs are approached by a four mile road, lined with statues of guardian animals and officials known as The Spirit Way.

Don't Take Electric Rickshaws

I can’t face traversing the crowds back to the old city, and besides I’ve walked a long way. So I opt for what seems an easy option - an electric rickshaw. Instead, it’s a near death experience as the driver weaves in and out of the traffic, clearly labouring under the illusion that he has right of way, even when we circumnavigate to stop off at a chemist and face the oncoming traffic head on. It soon becomes apparent that he has no intention of taking a direct route to the hotel. I’m unsure if he doesn’t know of it or is just trying to rack up the bill. Needless to say he requests an exorbitant amount when he finally does set me down. Well away from the tourist police.

The airport is predictably difficult to navigate. I’m directed to three different counters for check in before I find the right one. I can't access airport Wi-Fi. It won’t take my phone number because it’s not a local one. The machine won’t scan my passport. The plane is delayed because of bad weather. Grrrr

Maybe August isn’t the best time to come. Onto Kashgar and the Karakorum Highway.

April 2017 - Battleship and Blossom Tour Part 3 -Taxi Driver!

I'm not sure what it is about me and China, but it’s often problematic. I'm flying from Fukuoka to Beijing, on my way to North Korea and even the Japanese have abandoned their good manners before we’ve left the airport. It’s every man for himself boarding the plane. I'm almost mown down by trolleys as I stop to retrieve my dropped papers. It’s a two leg flight via Qingdao, which I’d never heard of before. Both airports are quite small, but the plane is delayed an hour at each because of ‘runway congestion’.

When we get to Qingdao we have to disembark and even the stewards seem surprised that we are then marched through immigration and a very thorough security check. Out of the window I can see this amazing long bridge across a Yellow Sea bay.  Google will later tell me that it covers 26 miles and is the longest over water bridge in the world. Google can’t tell me in China, as Google is banned here of course.

Finally, back in Beijing the taxi drivers queuing at the airport refuse to drive me to my hotel even though I have the address written in Chinese. It seems they don’t know where it is. I do, well roughly, I’ve stayed there before and it’s very pleasantly characterful. But I ‘m unable to tell them that.

Eventually, one man with a GPS phone agrees to take me. However, it’s dark and the streets in this old part of town are narrow. He attempts to abandon me with my bags at the end of an alley. I know we’re in the right area but I'm not sure exactly where and I don’t relish wheeling my case around trying to find it. There is an impasse as I withhold payment and eventually I'm rescued by a porter from another hotel who gives directions and I am deposited in the correct place by a now very surly driver. He doesn’t offer me any change.

The hotel is still a delightful refuge built into the old city walls. It has an open courtyard that’s candlelit at night. But this time my room opens onto this courtyard. There are loud American voices wafting through the open window (it’s an unseasonable 90 degrees in April), accompanied by the fragrance of soy and stir fry.

Massage and Cupping - A La Gwyneth Paltrow

I’m here for the day as I’ve been summoned to a meetings (it’s compulsory) to be told about what to expect in North Korea, where I’m flying tomorrow.

I fill in the time with Chinese massage, as my back is still feeling a little delicate and I can’t expect any medical treatment in the DPRK. A medical massage is suggested. They allocate me to a guy, who seems to know what he is doing - it’s certainly helping. He has a long menu of treatments he is waving around and he suggests cupping and yet more ‘oil’ massage. If Gwyneth recommends it I‘ll give I ago. It just feels a bit weird having glass jars stuck on your back. The masseur seems to be whispering something - ‘You’re beautiful’. Perhaps I misheard, his English is pretty basic. No, he said it again. I’m not sure if he’s easily pleased or just trying for a large tip. I deem it prudent to refuse his offer of further treatments.

Wangfujing Avenue, Beijing

I’ve seen the main tourist sights before, so I wander down Wangfujing Avenue, the main shopping street, a pedestrianised version of Oxford Street and discover a much more atmospheric maze of food streets down a side alley. Scarlet lanterns, dragons and all manner of of things I'm not sure I want to eat, including scorpion kebabs, their legs still waving on their impaled bodies. I never thought I would see the day when I felt sorry for a scorpion.

Back at the hotel, I ask the receptionist to find me a cab to take me to my meeting, three miles away. She can’t find anyone willing to come. Are they tracking me though some sort of sophisticated surveillance? Eventually she finds someone from the Chinese version of Uber. He takes an extremely long route, and the traffic is bad. But I'm only five minutes late. I don’t learn anything new at the meeting, which lasts an hour.  But then I’ve read the notes they sent - I suppose they have to cover themselves.

I venture out to find a taxi for the return journey. No-one will stop - they just drive round me or look the other way or shake their head. It’s Friday and a holiday weekend. Much against my better judgement I accept the offer of a rickshaw ride, having carefully agreed the price in advance. But after 100 metres the rickshaw driver decides that she can’t take me either. She tries to hail a taxi but with no greater success. In the end I walk back.

After my enjoyable stroll round the food streets I was beginning to wonder if I had misjudged Beijing. But it seems I haven’t. Though I do have a pleasingly geometric pattern of bruises on my back. On to Pyongyang.

(And read more about China here.)

From Kashgar to Pakistan on the Karakorum Highway

I'm about to travel down the Karakorum highway with a small group. To begin, I'm returning to Kashgar in China. I was last here, in Xinjiang province three years ago. Read about that trip here. Kashgar is about as far west as you can get in China. What has changed since then? There are banners along the road celebrating 60 years since 'liberation'. More of the Old Old Town has been bulldozed away. The replacement of new old town facades has been accelerated. The endemic Uighur population (an ethnic minority in China) is now increasingly being subjected to human rights abuses.

I revisit the new Old Town, the mosques, the mausoleum and the bazaar. The animal market has been slightly more organised. This visit I have time to test the kebabs,  fatty and delicious.

Skirting the Pamir Mountains

The drive to the border with Pakistan, across Xinjiang, skirting the Pamir Mountains, as they spill over from Tajikistan and Afghanistan is possibly even more scenic than last times' journey back to Kyrgzstan. They are truly stunning.

Lake Karakul

A relaxing halt at Lake Karakul. Curiously, Karakul means Black Lake. From here, in the distance, we can see Kongur Tagh, (Brown Mountain) the tallest peak in the Pamir mountains. It contrasts with the amazing snow white slopes sliding into the lake. Someone has thoughtfully left an armchair on the beach here and it's gently warm. There are yak and camels to watch. It's hard to tear myself away.

Tashkurgan

We overnight at Tashkurgan, the last town in Xinjiang before the border. There's a stone fort straddling the hill here. It purports to date back 2,000 years. From uptop, there are views across the floodplains to a pair of waterwheels. They're modern - part of the town's irrigation system. And there's a sort of Mongolian theme park beyond all the boardwalks and bridges. Sheep, horses and smoking yurts

Crossing from Xinjiang into Pakistan

The Khunjerab Pass at 4,600 metres above sea level, takes the Karakorum Highway from Xinjiang Province to Pakistan at Sust. This is the highest border crossing in the world and it's only open from May to October because of snow. You also have to get a special permit to travel to this stretch.

At immigration we are again treated like children at school, lined up and instructed not to talk. A weary Dutch guy declares that everything in China is fake.  Though I’m sure that parts of the lofty fort at Tashkurgan are original and there is nothing fake about the stunning views of the snow-capped Pamir range and turquoise Karakul Lake.

(And read more about China here.)

Over the Border From Kyrgyzstan

Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks, as we inch closer to China and Kashgar, from osh and the Irkeshtam Pass in Kyrgyzstan. There is the pre-border check in Kyrgyzstan, then the stamp the passport Kyrgyzstan stop, then into No Man's Land and five checks spread over 140 kilometres in China, before we actually officially arrive in Xinjiang Province. We have to change transport again. This involves dragging my bag uphill a kilometre and a half to get to the first Chinese checkpoint. (I’m beginning to think that this is an endurance test rather than a holiday). My passport is inspected 15 times.

There's a dramatic change of scenery when we do enter China. (Well, the border zone.) The terrain is still impressively mountainous, but the stunning colours have gone. It is brown and barren, with patches of striated rock reminiscent of The Painted Desert. The road is excellent, but still empty apart from a few Chinese trucks. I'm not surprised, when getting through the border is such a trial. The Chinese also paid for the new road we followed from Osh to the border. They want to extend their haulage network into Europe. The Kyrgs took the money, but are wary about too much Chinese influence. Perhaps this accounts for all the hassle.

Xinjiang Province

This is autonomous Xinjiang Province, in and out of China like a yo-yo, and increasingly home to millions of Han Chinese being imported to Kashgar, to dilute the local Uighur Moslem population.  The Uighurs, speak the Uighur language, which is more like Uzbek or Kyrgzish and dress very much like Emirati Arabs, with high backed headscarves for the women, though their clothes are much brighter.

We are not allowed to take photos in the border zone. Apparently, the locals snitch on you if you do. And despite the brand new road (dual carriage way for much of the distance) and the absence of traffic, we travel at snail's pace. The speed limit is low and the traffic laws stringent. The driver is keening. I think it's a sort of Chinese singing.

The endurance theme continues when we arrive in Kashgar. It's a hotel this time, I suspect it saw its best days during the Russian Revolution. It's certainly pre-revolution in style; to say it is ornate is an understatement. Sadly, it smells musty and there are holes in the shower curtain and sheets. The hotel beds are extraordinarily hard. Not surprisingly, the TV in my room won't work. (Not that there is anything to watch). The receptionist laughs when I ask for a hairdryer. I won't go on...I’ve discovered the building is due for demolition.

I'm very confused about what the time is. The whole of China works on Beijing time. Officially. Except that Kashgar is closer to Tehran than to Beijing and the Uighurs use local time or Kyrgzish time. Surat, the guide, has told us to stay on local time, but my phone has automatically changed itself to Beijing time. So, to my disgust my alarm went off at 4.30 a.m. today.

No hot water this morning. Breakfast is in the ex-Russian consulate (built in 1890 and untouched since then by the looks of it) across the road.

Exploring Kashgar

Kashgar is oasis city, on the Silk Road. It's 3,000 years old and so historically important that Marco Polo wrote about it'there are a good number of towns and villages, but the greatest and finest is Cascar itsel'.

Today, it has become schizophrenic. There is an old town (rapidly diminishing, as the Chinese bulldoze it) and a new, cuboid high rise town, bisected by a central highway. Crumbling mud houses one side, plenty of neon and Chinese characters, red balloons and an 18 metre tall Chairman Mao on the other, in The Peoples' Square. (The locals refer to him as the Pigeon Keeper). As well as dual carriageway, there are scooter lanes divided from the pavement by low fences. The fences are generally ignored and drivers and pedestrians use both lanes with impunity. As most of the bikes are electric, you can't hear them coming, so walking in town is a little fraught.

Kashgar Old Town

The Chinese decided to demolish the labyrinthine and historic old city, because they were worried about the fragility of the buildings, they said. Nothing to do with tensions with the Uighur population. The hillsides are covered with ruined, half demolished buildings, staircases leading to the sky. There remains one tourist route, through twenty or so streets, in the middle of Yar Beshi Hill. A few stalwart stallholders remain - pottery and sweets, but for the most part it is forlorn and probably dangerous. Chinese tourists wear hard yellow hats to follow their guide. I've been given local headgear by a Turkish delight vendor instead.

Kashgar Mosques and Mausoleum

We visit a mausoleum complex, in a village about five miles away and the main Kashgar mosque. For a change, these are several hundred years old, not recently constructed or renovated, and are therefore considered to be mini Hajj destinations for Moslems in Central Asia.

The Afāq Khoja Mausoleum was initially built around 1640 as the tomb of Muhammad Yūsuf, a Central Asian Naqshbandi Sufi master. His family became well known for being active in Sufism. It's believed, the tiled mausoleum contains the tombs of five generations of the Afāqi family, providing resting places for 72 of its members. The most visited is that of Xiang Rei (daughter of Abak Koja). She was a concubine of Emperor Quialong and lived for 25 years in the Forbidden City of Beijing. Some of the pattern work, on the pillars in the attached mosques, is extraordinary. Signboards tell you where you may and may not take pictures. There's a camel equipped with tourist dressing up clothes, conveniently next to the sign that says you may take pictures.

The Id Kah Mosque, in the centre of town, was built by Saqsiz Mirza, in 1442 (although it incorporated older structures dating back to 996). It's one of the biggest mosques in China - some say the biggest. The Imam was knifed to death three days ago - there have been separatist issues in the province for a few years.

Lively Idkar Square opposite is used for celebrating after prayers. Families dressed in their best clothes, congregate for photographs on double humped Bactrian camels, or in painted carriages drawn by horses or goats, with fancy harnesses. The square really comes alive in the evening

I sleep reasonably after a rocky start. The person in the next door room to me has their TV on really loud. It's Surat, the tour leader. His idea of turning the volume down doesn’t equate with mine. I suppose I should be glad for him that his TV works. Surprisingly, the Wi-Fi in the hotel is operating, some of the time. But many sites, including Google, Hotmail and Twitter are blocked.

Kashgar Bazaar

Today is shopping day. First, the legendary Kashgar Sunday Bazaar. This is over 2,000 years old and you can supposedly 'buy anything here except chicken milk and cows' eggs'. As the name suggests, some of the stall are only open on Sundays, when folk travel far and wide to buy and sell here. I've read that it's the biggest market in Central Asia. I've also read that Urumqi has the biggest bazaar in China. So who knows?

It's held in two huge warehouses in town which make Leeds Market look tiny. And indeed, everything from fridges to spices is on sale, but for me it's a little disappointing. Modernisation has led to some loss of atmosphere and it's all very utilitarian. The more interesting stalls litter the pavement around the entrances, spilling onto the road. Smoky barbecues, snakes and scorpions, scuttling in plastic bowls. Guide Surat waves dried lizards around.

Kashgar Livestock Market

Next, the livestock market, six kilometres, battling the traffic, out of town. It was once part of the Bazaar, but the authorities have deemed it fit to move it. We join the streams of motorised carts stuffed with animals heading up the freeway and join the melee at the new (ish) site. There are cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, yaks and a few camels for sale. (Camel season is in the autumn.) The vendors congregate in the allotted areas and mill around, holding onto to their merchandise. It's thrilling, but heart rending, watching the animals packed in together, knowing many of them are going to slaughter. Nannies are separated from their kids, bleating at them through the bars.

Most of the owners seem to take great care with their animals, even if they are not exactly tender. Raising money obviously means a great deal to them and some of the old men seemed bewildered by the whole experience, gripping their animals tightly. Deals are struck with handshakes and cash and goats and sheep are trundled off in different carts or even trussed and lumped into car boots.

The New Old Town of Kashgar

Chinese food for lunch (hurrah - we had to force Surat to eschew Uighur for once) in the equally crumbling old British consulate. Then a wander through the city bazaars (much more interesting than the much hyped central market), hawking musical instruments, fur hats, spices, silk and woodcarvings. The people continue to provide the main interest, on family days out, shopping and touting their wares in the handicraft streets. Ice cream stands that play We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

The Chinese, with an eye on tourism, are busy ‘reconstructing’ much of this area. There are fake carved Islamic style facades with elaborate shutters on most of the buildings. This part of town is now officially labelled The Old City. There's a sign to say so. Which makes the part we saw before The Old, Old City I suppose. The buildings are going up very fast. I wonder if they are earthquake proof.

Onwards

Onwards through Xingjiang. I've noticed that all the petrol stations in Central Asia have gates. Entry is controlled by little men at desks. Customs is quicker but wearisome.  We push our bags back down the hill to Kyrgyzstan and the Torugart Pass.

(And read more about China here.)

Shanghai to Chongqing (Pronounced Chunking)

The plane taking me from Shanghai o my Yangtze Gorges cruise is late, but the wait is fascinating. They show a cartoon video in the lounge - how to avoid the terrible swine flu from America. No mention of bird flu. Two different airlines are both flying from Shanghai to Chongqing at the same time and they board them both through the same gate. Great fun watching them chivvy all the passengers on and off the wrong planes.

The stewardess exhorts us to have a cosy flight in the cabin. Then they switch on the plastic music. You can’t get away from noise.

I’m being ferried everywhere by CTS guides who talk at me incessantly, testing me on my knowledge of the difference between the Republic of China and the Peoples’ Republic of China. It’s so one-on-one I don’t actually get to look out of the window much.

Chongqing

I imagined Chongqing to be a rural idyll perched on the Yangtze, at the beginning of the Three Gorges. It’s actually a conurbation of 38 million people, with a huge green opera house that looks like a giant tank. The river is very brown and muddy and I’m surrounded by tower blocks. No doubt the pretty scenery will begin tomorrow.

The boat doesn’t leave until four in the morning, so I’m sitting here in my cabin with balcony (and piped music), watching the boys fishing with looped nets like big lacrosse sticks. There’s a brass band playing on the boat moored next to mine and the passengers are marching in. However, I am diverted by the hospitable signs in my room. ‘We hope you have a comfortable and sweet time dear guests’. It will cost me 3000 Yuen if I want to buy the sofa in my room (or the mattress). Housekeeping will supply me with ‘ice rocks’. And, slightly more worryingly, ‘Please replace the life jackets after use’.

Cruising the Yangtze Gorges

The Bad News:

• My suntan lotion has leaked all over everything in my bag - it’s all gone, the whole lot - (it hasn’t done the things in my bag a lot of good either) and it’s pretty hot here. The shops on the boat only sell useful things like pearls and silk paintings.
• The safe in my room is broken
• The horrid man on reception says dinner isn’t included on the first night. No-one told me to bring any food and the boat is currently doing a Marie Celeste.
• There are only two small lifeboats for over 300 people

The Good News:

• The safe wasn’t malfunctioning after all and the guy from housekeeping who came to mend it repaired the broken zip in my bag instead.
• The nice man on the reception desk got me a free dinner. Enough for 4 people if peppered steak, rice, fish and tomatoes, pork and bamboo shoots, Macedoine vegetables, the thickest mushroom soup you ever saw, melon and wooden green stick all served at once is your thing
• The man on the tannoy says two lifeboats is plenty, as there is so much traffic on the river we are bound to get picked up quickly if the boat sinks. (In the dark? Before we get mown down by coal barges?)
• They serve margaritas in the bar, though I haven’t quality checked them yet

Cruising the Yangtze Gorges Day 1 - Fengdu and Still Chongqing

Woken at 7a.m.by the tannoy. When I wake up properly I will look for the off switch. I refuse to do a Hi de Hi.

I thought the passengers were roughly half Chinese, half American. However, I have discovered that half the Chinese are also American. The Chinese are seated on one side of the dining room and ‘the foreigners’ on the other. We sail past rural scenes, limestone and bamboo. But these are interspersed with monstrous factories and refineries belching smoke á la Germinal. Concrete villages and convoys of barges chugging in the opposite direction – mostly coal to feed the pollution. The river is exceptionally dirty – the swirling eddies carry all kinds of detritus, everything from flip flops to tin cans. Everyone here talks about conservation, but in reality recycling means tipping the rubbish into the river.

The cruise is not very beautiful yet, but it’s certainly interesting. It’s humid and sticky in the breeze, but even so, and notwithstanding jet lag, I‘m having awful trouble staying awake today. I have just realised that I took one of my sleepy melatonin tablets when I downed my morning vitamins. Now drinking Coca Cola to try and counteract the effects.

I’ve also been and had acupuncture in the clinic down in the hull. The white coated doctor threw in some moxibustion. I haven’t a clue what it is and I couldn’t see either as I was lying on my back. But it seemed to involve a lot of heat and the burning of some herbs in a tube.

Fengdu

A visit to the ghost city at Fengdu - sorry ‘shore excursion’. It’s a sweltering 100 degrees Fahrenheit and there are 600 steps no-one has told us about. The funicular isn’t working yet. The jostling Chinese laugh at the mad English lady and share their umbrellas. And the noise pursues us. All the guides have microphones which are set at full volume, so the temples are far from peaceful. Aptly, this is Chinese Hell. The Chinese believe that every soul comes to this spot when the body is dead and is judged by the Lord of Hell at the top of the mountain. The city plays safe and combines the beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Some of the statues look much kindlier than others. Is that fair? There are also suitably gruesome tableaux of men being eviscerated or pushed off bridges with pitchforks (presumably this is a lesser punishment).

There are views across the river to more sprawling tower blocks

I eat dinner with a party of Americans, so I get my own back on the noise front. We are definitely the loudest table in the dining room. Chinese massage before bed.

Cruising the Yangtze Gorges Day 2 - The Three Gorges

Well I  didn’t take any melatonin today and I’m still falling sleep, so it must be the acupuncture. I certainly feel pretty giddy when I stand up afterwards. More Coca Cola. The Chinese doctor has given me a certificate. It says that I had an obstruction of Qi in my back and he has expelled the wind-evil and eliminated dampness.

Today we are sailing through the Three Gorges: Qutang, Wu and Xiling . Unfortunately it’s so hazy I can only just make them out. The steep walls are impressive, but nothing spectacular. Maybe they were more imposing before they built the dam and the river was 80 metres lower. Never mind, it’s still relaxing, lolling on my balcony and watching all the life on the river. And an eighty year old Canadian-Chinese lady has instructed everyone on how to Photoshop their pictures. She says it’s much easier on a Mac though!

The second and third gorges, though less sheer, are prettier than the much lauded first. I prefer the mountains with the stalky green steps of the rice terraces leading up to their pointy peaks. The mist gives the scenery an ethereal beauty. (Though there is still the odd power station or two).

Today’s shore excursion is a trip up the Small Three Gorges (Lesser Three Gorges) of the Daning River, namely "Dragon-Gate Gorge", "Misty Gorge" and "Dicui (Emerald) Gorge". So, we traipse off our big boat and onto a slightly smaller junk, which takes us up the gorges, until we get on much smaller pea-pod boats that are rowed and poled in combination by the local Tuja people. They tow us up to and across some shallows, just to show they can do it and then the whole thing is repeated backwards. Not so long ago, according to pictures we are shown, they used to do the towing naked, but tourist sensibilities have put paid to that. Caves, coffins (suspended). monkeys, mandarin ducks and other water fowl are all on offer.

Cruising the Yangtze Gorges Day 3 - The Three Gorges Dam

A damp squib of a day. We had to get up at a ridiculous hour for a trip to the Three Gorges Dam site at Sandouping City, where we couldn’t see much of the almost-but-not-quite-biggest-dam-in-the world, because of the fog. As someone on the bus remarked ‘Nothing about a vacation should begin with a 6!’ The view in the last gorge, below the dam, picturesque old wooden villages, gives a flavour of what the scenery was like in the rest of the river, before they flooded it. Then a flight back to Shanghai, which is three hours late, because there is a thunderstorm above us.

(And read more about China here.)

The Shanghai Bund

I am in Shanghai on the first leg of my south east Asian tour. I have the most amazing hotel view, from 27 floors up, right down the Huangpu River and across to the fabled Bund. This is the colonial era (beaux art buildings) waterside promenade, founded by the British This area developed into a financial hub so successful that Shanghai become the largest city in China and its commercial centre.

Well worth the money. I amble out, meander along the riverbank and take over a hundred photos of the city lights. Hordes of sightseers are doing the same and converging in large swarms. It’s a bit of battle to find a path through at times. And I need an ATM and some Chinese yuan. Then, that sinking sick feeling. I can’t find my bank card. I must have been pick-pocketed. Quick panic. Call the bank and cancel the card. Hope I don’t lose my others!

The rest of the hotel is also pretty amazing. The café has 10 different themed kitchens. Scallops or M & M sundaes anyone? The guests are mainly officials from the world swimming championships being held down the road. The president of the association is in the room next to me. I know this because the security people marauding everywhere tell me. At least my room won’t get burgled too I swap my bedchamber for the bar. Same great view from floor 32 of the Shangri La (say it Shan Gri-La or the taxi drivers don't understand) but now I'm sipping an applegrass martini.

Shanghai - In Pudong

The Shangri La is on what is known as the Pudong side, in the midst of a futuristic skyline, including the 632 metre Shanghai Tower and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, both sporting distinctive pink spheres. This place has Dubai well beaten and possibly even New York. It’s certainly more colourful. Almost as gaudy as Vegas – they have to ration the electricity during the day to power it all. It’s pretty spectacular. Twinkling neon pleasure boats zipping down the river, interspersed with the great black shadows of coal barges. The Bund buildings across the way are more tasteful than the garish scrapers in Pudong where I am. These are all boxy with white lights. and mostly British built.

Exploring Shanghai

Woke up this morning to find my credit card exactly where I left it yesterday. Damn. Not lost at all, I didn’t take it out with me.

Shanghai is a really eclectic mix of old and new. I've trotted past Starbucks and McDonalds, peeking out of old pagodas. My tourist trail first includes the the Jade Buddha temple in Jing'An. It dates from 1882, founded with two Buddha statues brought from Myanmar.

But most of my exploration centres on the old city (once walled), south of the Bund. The intricately designed Yu Garden (Garden of Happiness) alone, constructed in 1559, could take up seral hours. Though it's too busy to be a peaceful retreat. It's next door to the Tao City God Temple. (All the cities have a temple dedicated to their protector spirit.) It also abuts the Yuyuan Tourist Mart, the Huxinting Teahouse (once used as British base of operations during the First Opium War) and the Yu Garden Bazaar. I have to taste some of the teas in the tea house- and part with some cash. They have cures for every possible ailment.

I’ve also visited several malls that look very American from the outside, but don’t quite live up to their promise. They smell a bit musty and everything is arranged like Primark. Cheap and gimmicky. The Chinese still love their glitter. Otherwise, China has changed a lot in 15 years.

The Shanghainese are gentler and friendlier than the Chinese I remember. Perhaps I’m not so much of a novelty as I was then? And more of the people can speak English. They have been chatting to me in the bars and restaurants. Which is just as well as I can’t read the menus - and as for the pictures they use instead - well I’m not sure they have the Trades’ Description Act here. I ordered some beef fried rice in a mall restaurant - brave. Something very slimy arrived. The drink was delicious though - limeguat - whatever that is? Or maybe it’s just different in Shanghai. Or probably both. The Chinese refer to westernisation as the McStruggle.

Oh, and I have also been on the cable car. It runs through a tunnel under the river, complete with meteor showers and audio commentary. Probably the tackiest thing here, but great fun.

Hangzhou

A late train south from Shanghai, after my side trip up the Yangtze Gorges and there isn’t anywhere to buy food. The station is next to the airport, but I'm not allowed to walk and we have to take a bus to get there - 15 minutes to go round the one way system and back again. The train travels at 350 kilometres per hour, but nevertheless I am pretty hungry and tired when I arrive at Hangzhou, at 10.30. at night.

Just realised that all the bathrooms have scales in them. I am going to ignore them.

Hangzhou, population 11 million, is part of another huge Chinese conurbation, with an economy equivalent to that of Nigeria. It's the capital of China’s Zhejiang province and the southern terminus of the ancient Grand Canal waterway, which starts in Beijing.

Exploring Hangzhou

The main draw in Hangzhou is the West Lake, 'celebrated by poets and artists since the ninth century', There are 32 West Lakes in China. I'm told this one is the best. It’s very willow pattern plate, plenty of trees, fronds dangling at the water’s edge, little islands, temples, pavilions, arched stone bridges and koi carp, but hard to see in the smog, which is ever present. The guide says the view is better in the ‘mist’, more mysterious.

There are three notable pagodas. Arguably the most famous of the Pagodas is the five-storey Leifeng, though it's only a modern reconstruction of the original, built in 975 A.D. The Liuhe Pagoda, literally Six Harmonies Pagoda, stands at the foot of Yuelun Hill, facing the Qiantang River. This one dates back to 970 but has been destroyed and restored several times. I'm compelled to climb it (there are 13 storeys), as part of our lakeside perambulations. Then I'm rewarded with a boat ride.

I have to have my picture taken holding Chinese babies, like a politician. They are very heavy. The Little Emperors are certainly well looked after. Their parents cater to their every need, including fanning them constantly. (It’s still sweltering hot. It’s 35 degrees centigrade and very humid.) One of my guides has told me that they have changed the law. You used to be allowed only one child per couple- hence the Little Emperors. But now, if an only child marries an only child they may have two children. He is thrilled. My current guide not so much. She is one of four, as her parents kept trying for a boy. They got lucky on the last go.

A car takes us to the Lingyin Temple complex, some carved Buddha statues in little grottoes, (surrounded by milling Chinese tourists), some pagodas and a tea plantation. Everyone here says that green tea helps you lose weight. But at £80 a box they can keep it - no wonder Posh Beckham drinks it – and I'm not keen on the taste anyway. Wikipedia says this is one of the wealthiest temples in China. I'm not surprised.

The highlight of the day is when my driver gets lost. He is new to the job. We end up back at the temple, when we were supposed to be going to the plantation. He has to phone for instructions.

A foot massage and an evening wander along Wulin Road, the Hangzhou equivalent of Oxford Street, very buzzy. Lots of imitation silk. The way to tell if it’s real is to set it alight, I’m told. Silk burns evenly, polyester doesn’t. I wonder what they’d think if I tried ?

Suzhou

On the train, north again to the city of Suzhou. They are still playing the same Ice Age cartoon in the carriage. I’ve noticed quite a few Chinese wandering around eating cucumbers whole. It seems to be a popular snack. Today’s guide tells me he isn’t sure of the difference between the words cucumber and concubine. Where do I begin?

The guide also tells me that this is a small city. It’s population is only six million. Suzhou, is known for its canals, bridges and classical gardens.

This is nearly the end of the famous Grand Canal, which finishes at Hangzhou. So a cruise is obligatory. Some pretty stone bridges and more weeping willows, but it all seems small and dirty.

Possibly the most famous garden is The Master of the Nets Garden, first begun in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi, the Deputy Civil Service Minister of the Southern Song dynasty government. I'm told he was inspired by the simple and solitary life of a Chinese fisherman. There's also the Humble Administrator’s Garden, dating to 1513, ( zigzag bridges over connected pools and islands), the Lingering Garden (ornate viewing pavilions) and the Crown of Clouds Peak, (a striking limestone rockery).

A visit to a silk factory, to see the poor cocoons being collected and boiled. It’s a really fascinating and informative visit, despite the string of tourist shops at the end.

I return, dripping wet again, but this time it is because the thunderstorms have followed me, rather than because I am perspiring. So another foot massage is called for. My Bamboo Garden Hotel has a garden that's almost a snice as the ancient ones. It also has a pub called ‘Jolly Good Time’. The breakfasts are all amazing. You name it, it’s available Salad? Pickles? Cakes?

Suzhou to Shanghai

Another high speed train journey. There has been a big crash further up this same line. The lightening from one of the many storms stalled a train on a bridge and the one behind went straight into it.

Back in Shanghai. I love this hotel. I could quite happily live here. This time, I have the championship person’s room complete with walk-in wardrobes and Chinese vases. I’ve been attempting to diet again and was very good last night and had salad. So today I went down to the ten-kitchen café for a light lunch. But unfortunately, they were offering a buffet which turned out to be the best value ever. Whatever you wanted from any of the kitchens for about £25.

Well, I went bonkers with all the seafood and the sushi to start. Next, I looked at Thai, Indian, Chinese and Malaysian, but opted for amazing huge lamb chops with some equally amazing mushroom risotto. I thought I wasn’t doing too badly till I then meandered over to the dessert kitchens. (M and Ms are still there). Men in big white hats were blow torching teeny crème brulees, creating amazing towers of ice cream and presiding over the most artfully crafted patisserie you have ever seen. So I was sunk. I went for a walk and a swim to serve penance. Tomorrow, I am on the plane to Indonesia, so hopefully the food will be less plentiful and I can start my diet again.

In summary, China has changed a great deal in 15 years. The people are friendlier and seem to be quite a bit taller too. Many are positively lofty. Westernisation has turned Shanghai into a dazzling and sophisticated city. It hasn’t been so kind to the other places I have visited. They seem diminished and shabby, the ancient buildings and rural landscapes dwarfed by industrialisation and less atmospheric than I would have hoped. The McStruggle has taken its toll. There is a burger or coffee bar on every corner. I have had a good time and it’s all still fascinating, but would I come back? Probably not, except to Shanghai (and the buffet) if it was en route, and especially not in the summer!

(Read more about China here.)

Distilled Memories of China

My first trip to China (if you don’t count Hong Kong) was in the nineties. This was pre-digital camera when the images are scanned from old prints, so they are a little grey and dull. That’s pretty well how the weather was when I was there- and the smog. It was a really good route, right up through the middle of China, (with a wiggle to the west and Sichuan/Yunnan), taking in all the major tourist sights. In those days touring was still very controlled and there was a lot of army surveillance. Hotels were dubious and the many diverse sights amazing.

Hong Kong

The visit starts in Hong Kong and we catch the train over the border. Hong Kong. (Click for more recent trips.)

Guangzhou

The city of Guangzhou, which the British used to call Canton, is our first stop. It's just 75 miles north of Hong Kong. Guangzhou, a city port on the Pearl River is one of China's largest cities. That makes it huge enough. But it's at the centre of the Guangdong–Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, which is the most-populous built-up metropolitan area in the world. Approximately 65,594,622 residents. That's about the same as the population of the UK.

Many of the Cantonese temples' contents were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but some Chines and Buddhist temples remain here. Perhaps the most famous is the The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, which dates back as as far as AD 537. The Flower Pagoda, the main structure of the temple, was built in 1097, rebuilt again in 1373 after a fire and restored in 1900.

Another landmark is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, on the site of Guangzhou's Presidential Palace. It was used when the Nationalists operated a rival "Chinese" government to the Zhili Clique's Beijing regime. The instigator of the Chinese Revolution remains the only relatively recent Chinese leader to be revered by both the Chinese and the Taiwanese.

But, my most distinct memories are of the amazing market. Just about anything that lives (or has lived) is for sale. Snakes, preserved in jars, dried bats and seahorses. The cutest of puppies. eat them or take them home for a pet. You choose.

Guilin, Painter's China

A cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of China's must dos. The boat passes through some of China's most spectacular scenery as the shallow water winds through the wobbly karst peaks. They've all been named, of course, like stalactites. "Five Fingers Hill", "Penholder Peak" or "Dragon Head Hill". The misty pinkish sky frames the the water buffalo and fishermen wafting past on their low bamboo rafts. You can see where so many Chines painters have got their inspiration.

"By water, by mountains, most lovely, Guilin". says the tourist board. But they are right.

Some of the fishermen still use cormorants to catch their fish. The cormorants perch on the ends of their rafts, attached by a line. If a net has been deployed then they bring in the fish in their beak and are rewarded with smaller ones. Rings round their necks prevent them swallowing the larger catch. At night, the fishermen use lights to attract the fish and guide the birds. It's apractice dating back over 1,000 years, but it doesn't seem very kind to me.

Kunming

East to Kunming. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, located on the shores of Lake Dian. The tourist attraction in this area is the Petrified Forest, about 60 miles south east. Here are more karst formations: rock caves, arches, pinnacles and pavilions. I would have thought it scenic if I hadn't seen Guilin first.

Kunming also has markets, temples and mountains. and incidentally, some horrible toilets. China has to have the worst toilets in the world. Open trenches round the back of the markets where you squat along with everyone else. amongst all the ordure already deposited. Ugh.

Back to the mountains. Yuantong Mountain, in the northeast corner of Kunming, has a popular urban 'Green Park'. It boasts cherry blossom, which comes earlier than in Japan and a zoo. Sitting at the foot of the mountain, is the Yuantong Temple, a series of Buddhist shrines, which have been expanded, but date back to the late eighth and early ninth century,

Leshan and Mount Emei

Now onto Leshan, picking up the Min River, a major tributary of the Yangtze, and following it north to its confluence with the Dadu river, just outside the city. There's a Buddha here, carved out of the red sandstone cliffs. It's 71 metres tall and dates to between 713 and 803 (during the Tang dynasty). That makes it the largest stone Buddha in the world and the tallest pre modern statue.

It's astonishing to find this scene so close to major road networks and conurbations. The river washes its feet and the Buddha faces Mount Emei, You can look down from the top, or descend ladders to the bottom. It is huge and horribly vertigo inducing. It's in the UNESCO recognised Mount Emei National Park.

Emei is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, an hour's drive west of Leshan. It is the site of the first Buddhist temple built in China, in the 1st century AD. There are seventy-six Buddhist monasteries now, altogether, most of them of the Ming and Qing dynasties, most of them built near the top of the mountain, which is over 3,000 metres high. it's not very warm either, even in August. You can visit them all on a winding 31 mile path, which takes several days to hike. Or you can cheat and take a cable car partway. The monkeys are another deterrent. They bite your fingers if you have food.

Chengdu and the Giant Pandas

We are well into Sichuan province now. Spicy food - liberal use of chilli, garlic and Sichuan pepper, of course. I love the beef, but other dishes such as Kung Pao chicken and Yuxiang shredded pork have become increasingly known in the UK. This is also one of the main tea growing areas in China.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan. It's also famous for giant pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was founded in 1987. with six giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. These gorgeous black and white bears are endemic to China and live almost exclusively on bamboo. It takes a lot of bamboo to provide enough nutrition, so the bears spend a great deal of time eating. For many years they were endangered, as deforestation drove them out of their natural habitats. They are now classified as vulnerable. China sends other countries pandas - zoos love them, due to their audience appeal, so they make good bargaining tools. But they are never given, always loaned.

I'm sure the centre does a good job in breeding giant pandas, but viewing is more than a little frustrating. They're nibbling away at their bamboo behind plate glass. Even photography is difficult, because of the reflections.

Xi'an

We fly north to Xi'an, as it's a very long drive. Our first journey on internal Chinese airlines. I've been lugging my fat Lonely Planet guide to China round with me. There's a long section describing the poor accident records, and detailing horror stories. They use their own manufactured parts in their Russian fleet to test them out. Both pilots got locked out of the cockpit on one instance and had to use a fire axe to hack their way back in. A kind member of our group goes to great lengths to point this out, as the plane is taking off. In the event, I survive and we are given ice cream for our in flight meal.

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. It has historical ties with several of China's ruling dynasties, but it's mostly famous for the Bingmayong (Terra Cotta Army), thousands of life-size, hand-moulded figures buried with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. They date back to 209-210 BC and were placed there to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. I'm lost for words. (Cameras were banned in those days!)

Also in Xi'an, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. This enormous Buddhist pagoda (64 metres) was built in 648/649 (Tang dynasty) to store the translations of Buddhist sutras obtained from India. An earthquake in 1556 Shaanxi reduced its height to 43 metres. The other tourist must-see is the Bell Tower. It's comparatively young, only built in 1384 (Ming Dynasty), but it's said to be one of the grandest in China.

The Great Wall of China

A final flight, even further north, to Beijing. Aaargh, but more ice cream. And we take a day trip to the Great Wall, 'one of the most impressive architectural feats in history'.

Sadly, it's not true that The Great Wall can be seen from the moon. It's debateable whether it can even be seen from space. And it's not just one wall, its several, built at different times, starting in the seventh century BC. Some pieces run parallel, most were eventually conjoined. The best-known parts of the wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Watchtowers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signalling capabilities (through smoke or fire) were all incorporated. Collectively, the wall sections stretch from Liaodong in the east, to Lop Lake in the west and from the present-day Sino–Russian border in the north to Tao River (Taohe) in the south. It spans an astonishing 13,170.70 miles in total.

The purposes of the Great Wall, all too familiar: to control immigration, keep out invaders and ensure that those travelling the Silk Road paid their taxes. It also served as a very useful transportation corridor. Some sections have fallen so badly into disrepair that they have disappeared altogether. The stones are only too handy for building houses. Attempts have been made at restoration in the areas where the tourists are taken. And here, it's thronging.

Beijing, the Capital of China

In the capital city we visit the major sites, fly kites in Tianaman Square and hit the McDonald's close by. We've been eating a lot of Chinese food.

Read more about my visits to Beijing here.

Read more about China here.

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