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Peter & Jackie Main | all galleries >> World Galleries >> Asia >> China > China - Northbound
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China - Northbound

Monday June 7th to Monday June 28th


We arrived in Shanghai at about 6:30am after an overnight flight from Sydney via Singapore. Unfortunately, there's no bus service until 8:00 so we hung around the airport and tried our first dumplings for breakfast - tasty. We almost had a major disaster when getting off the bus at our hotel. Peter set down our Lonely Planet guidebook to help Jackie with her backpack. The bus was away before we realised our mistake but a helpful doorman chased down the bus and got our book back (fortunately traffic in Shanghai is pretty slow). We would have been lost without it.

Shanghai is a dynamic city with a colourful past. It was the main connection that China had with Europe and much of the grand architecture has European influences. Europe had a great taste for Chinese goods such as silk and tea but the Chinese didn't have much use for European goods. The resulting trade imbalance was solved by the introduction of opium. The Chinese tried to stop the incoming drugs so the British went to war (the Opium Wars) and the Chinese were forced to establish areas of Shanghai known as "Concessions" that were immune to Chinese laws. The city had always been a place for free spirits and entrepreneurs (including drug smugglers, etc.). The communists managed to repress all that energy for a little while but now that China is opening up to a free market economy the city is booming again. In a single photo of the Pudong "New area" you can see 14 skyscrapers being built and that is representative of the whole city. The city is full of hustle and bustle and its old vibrancy is coming back.

We visited the modern Shanghai Museum and were thoroughly impressed with the displays. The museum shows a history of China that is logically laid out and beautifully presented. There are displays of ceramics, calligraphy, painting, coins, clothing, bronze, etc. all shown in chronological order so you can see the progress over the centuries. The bronze section showed the steps used to make bronze objects by several different methods. The also had a temporary display of the Cartier collection ?so incredibly over the top.

The original "Main drag" is along the river and is called "The Bund". It has many historic buildings dating from the 1850s to the 1920s. We took a small tram through the "Tourist Tunnel" under the river from the Bund to the Pudong. To keep you entertained on the short journey there are flashing psychedelic lights -- quite bizarre. The main reason for crossing the river to Pudong is to go up the Oriental Pearl Tower (468 metres, world's third tallest). There would probably be great views up there but there's so much haze (part atmospheric and part pollution) that you can't see much more than the Bund just across the river. This white sky and haze pretty much persisted all the way until we were past Beijing in northern China. We think they have blue skies only in winter.

Suzhou, Jiangsu

Our first bit of independent travel went fine with a short journey on a modern double-decker train in reserved seats in what they call "Soft seat" class to Suzhou. Suzhou is famous for its gardens. We visited 'The Humble Administrators Garden' and the 'Master of the Nets Garden' (there are many more gardens in the city). These were showpieces for rich Chinese during the Ming dynasty. The design and layouts are elaborate but they are essentially rock gardens with dirty ponds, small buildings and some trees. The centrepieces are always large hole-filed rocks from Taihu, a lake about 200km away. Unfortunately, the pollution makes everything look dirty. We think we prefer 'British style' gardens with colourful flowers and bushes so, to be honest, we weren't too impressed.

We took a local bus to Zhouzhuang for the day. Zhouzhuang is an historic 'canal' town with, of course, many canals criss-crossing the town. The cobble streets, canals and many bridges in the Old Town are quite picturesque. It's a little like Venice with gondoliers rowing tourists up and down the canals. The local delicacy is glazed barbecued pigs' thighs, they were dozens of shops selling them. We weren't tempted.

Nanjing, Jiangsu

From Suzhou we took a 2-1/2 hour train ride to Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province and the location of Sun Yatsen's mausoleum. We had found an Internet site that offers discount hotel accommodation so we treated ourselves to a posh room at the Shangri-La hotel. Other than enjoying the 5 English language TV channels (it rained one day so we stayed in), we took a city tour.

Our guide's English was poor (but we never complain as our Chinese in non-existent) but the Chinese tourists were fun. Sun Yatsen is recognised by both the communists and the Kuomintang (Taiwan government) as the father of modern China. He died in 1925 and, although he wanted a simple Ming-style tomb, a year later construction was started on the immense mausoleum. We visited the Martyr's Cemetery, once the Kuomintang's killing fields, it is dedicated to all the revolutionaries who lost their lives here. We saw the small offices that the early communist party worked from. Zhou Enlai, a contemporary of Mao Zedong and intimately involved with the communist revolution worked here. Unlike Mao, he seemed to be a more rational administrator and diplomat and much more down-to-earth. We also saw a Confucian temple and the Nanjing Museum.

One of the world's greatest atrocities took place in Nanjing. In 1937 the Japanese army advanced on Nanjing. The Chinese government, with an under-funded and weak army told the people to stand and fight (while the officials ran and literally locked the city gates behind them). 300,000 to 400,000 people were raped and murdered. Japanese history textbooks have downplayed the incident and the Chinese are upset.

We next wanted to go to Tai'an (Tai City), the city next to Tai Shan (Tai Mountain) -- the most famous of the 5 sacred mountains. When we tried to buy train tickets to Tai' An we were told it was not possible, the train doesn't go there. Tai'an, with a population of 5 million is on the main train line between Shanghai and Beijing so we persisted. It turns out that, given the mountain's fame, the city changed its name from Tai' An to Tai Shan and, of course the train stops there. The Chinese just don't think laterally at all, one really has to be on top of things (thanks Lonely Planet).

Tai Shan, Shandong

We eventually got our tickets though the train times are horribly inconvenient (who makes up these schedules?). We travelled in "Soft sleeper" class, which is a compartment with four berths, lace curtains and wood panelling -- quite posh. We arrived in Tai Shan at 12:30 in the morning but it was not really a problem. The next day we went to see the mountain. Everyone has seen the famous paintings of beautiful rugged mountains shrouded in mist. Well, it's more like covered in cloud, fog and smog. It's probably incredible in the winter with a blue sky but unfortunately we couldn't get any good photos in the rain. Jackie bought some post cards. But, we're here and THE thing to do in Tai Shan is climb the sacred mountain. Walk or bus? Walk or bus? 6600 steps, yes, us lazy gits took the bus up to the halfway point. There was so much cloud and it was starting to rain so we didn't bother going up to the top (there's a cable car). We did, however, have an interesting walk down the steep stairs passing many temples, gates and rocks carved with spiritual calligraphy.

Not far from Tai Shan is Confucius' birthplace, Qufu. Again, we used local buses to do a day trip there. We saw the huge Confucius Temple grounds and the Confucius mansions. Confucius lived and died in poverty but his descendant family have done very well out of his fame. The mansions (they don't live there any more) is a sprawling place with over 500 rooms.

So then it was another train on to Beijing. We couldn't get "Soft sleeper" so we had to go down a class to "Hard sleeper". These berths are stacked 3 high and the compartments are open. They're a bit noisy as you can hear all the snorers in the carriage but the beds are actually fairly comfortable.


In Beijing our number one priority was to get our Mongolia visas. After going around the houses a bit in the embassy area, we eventually found the Mongolian embassy. Again, we're so lucky sometimes, because they said they would take four days and that was exactly what our plan had allocated. As we had been in Beijing 3 years before and had seen all the major sights (in the blue sky and sunshine of winter rather than the depressing white sky of summer) we used the time to rest and get some things sorted, most importantly, tickets to Mongolia.

In Shanghai, we had tried to buy train tickets from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia (the 'autonomous region' of China) to Ulaan Baatar (Mongolia, the country) but were told we would have to buy them in Beijing. It was very important for us to get tickets because we had already paid for a tour in Mongolia and it was critical that we get there on time. We eventually figured out the China doesn't have an integrated booking system -- you have to be in the city where the train departs in order to buy a ticket. We really didn't want to wait until we got to Hohhot to discover the trains were full. We thought about buying tickets from Beijing but they were all sold out! However, in the 'Foreigner's Ticket Hall' in the Beijing railway station there was a man who was able to help us. He had an office in Hohhot so he was able to fax copies of our passports and have the tickets purchased there. Phew, that's a relief.

So after picking up our Mongolia visas and uploading some photos, we headed to Hohhot via Datong. The train times worked out that we could take an overnight train to Datong, do a tour, then catch an evening train on to Hohhot so that's what we did. Again, we were in "Hard sleeper" class and this time we both had upper berths. What fun watching Jackie try to climb up the ladder to the top bunk.

Datong, Shanxi

We took a tour that went to just two places but they are two truly impressive places. The first was the Cloud River Caves. Over 30 caves have been dug into the cliff side each with various Buddha statues carved out of the living rock. There are over 50,000 Buddhist statues, some are over 20m high (but most are tiny figurines). The caves are located in a ridge that stretches 1km east to west. Most of the caves were carved between AD 460 and 494.

Next we went to Xuankong Si, the Hanging Monastery. This monastery is, literally, hanging from a sheer cliff in a river gorge. It was built more than 1400 years ago and its halls and pavilion hug the contours of the cliff. On hall has representative from three religions, Buddha, Laotzu (Taoism) and Confucius.

To carry on to Hohhot we couldn't get 'soft sleeper' class (compartment), 'hard sleeper' class or even soft seat class as the only tickets available were 'hard seat' (cheapest) class. We had read that they are smoke-filled and packed with coughing, spitting people and you have to fight for a seat or stand all the way. We were, to say the least, a little apprehensive. Obviously, things have improved greatly. It was crowded and there was the usual crush getting on board but the seats are reserved and they are padded (despite being called 'hard seats'). Smoking is not permitted and no one was spitting. But, it was still an adventure. Foreigners are still a bit of a novelty in China (especially in hard seat class, we suppose) so we were certainly the centre of attention. A policeman came along and wanted something but he didn't speak any English. At first we thought he wanted to see our tickets, but no. Then we thought, optimistically, he was asking us if we wanted to upgrade our tickets but, no, as we suspected, he wanted to see our passports. (He found a young girl in the carriage who was studying Japanese but spoke a few words of English to get his message across). Now, we keep our passports in a safe hidden in our backpack and didn't really want to pull them out in front of the 100 people who where watching, fascinated by the communication difficulty we were having. Fortunately, the policeman, the nice girl who helped with the language problem and all the people around were full of good humour so, in hindsight, it was actually a fun time. (The rest of the people in the carriage eventually stopped staring at us too).

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia

We arrived fairly late and went to the hotel nearest the train station. It looked a bit dodgy so we got the most expensive room and it was OK. The next morning we went to look for the guy who was supposed to meet us (we had ended up taking an earlier train so we didn't expect to see him last night). Well, now the fun begins. He was supposed to be holding two very important tickets to Mongolia for us but he wasn't. It turns out they changed the train schedule at the last minute (moved it back one hour) and he didnít know whether or not to buy them (he didn't want to be stuck holding expensive tickets). We said the new date would be fine but, when he goes to buy the tickets, of course, they're all sold out!! Ahhhhh! So he tells us that he has 6 other people in the same boat (4 know about it, 2 don't) and he'd arranged a minibus to take us to Erenhot on the Mongolian border (6 hours) and we can catch the daily train from there to Ulaan Baatar. We're not sure about this so we ask him about flights. He checks and they are all sold out too. Everyone, it seems, is going to Mongolia for the Naadam Festival (like us). Flying back to Beijing then on to Ulaan Baatar would be prohibitively expensive, so, with great trepidation we accept this new plan. We agree to meet in the morning in 2 days' time.

There's not much to do in Hohhot. The main tourist thing is trips out to the grasslands. They're cashing in on the word "Mongolia" in the province's name but, as we are heading to the real Mongolia, weíre not interested. We visited the local museum, ate at a nice Korean restaurant and generally prepared for the trip north. Just on a chance we popped in to the Air China office. An extremely helpful lady with excellent English explained that Air China no longer has flights from Hohhot to Ulaan Baatar (which is why the MIAT flights were all sold out). However, we could fly to Beijing and on to Hohhot the next day (the flight times donít connect). We figured that would be too expensive but she explained that, because it's a connecting flight, the flight to Beijing would only cost 50 Yuan (about GBP3.50 or US$6.00) AND that included a hotel room for the night! Better yet, we could book the flights and they would hold them for 24 hours without payment so we could see if our man shows up. Hooray!! We've got a backup plan!

Well, the next morning, he did show up with a comfortable bus. He was meeting four others coming in on the train that morning. As for the other two people, he took one quick look at the hotel where he was supposed to meet them, didn't see them, so said, "Let's go" (Peter protested but he didn't seem to care that he was leaving two people behind. Man, are they going to be pissed off!). So, we had an interesting journey through the countyside of Inner Mongolia to Erenhot. He recommended that we buy a ticket just to Zamyn-Uud on the other side of the border. We could buy the ticket on to Ulaan Baatar on the train and it would be cheaper as we could pay Mongolian prices. We were a little unsure of this but decided to take his advice. Three of our group decided to take the Lonely Planet's advice and take a minibus across the border and board the train there. In the end, we all made it to Ulaan Baatar (although we sat comfortably in our compartment as immigration and customs came past us rather than having to queue and lug bags).

We returned to China after three weeks in Mongolia.

Click here for Mongolia

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