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Forgotten post: (Just another brick in) The Wall

29 Dec

It all got a bit manic on my world tour… and in my annual clearup I found a few posts that didn’t make it. Here’s one – there might be more!!

China has a wall, you know. And it’s great. And it looks like this…

Great Wall - Badaling (1)

So, flushed with success from my Forbidden City trip, I suddenly (like, at 9am) decided I would make my own way to the Wall rather than join a tour. I was a bit worried about crowds, but I felt that it would be better to go now rather than go later, especially since the hotel couldn’t tell me when they would run the next tour.

So, round the metro and onto a 919 bus, helpfully located at the Dongshemen City Gate which you would really have to be blind to miss. An hour and 45 minutes later, and I am at Badaling, which isn’t the closest segment of the wall to Beijing, but it IS the one everyone visits.

Dongshamen Gate (3)

And, today, they really are all visiting. There’s a few Western faces, but mostly it’s Chinese visiting their national symbol. But even with thousands of people on it, it is absolutely incredible. Sure, it’s been rebuilt. It’s probably a bit wider… and maybe they have built up the walls to stop people falling off…. but it is absolutely, stupendously, amazingly huge. Here, it winds across the mountain back and forth hugging the mountain as it unfolds like a ribbon of stone across the landscape. I can imagine the scene with the Emperor:

Emperor: I’ve decided that to protect the empire, we’re going to build a wall

Chief councillor: excellent, your highness. Where shall we start building?

Emperor: there are some mountains near Badaling that would be a great location

Chief councillor: [neck-saving silence]

Great Wall - Badaling (72)Great Wall - Badaling (69)Great Wall - Badaling (9)Great Wall - Badaling (4)

There is something about the location, the incredible beauty of the mountains, the gorgeous blue of the sky and the insistent presence of a serpent-like wall of stone tracing its way across the rock face that makes this irresistible. Knowing that what you are seeing is part of 6000km of wall (and nearly 9000km of defences if you include rivers and mountains that didn’t need a wall building) – earthworks that go back to 200BC (although most of the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty). In human terms the cost was incredible – around a million workers died during its construction.

Is it visible from space? Opinions vary – including a Chinese astronaut who bravely said it wasn’t – not even in low earth orbit. Apparently, it’s too narrow. Some reported sightings turned out to be rivers.. but even so, it is incredible, breathtaking in its scope and its execution. I know this isn’t original – I know it isn’t even in its original location… but it’s still unbelievable

So.. what was it like? Well, for some reason all the Chinese turn right when presented with the choice. That takes them to the more scenic section… but it is jam packed with tourists. Ignoring the steep steps (some of them 18” or more high) and uneven worn stones, or the fact that they haven’t built steps on some bits – well, the main hazards are: tourists that aren’t aware of where they are in relation to anyone else; tourists that are holding umbrellas; tourists with cameras. If you are really unlucky, you will encounter an umbrella holding camera wielding tourist with no awareness of the world around him. And a word to the wise… don’t wear a short skirt. I didn’t and I was fine.

Great Wall - Badaling (51)Great Wall - Badaling (12)

Great Wall - Badaling (76)Great Wall - Badaling (63)

So, having negotiated the crush of people, and made my way to the furthest navigable reach of the wall (at present – they seem to be continually extending it) I made my way back up the Heroes Path. The fact that there are street vendors engraving certificates may be some indication of what it’s like… and having made my way down it, I should perhaps have realised what it was going to be like. Well over 500 steep, steep steps, and sections of slope without steps that would have a cable car if it was America. I feel great overtaking the youngsters, until a snowy haired Chinese man who must have been at least 65 breezes past me.

I wonder if you can snowboard down it…..

Great Wall - Badaling (139)Great Wall - Badaling (138)Great Wall - Badaling (119)Great Wall - Badaling (106)

I find myself overcome with a hilarity and sense of fun that causes me to suddenly appear in other people’s pictures.. which is actually welcomed by the Chinese, who love having a slant eyed foreigner in their pictures (yes, they really do think that – it’s a question of perspective, isn’t it?). There’s something about where I am, and what I have experienced (and, possibly, a little exhaustion – I have been pushing myself today) that has induced a crazy levity.

The Chinese haven’t been totally kind to the wall – there are cable cars, which seem OK, but the theme park ride and the bear enclosure detract from the surreal beauty of the location.

Having done what feels like the tourist section, I proceed to the other half. This is almost deserted, and the people that I do see are mostly Westerners. And at 4pm, it gets even quieter… so still, in fact, that I can hear the voice of my soul speaking. I just want to sit there and experience the stillness, the peace, the beauty, the tranquillity. Travel guides suggest that maybe 3 hours is enough. I spent over 7 hours and still didn’t want to leave, just letting things roll through my heart, pondering the last 10 months or so, and deciding what will be different for me when I get back. And Tigger and Snuff get a few photos too – which succeed in making it even more unreal, somehow.

Eventually, I walk back to the entrance – but the deserted slopes of the section of the wall that I had climbed before seems to call to me – so I climb it again. I end up having my photo taken by a Chinese girl (and managing what starts to feel like a photo shoot for her) and a couple of photos with another complete stranger (his name is Wenxhiu Zhang, and he’s a farmer). The street cleaner leaps into action and takes a few more snaps (and then sells me postcards. Ho hum)

Great Wall - Badaling (112)An UK Teacher Tim and a Chinese Farmer Wenxiu Zhang 20110601@ The Great Wall, Beijing, China

Great Wall - Badaling (160)Great Wall - Badaling (155)Great Wall - Badaling (152)Great Wall - Badaling (147)Great Wall - Badaling (136)

But the tranquillity of the wall, the huge open space, the beauty of the countryside… the simple fact that I am in China, and standing on the Great Wall just fills me with a completely profound sense of total gratitude.

I went through some crap to get here – dreams and hopes that didn’t work out, tough moments that took me to the edge of bankruptcy, to the dark shores of despair, that nearly destroyed my faith.. and yet, as I have said before, without that, I would not be here. I would never have taken the decision to take a year out, and I would never have had the experiences that I have had. And so, yet again, I give thanks for the people that inspired me to take this step of faith – and to the One who made it all possible.

I have to say . . . this is an incredible life.


Race against time..

15 Jun

A couple of maps, just to show journeys in Vietnam and in China…. at least I have time to breathe in Nepal!!


Chau Doc – Saigon – Hoi An – Hue – Hanoi – Ha Long City – Halong Bay – Hanoi



Nanning – Hong Kong – Macau – Hong Kong – Shanghai – Beijing


Lhasa – Gyatse – Shigatse – Tingri – Everest – Zhangmu


Summer in the city

5 Jun


When it got too hot in the Forbidden Palace, the emperor, the empresses and the concubines all upped sticks and went to the Summer Palace. And I thought I might as well collect the last of the major sights of Beijing. There’s lots I haven’t done – but to be honest, I am feeling a bit weary of wandering round buildings, so perhaps a walk in the park would be a better plan. I hop a few trains to get here.. fight off the attentions of a very insistent tour guide.. and then wander round the palace.

Summer Palace (7)

Again, lots of Chinese just relaxing or on tours, with a scattering of western faces and the ever present Japanese.

But it’s a lovely location, and peaceful once I get out of the way of the crowds. I’ve only got a couple of hours before I need to get back and get sorted for the train this evening… but plenty of time for a walk round the lake. Somehow, it feels a bit like Wicksteed Park (Northamptonshire folk will know what I mean – Wickies used to be my back garden playground) with the lake, the boats, the arched bridges…

Summer Palace (2)Summer Palace (14)

Anyway, enough reminiscences. The souvenir vendors seem thicker on the ground here, but I avoid buying any fans, carved animals, strange hats, or false noses with party squeakers attached (the big thing in Beijing this year).

Summer Palace (10)Summer Palace (15)Summer Palace (26)


Mind you… I was a bit puzzled by the sign protecting this lion. Protecting the relics, I can understand… but protecting the railings…? Do we need railings to keep people off the railings?

Summer Palace (22)Summer Palace (23)

China In Your Hands….

4 Jun


So, what’s to be done here… well, there’s the Forbidden City for a start. It was off limits to everyone but the emperor and his closest servants for 500 years.. but it’s a gorgeous set of buildings that form the heart of Beijing. There’s no McDonalds (contrary to rumour – that used to be in Tianamen Square, just to the north of the Forbidden City) – but there used to be a Starbucks, now replaced by a local coffee shop.

Entry is through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, adorned with a huge picture of Chairman Mao, which occasionally becomes the target for vandalism… hence the security. Passing through the gate brings you into an open courtyard full of souvenir stalls, and then to the City proper. It’s all soaring rooftops and palaces with wonderfully lyrical names such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, or the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

Forbidden City (60)Forbidden City (59)Forbidden City (69)Forbidden City (72)Forbidden City (83)Forbidden City (88)Forbidden City (95)Forbidden City (106)

After a while, it becomes impossible to take yet another shot of a Chinese style roof that’s towering above me – so the Imperial Garden comes as a relief, with aging cypresses bound to force them into unusual shapes (like the Chinese word for ‘man’ – ren 人)

Forbidden City (116)

And perhaps it’s time for an interesting digression – the Chinese essentially think in pictures and concepts – each ‘word’ is a symbol. Complex words are made up of multiple symbols – so the Chinese character zǎo 早 is a composite of two characters – 日 (meaning sun) and 十 which means “first”. A literal interpretation of the character zǎo 早, therefore, is “first sun.” And zǎo does in fact mean ‘good morning’. Because the Chinese don’t need to go through the same process as us to translate letters into concepts, then their language is essentially visual, as opposed to ours, which is digital.

Anyway, there’s plenty to see – and then a chance to climb to the highest point of the Forbidden City. Beijing is essentially flat, and only recently has it been possible to build higher than the Forbidden City (by the emperor’s edict) – so anywhere high gets great views.

Forbidden City (6)Forbidden City (111)

The City also has a wonderful collection of old clocks, which used to fascinate the Chinese… there’s even one (made in England, as a lot of them were) with an automaton that writes Chinese characters when the hour strikes.

Forbidden City (3)Forbidden City (4)

So, after a few hours wandering the streets of the Forbidden City, I take refuge in Jinshan Park. The park is mostly a hill created from the excavations for the City moat. Marco Polo observed that the emperor would bring trees from around the country and plant them here. The views are fabulous, including the rooftops of the City just below.

Jinlan Park (7)Jinlan Park (10)Jinlan Park (12)Jinlan Park (19)

I finish the day off with a stroll through Beihai Park, the site of Kubla Khan’s palace, and the heart of Beijing before the Forbidden City was created. A peaceful place, mostly lake, full of artificial rockeries, temples, and pedalos.

Belhai Park (8)Belhai Park (14)Belhai Park (1)


Well, let’s leave Wednesday for another blog post. Who says these have to be chronological? I’ll just leave you to guess where I went on Wednesday…..


A bit footsore and weary, I eschew the opportunity to visit the Summer Palace, and opt instead for an afternoon wandering round the grounds of the Temple of Heaven.. where the emperor would come every year to pray for a successful harvest at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. If I am honest, I am starting to get a bit jaded with all the architecture! I have to play ‘match the symbols’ to work out what I have paid for entry to – check the ticket, check the sign at the entrance, see if they match.

7 Star Stones (1)Temple of Heaven (13)Temple of Heaven (23)DSCF5526

So perhaps it’s a good plan to go for some good old fashioned entertainment with a kung fu show at the Red Theatre. It’s quite an eye popping combination of martial arts, dance, aerial acrobatic and what can only be described as Shaolin breakdance from the younger members of the cast. The snow scene is really gorgeous, too – they’ve worked hard at creating a really good visual spectacle that rivals Broadway or Covent Garden shows. I’m starting to look forward to getting back into martial arts when I get back to the UK.Red Theatre (2)Red Theatre

So, on the lookout for food near my hostel, I find a sign that says ‘Spicy Snack’. Closer investigation reveals a serve yourself collection of skewers of meat and vegetables… choose what you want, hand it to the chef who will price it up, stir fry it and then hand it back in a thick sauce with one simple question ‘ how spicy?’. For $1.50 it’s a huge amount of incredibly good food.


In further search of gastronomic surprises, I rocked up at this lady’s little hole in the wall servery which is only open at breakfast time. As far as I can see it’s a pancake servery. I establish my order by holding up one finger and then nodding my answer to the only question (actually Chinese doesn’t have a real word for ‘yes’ –’yes’ is signified by repeating the question as a statement.. although ‘ah’ is quite a good alternative). So what eventually manifests is a pancake with fried egg and scallions, with a spicy ‘Yee-Ha’ to it…. and for 40c…?


Last day in China proper today – tonight it’s the 48 hour train ride to Lhasa. Thank God I have a bunk on this one….

There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing

3 Jun

Apparently. According to Katie Melua, although I have it on good authority that she didn’t count them. There are 17 million people here, or around 12 million permanent residents.. so I guess it’s plausible at one bicycle for every two people… Certainly there are lots of cycle lanes….


So, what shall we say about Beijing?  Well, I became a tourist when I arrived here. First stop, Tianamen Square. Which is, I have to say, a large area of open space in the middle of a city. It’s the biggest public square in the world, and the site of the democratic protests that produced ‘that picture’ of a student and a tank. It’s interesting, though, that the police aren’t interested in the tourists.. my bag makes it through without a search, but the Chinese have to submit theirs to an inspection. Everyone has to sling their bags through Xray on the tube though.

Tianamen Square (2)

Tianamen Square (6)Tianamen Square (11)

(Now, here’s something… many of the subway trains have a clear view through the drivers cab… which means you get to see what it’s like driving a subway train. I travelled on the metro a little more than I really needed to, simply because it was such fun to see the view the driver sees. Another cool concept that I haven’t seen anywhere else is a video screen on the tube wall that keeps pace with the movement of the train – so rather than posters that flash past, the posters stay with you. There’s quite a frisson of excitement though – apparently the Chinese authorities have stolen excerpts from ‘Top Gun’ and passed them off as Chinese military manoeuvres.)

But Tianamen Square is interesting, if only to watch the Chinese tourists wandering around – which is pretty much all you can do in a square. The Square is surrounded by museums and monuments, including Mao’s memorial hall (containing his mummmified remains – what is it with communists and mummification?) – and the old city gate.

Tianamen Square (7)Tianamen Square (14)Tianamen Square (21)

Now, one of the irritations of Tianamen Square is being approached by either young women or students wanting to go for a drink or a coffee. The hostel is full of warnings, but it didn’t stop one of the hostel residents falling for the ploy and spending 300 euros on a bottle of wine. I’ve learned to be polite but disinterested – it seems rude and unfriendly… but it’s safest.

I’m staying in a youth hostel (company at last!) in a hutong (a traditional street) that’s a little way out of town. The metro costs around 2yuan or around 25cents, so it’s not an issue. The hutong run east-west to satisfy feng shui rules.. they make for interesting little local societies – I’ve watched community tree felling and a community punch up while I have been here.

9 Dragons & Hutong (1)

Not sure what to do with the fire instructions though. I THINK they may have perfected teleportation.

9 Dragons (1)

And at the end of my hutong is the best cake shop in the world. Not only are the cakes good, but the coffee is excellent, and if you sit upstairs you either get the local ladies who lunch, or you get to watch the DIY cake decoration. The cake decorations, I have to say, are the best I have ever seen – a little bit ‘manga’ maybe – but very cute. Downside – a never ending torrent of C&W music with the occasional respite of Bon Jovi and the Goo Goo Dolls on a 60 minute loop.

Coffee Shop (6)Coffee Shop (5)

(this is a cake that looks like the cake shop)


I’ve spent a while walking round Wangujing Daije… which has ridiculously cheap food in amongst the designer shops and the McDonalds. I think I ate for around $1.  I gave the scorpions a miss, though – especially since they were still wriggling. And I went through 4 floors of a Chinese bookstore – which is quite surreal – so many books and I can’t read any of it.

Wangujung Daije (2)Wangujung Daije (3)

Again, Beijing feels like any other city. Sure, the writing is Chinese, and it’s a very young population – but it’s full of couples, of friends having fun… I’m not sure what I was expecting from a communist country, but apart from the red armbands on the volunteer security, the red neckerchiefs on the school kids, and the copies of The Little Red Book and pictures of Chairman Mao on sale – you could be in any other city in the world.


I was beginning to worry that I had no recollection of what I did on Monday… and then I realised that I had spent it running round Beijing like a lunatic trying (and failing) to sort my visa out. And I was worried I might have lost it in some alcohol or drug befuddled haze….

The Adjustment Bureau

1 Jun

Apologies for a blizzard of blog entries… so much to write about….

So… Beijing. First job… get my visa sorted out.

It sounds easy. Go to the entry-exit bureau with all the documents, apply for visa. Pick up visa, go to Tibet.

I haven’t factored Chinese bureaucracy in though….here’s my stack of documents . . .


(left to right – police report..train ticket..certificate of lost passport..emergency travel document..hotel residency certificate (Beijing)..hotel residency certificate (Shanghai)..Tibet permit

So, here’s how it actually goes down. Brace yourself.

I rock up at the entry-exit bureau confidently – it’s fairly close to the hotel (two tube stops to Yanghegong), but a bit of a walk from the tube station. The policewoman checks my documents, and all is in order. But can I get the visa before I leave for Tibet? ‘Ah, you will have to check with my supervisor’. Another queue, this one occupied by the harder cases so it moves s-l-o-w-l-y. When I finally get there I smile at the hassled supervisor and greet her with Ni hao– one of two Chinese expressions that I know. She examines my documents, and advises me that if I bring in the ticket for the train, she can try and get my application processed in time. Great! So, off to the travel agents – I need to go anyway so this is another job off the list.

Back down the tube line to Zhangzizonglu. Stop at the hotel to pick up directions. Back on the tube, this time to Dengshikou. Arrive at the travel agents location to realise that I haven’t got enough information to find the office. Back on the tube to Zhangzizonglu, back to the hotel. Copy the documents to my Kindle so I KNOW I have the details I need. Back on the tube to Dengshikou again, feeling slightly stupid. Find the right building. It’s obvious when you know what you’re looking for, of course. It even has the travel agents name in big 2m high letters on the outside. Get the ticket. Simple!

Back on the tube to Yanghegong. Walk back to the entry-exit bureau. Confidently, I present the ticket, hoping that she will be able to get something for me early.

At this point, the wheels come off the train. ‘Lhasa’, she says. ‘This is not the ticket I need – I need the ticket that you will use to leave China’. I explain that my plan is to walk across the border. No flight, no train, no ticket… just my feet.

‘We need a letter from your travel agent’, she says. I ask if an email will do – but no – it needs to have one of those magical Chinese official seals on it. But if I can get it by 5pm, they can do it. I stagger out of the bureau and back down the road, to be honest, a little disorientated…

So, back on the tube to Dengshikou. Back to the travel agents…. at which point I find out that the ACTUAL travel agents’ office is hundreds of kilometres away. There is no way they can get the right documents with the right seals to me in time.

At which point we hatch plan C. I will get my visa in Lhasa. I have no idea if this will work, but the travel agent seems hopeful. At this point, they can get me all the documentation I need.


I hope this is going to work… because the last thing I need is to take a 48 hour train journey to Lhasa only to be put back on a train to Beijing.

So far, though, things have worked out, even at the last minute. In many ways it’s been a journey of faith, trusting that I can get to the next part of the trip, trusting that something will open up to make the next step possible. I’ve had moments with only just enough money to make it through the day….and I have also had some wonderful friends (and family) who have helped me out when things got really desperate. I have had moments when I haven’t known exactly what happens next. But I am still here, still on the journey, still having fun, still smiling… and still learning and growing…

Beijing or bust….

31 May

So, after the tranquillity of the zoo, it’s time to get on the train again. Now, I’m actually a day late travelling to Beijing, simply because I couldn’t get a seat on the overnight train. And I can’t imagine a 12 hour overnight train trip standing up. It’s not going to be comfy, though – it’s back on the non reclining really hard seats.

I’ve been in a Tokyo rush hour… and it’s tame compared to the chaos on this train. It’s impossible to move against the flow of massed humanity that is a Chinese train boarding. Once we have people seated… then the rest of the rank and file find a space on the floor – on little folding seats, on the sink, on the waste bins, anywhere that you can find a little space. Now, I don’t take up much space now.. and the Chinese, as a nation, are fairly compact too. So why, why, why, have I ended up on a seat next to the Chinese equivalent of Jonah Lomu?

(By the way, sorry about the lack of pictures… I left my camera in my bag and I would have been crawling over the denizens of the carriage to get to it)

So, an interrupted night’s sleep, falling asleep to the sounds of Peter Gabriel (I’m using my MP3 player on ‘Album of the Day’ setting – although it gets confused when getting to ‘Have a Nice Day’ and crushes Bon Jovi and Roxette together in a confusion of a Swedish ‘Blondie meets Joni Mitchell’ and good old New Jersey blue collar rock and roll. I wake, reluctantly, but with a sore neck and even more uncomfortably numb backside, to the train soaring through a flat landscape with the occasional mountain rising in the distance, barely visible through the smog. We coast through the spectral beginnings of a new railway station, past a skyscraper farm (they build them a dozen at a time out here).

The track runs for ages past an immense yet spookily empty cemetery with piles of earth with cairns on top, wrapped in red ribbon. There are the now familiar regimented rice fields and flat pack construction villages, tidy orchards stretching from horizon to horizon. Eventually my MP3 player runs out of battery… and then we turn up in Beijing… the exit from the train is as crazy as getting on, so I simply wait until the chaos has faded.


Again, the metro makes it easy, and I find my hotel, ready to collapse…on the upside, things are going well for me – they have upgraded me from an 8 bed dorm to a five bed dorm, where I am in a two bed room on my own – which basically means I have my own room for $4 a night. Bargain….although I am not sure how to deal with the instructions on the wall….



I’ll think about those tomorrow….zzzzzzzzzzzzz


30 May

So, where was I? Ah, yes, Shanghai – and I had forgotten to tell you about the museum.

So, I did decide to go to the museum – they said it was good – and it’s free!

Shanghai Museum (2)Shanghai Park (2)

It’s a really odd building – modern outside but really quite traditional inside. I don’t usually ‘do’ museums (apart from the ones where you can play with stuff) but this one was fascinating – it’s open and light, and really well laid out inside. I was sad that the calligraphy section was closed (I love Chinese calligraphy) but there were some real joys to be found…

The history of Chinese seals (you always get one of these on a piece of Chinese art, and they are essential to the bureaucracy – as we will find in a later post)

Shanghai Museum (4)Shanghai Museum (5)

Beautiful jade pieces….

Shanghai Museum (9)Shanghai Museum (10)

Some wonderful dragons….

Shanghai Museum (19)

Interesting furniture….

Shanghai Museum (7)Shanghai Museum (8)

Some fabulous clothes from around China’s ethnic minorities….

Shanghai Museum (17)Shanghai Museum (18)

I did find one guy going from cabinet to cabinet photographing EVERYTHING…I don’t want to get invited back for his holiday snapshots photo evening..

There’s a collection of Chinese coins – although once you’ve seen the first few round coins with a square hole in the middle, it stops being quite so interesting.. although there are some early shells, and the axe shaped coins that they used to use (which probably made a real mess of your trouser pockets)

And this random collection of beautiful things…

Shanghai Museum (14)Shanghai Museum (24)

and some things that are not so beautiful

Shanghai Museum (21)

And here are some pictures from the main shopping street….

Shanghai Nanjing Rd (3)Shanghai Nanjing Rd (4)

Now, I think to myself….while I am in Shanghai, I might as well go to the zoo…they have pandas!

The zoo is great – of course, one of the great joys is watching the Chinese people at play… I saw a handful of Western faces and that’s all. It’s a huge open space too, so everyone’s having a really chilled time for around $4 entry. The Chinese don’t seem to understand the concept of ‘no feeding’ or ‘no banging on the glass’ though.

Lots of space means the animals get lots of space too, which is nice.

Of course, the huge draw is the group of pandas here. They have red pandas scurrying round – very inquisitive creatures…and cute! I think these are now my favourite animals ever!


and there are five Great Pandas too – for Expo 2010 ten pandas joined the zoo – and three of them stayed behind. So, panda facts – there are about 1600 of them in the wild in China, consuming around 15kg of bamboo per day. And they are near sighted…I kept exploring and I kept finding more pandas.

So we had pandas eating, pandas sleeping, and pandas wandering round…


Fabulous to be so close to these creatures. I’ve loved pandas for ages – my first cuddly toy was a panda called (creatively) Panda, who I still have – and for my 21st birthday my brother bought me a 4’ tall cuddly panda… I nearly gave him away when I left for this trip, but between my son and I we just couldn’t do it.

What else did we have.. bears, tigers, pumas, a really cool group of giraffes…. giant turtles and bonkers birds…


we had lions being cuddly and sociable…


…peacocks showing off… and an orang utan who was just plain chilled out..


I had very very tired legs at the end of it – but I did have a fabulous fabulous day!

Passport to Adventure

29 May

(it’s surprising what movie titles you can find when armed with access to IMDB – we could have had ‘The Yellow Passport’ from 1931 (appropriate, considering the colour of an ETD), or ‘A Passport to Hell’ (1932) (perhaps a bit defeatist), or even ‘Passport to China’ (1961), Passport to Rio (tricky with my flights) or 1922’s ‘The Missing Passport’)


So, no show from the mysterious (and really annoying) Jin. His phone is out of service now. So, armed with 1045 Yuan, I make my appearance at the British Embassy, where the really helpful Tania sorts out what looks like a play passport with my itinerary typed into it. I suspect she has provided as much leeway as possible for the arrangements, but I have to follow this pretty closely. At least I can get moving again. The next challenge is getting a train seat. Friday night there are no seats, and the prospect of an 11hour train ride without a seat horrifies even me… so I go for a really uncomfortable seat on the Saturday trip to Beijing. A bit late, but I think if I move fast I can do all I want.

So, what else is to be told about Shanghai. If it weren’t for pickpockets, I really like the city. Some of it looks like it was built by an unimaginative child with his first Lego set – but other buildings look like they were created by Pablo Picasso overdosed on acid and caffeine.


The walk by the river on the Bund is magnificent, although it’s even more fun watching the crowds with their cameras taking joke pictures holding up the pearl of the Orient tower (a radio mast). The buildings on the embankment (well, actually the river is higher than the street now) are like a history lesson – the original British Embassy, with allegedly the longest bar in the world, the Peace Hotel, buildings created with the express instruction to be taller than the one next door, the home of the Gang of Four, an odd signal tower…

On the way back from the entry-exit bureau I take a trip through the new Pudong area, the skyscrapers that you can see from the’s a green city full of trees and space – every now and again there’s a little garden for workers to relax in, wonderfully designed with water features and enclosed away from the roads. It’s just as well, because it’s crazy busy. People seem to move in waves of humanity. I feel like Neo in ‘The Matrix’ but without the woman in red. No, sorry, there she is. No-one waits for people to exit elevators or tube cars either.. it’s all barge and shove.


And still I get people engaging me in ‘copy watch, bag, iphone, ipod, memory card, massage, lady massage….’ – whereas elsewhere in Asia they just call out as you pass, here they leap out from behind buildings, fall in step with you and follow you up the street… a couple of them are getting wise to the cheerful Englishman who’s ‘quite happy just walking’. The seller of strap on skate attachments for shoes (like primitive heelies – did these come first?) ignores me now. But just how do Europeans survive if they live here? Do they just become immune to it all?  I ask a couple of touts if I there’s a secret to shutting them up. Apparently not.

I wander round some of the old town – tragically they are mostly converted to souvenir shops piled high with copies of Mao’s little red book.


And then I find my way to the oasis that is the Yuyuan garden. This is a 14th century Chinese garden in the middle of the city, a hamster maze of little buildings, pagodas and towers in amongst piled up rocks, carp ponds and bridges and surrounded by acers and ginko trees. There are gorgeous carvings and little tableaux on the roofs – just a wonderful and magical place even if it does seem to be full of businessmen looking to see something of Shanghai after work.


No apologies for the numbers of pictures of the gardens – I really loved this little tucked away place – I felt completely at peace, very much complete and whole. But if does occur to me that I should apologize to my mother for my grammar (a schoolteacher – what can I say?). Starting sentences with ‘but’ or ‘and’. Or ‘starting’ if it comes to that. Although I do try to keep my apostrophes under control. Sorry, Mum.

And then the Bund at night – another visual skyline shock of lights and tourists. The Pudong skyline is lit up, while the tour boats compete with each other – and with the buildings – for garishness… there must be 30 or 40 boats in procession up and down the river, each one lit with a million lightbulbs.


Now, this blog has got badly out of control in terms of time order (I may be losing the plot)… but I think I will talk about the museum another day. Oh… and Timmy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow…..

The China Syndrome: The adventure continues

26 May

I’ve just discovered they sell mango Cornetto in China. Mango! For 40c! Thank heavens I am leaving. They didn’t have THOSE in the UK when I left. (Did you know I used to design equipment for testing Cornetto cones for crunchiness?


So, shall we continue the story of the passport? Last night I travelled halfway across town to meet my mysterious benefactor, Jin. Unfortunately, Jin remained mysterious and did not show.. and neither did he answer his phone at all today. I went back again tonight, but sadly it seems he may just have been delaying me cancelling my passport.. he managed to buy an extra couple of days, I guess.

Or I may simply be being uncharitable. Did he lose the phone? Did he have an accident or a family crisis?

I guess I will never know – although my emotions have been all over the place today. To my shame, a tout on the street went too far and got an unexpectedly furious backlash. So, a visit to the British Embassy to get my emergency travel documents. Then I will go to Beijing, simply to get moving again. Then a visit to the entry and exit department in Beijing to get (believe it or not) my FOURTH Chinese visa. I need to make that happen quickly, but should be OK. Meanwhile, I will do all those things you’re supposed to do in Beijing.. I had thought about dropping in in Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, but I think that’s now ruled out. Then Tibet.. Nepal.. and India. India poses its own problems. I will need to get my Indian visa in Kathmandu..but India will only recognise the ETD once (i.e. on entering the country) so I will need another ETD to leave India. You couldn’t make this up. The alternative is to simply blow raspberries at India, and fly from Kathmandu to Mumbai and home.

So, where does that leave me? Well, still choosing Who I Am in response to this. It’s not been easy – trying to think through thoughts of forgiveness and harmony rather than anger and frustration –or despair and sadness. So I am going to carry on choosing..To remain . .

Calm. Joyful. Resourceful. Bold. Positive. Full of faith. Peaceful. Expectant. Excited. Determined. Flexible. In the flow. Accepting of myself. Forgiving. 

Beijing here I come . . . .

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