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China: East of Sweden

15 May 2008 - 10:12am -- Joseph

Last week we returned from a three week (ish) tour of China. We had an a great time; obviously China is an amazing place and we got to see many of the well known attractions, but also we had an excellent group of people on our tour. We all got on really well, a lot of time was dedicated to the British and American contingent introducing the Scandinavian section to some niche words and phrases in colloquial English. In return, the Swedes taught us how to complete a Rubik's Cube and serenaded us with with close-harmony renditions of Abba's back catalogue.

Everyone's a winner.

Leading this rabble around was our unflappable tour guide Frank, who got us everywhere on time, unharmed and with a minimum of fuss; Frank, you're a star.

Frank also made sure we ate well in local restaurants; all the food we had was uniformly amazing, the only exception being the one night we chose a place and ordered without Frank. This was early on and we learned our lesson, in fact I'm thinking of ringing Frank to order for me next time I go to a Chinese restaurant in Oxford.

Culinary highlights included dog hotpot, chicken's feet, cold donkey, some amazing prawns, excellent meat skewers in the Muslim quarter in Xi'an, the Peking duck in Beijing and many other dishes and places too numerous to recall, let alone mention...

We got up to a lot, here's an attempt to mention the highlights:

Hong Kong

Landing in Hong Kong was memorable, though not exactly a highlight; the scariest landing I've ever had in a grade 3 typhoon. They started diverting flights shortly after we landed. Once there though we had a fantastic welcome from the Ip's, Hev's friends in Hong Kong. They put us up, wined and dined us, and tricked us into eating Ox tripe, so I can't thank them enough (apart from the Ox tripe), thanks guys!


Cycling through stunning countryside around Yangshuo was great (you know those tall, rounded mountains you always see in Chinese ink paintings? Hundreds of them, we cycled among them and climbed one). Yangshuo itself is a small town, very pretty but also pretty touristy, we gave us an opportunity to brush up on our haggling skills. We considered ourselves pretty good hagglers after much practice in Cameroon, but Carol in our group was the queen of haggling; watching her in action is quite something...

We also saw a show performed on a lake, with spotlit mountains as back drop, that was absolutely stunning. It was essentially a Chinese opera; naturally I didn't understand a word but it was utterly captivating. I think it was directed and/or choreographed by the guy who was the choreographer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and who is directing/choreographing the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics this summer. 8/8/8 - remember the date, it should be worth a look.

The three gorges

The obligatory visit to the Three gorges dam was a little dull, partly because it's a very large and unattractive lump of concrete and partly because they don't let you on it. The cruise along the river was cool though, apart from the tour guide on the day boat, who talked rapidly through a distorted megaphone non-stop for five hours, saying very little of interest. The woman barely paused for breath, and when we had a half-hour stop and she could take a break, what did she do? Talked on her mobile...


Xi'an was fantastic, it's a beautiful city; tourism has protected many of it's landmarks from redevelopment. We cycled the city wall, visited the bell and drum towers (I beat a drum, Heather struck a bell) and visited the market and mosque in the Muslim quarter. we also walked the streets for two hours trying to find a cashpoint that would work, only to learn latter that our card had been cancelled after the first time we withdrew cash in China. Note to self: tell your bank next time you're leaving Europe...


Shanghai, to be honest was a bit disappointing. The problem with Shanghai is that everyone has this romantic image of Shanghi in it's decadent peak/nadir and unlike places like Paris or Barcelona, there's very little evidence of that past... We did go into the former HSBC building (still a working bank, though not HSBC) which was impressive to see, all brass, leather and tiles, but mostly Shanghai is a crass monument to the pursuit of money. WE did have some fun though, we went to a Karaoke bar, a pokey place on a dodgy street with the worst toilets I've ever seen (and I 've seen some holes in my time...). Whilst there we drank rice wine, which was the closest I've come to drinking petrol, after which Ed and I performed as Liam Gallagher and Miss Piggy duetting on Candle in the Wind. It had to be seen to be believed, but better not head at all... (come on our pig)


Beijing was interesting, though the political sensitivity of much of what we saw, coupled with it being our final city before we all parted company and returned home made it less enjoyable for me than much of the rest of the tour. This is unfair on Beijing really, as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall are both quite spectacular, I was just on no shape to take it in (The Forbidden City in particular is just hard to to take in, though Hev did better than me, having read several novels set there.)

In between all these cities we rode night trains, which were an experience in themselves; the carriages are like long thin dormitories and the toilets somewhat rudimentary... We drank beer, learnt the ways of The Cube (Rubik's) and Shaun entertained us and the locals on his acoustic guitar that he's been carting around south east asia (hope it made it back in one piece Shaun!).

All in all we had a brilliant time, our group was fantastic, so much so that I've finally relented and joined Facebook so I can stay in touch with them all.

Finally, for the sake of name-checking tour in-jokes that I haven't managed to shoehorn into the post thus far, I'd just like to say:

"Brain-dead reindeer"

"Tom, put some clothes on"

"rules dwarf"

"Where's Joe's"

"Would you like to see the menu, your majesty"


"Is it just me?"

There, I'm glad I've got that off my chest...

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