Shanghai and Guilin


After the Yangtze trip we shimmied down to old Shanghai.  First stop the elegant Museum and a trip around a fascinating collection of paintings, furniture, old money, porcelain, early BC bronze artifacts, jades and jewellery.    Porcelain from the Ming and Qing Dynasties looked as fresh and perfect as when it was made – any time around 1644.  We were so impressed with the sheer mastery of working with clay and glazes combining them into elegant, understated beautiful objects. 

Shanghai is the nearest to Singapore we saw in China.  A population of 13 Million lives in this city of huge coloured skyscrapers of various shapes and heights.  Everywhere evidence of the old, poor housing being torn down and replaced by high-rise flats and shopping malls.   More green spaces and flowers, less bicycles, lively crowds and if you had to work there … the best jobs must be in construction!  Shanghai has been an important port for centuries and along the waterfront Bund sit large, heavy, solid, classical buildings erected in the early 1900’s by various countries holding trading concessions with China.  On the other side of the river looms the Oriental pearl Telecom Tower in all its garish grossness (11 pearls!) and innumerable other new skyscrapers indubitably of the 21st Century.


Religion was banned during he Cultural Revolution but now a sense of freedom pervades.  In the Temple of the two Jade Buddha we were told they had escaped destruction by the Red Guard by being packed into wooden crates decorated on the outside with pictures of Mao Zedong!   The Temple was crowded with local people intent on personal prayer, lighting incense sticks in the huge black metal troughs, wedging money into cracks and crevices of the various Buddha tableaux and generally milling about.   The air was heavy with smells, the paths were crowded with people and there was a group of women carefully folding gold paper into lotus shapes, apparently for burning in some ceremony later.  It was a living temple and not just a tourist attraction.  I found it a stimulating experience but Mrs PC told the Guide that she  “had felt embarrassed intruding on peoples’ prayer”  All a question of perspective!  (You can be sure that I took an opportunity to tell the Guide, in Mrs PC’s hearing, how I felt about the visit!)


Another visit in Shanghai was to the Yu Gardens.  Not at all what you expect with an English background!   It was reached by a zigzag bridge over a large pond with a traditional Tea House in the middle.  There were actually 15 zigzags but it was called the ‘9 Zigzag Bridge’ as 9 is a more auspicious number!   The Gardens are a mix of greenery, walkways, typical Chinese summerhouses, symbolically shaped stones and tourist shops!   But it was so different from bustling, busy Shanghai – peaceful – well, it would have been but for the other visitors!  

Right outside the Yu Gardens are the most wonderful street stalls and shops selling everything from art materials to watches.   Here was a place to bargain and I loved it!   Tables of watches have always been my delight – and here were Lolex, Clartier, Longines, Lado and all the others with the sellers ready to whip out the latest catalogues to show how good their copies were.   I fell instantly in love with a classic Longines and haggled with great gusto, meanwhile attracting a small, fascinated crowd, until we reached agreement on an extravagant £4.00!   Having got an idea of how low to start, I then bought a ‘silver’ Rolex - Oyster Perpetual for £3.00 and an evening Rolex for Phyllis for £5.00!    (The starting price was around £11.50!)   Brian was keen to get two watches: a black and gold Rado, as Mrs PC had one, which she just had to make sure we knew was a real and expensive one, and a watch with a picture of Mao on the front, his arm continually waving in salute.   But his bargaining skills are too pathetic, he pitches his first offer so high the stunned sellers offer him “two for that price, Sir!”


With no time left to go back to the Hotel to change, (much to Mrs PC’s revulsion!) we had an unmemorable meal before attending an acrobatic show.  Delightful and exhilarating to watch the sheer agility and enthusiasm of the tumblers, balancers, acrobats, contortionists, plate-spinners, magician and the roaring finale of a massive wire ball with three motorcyclists zooming round inside with heart-stopping accuracy.  The bus driver took us back to our Hotel the ‘long way’ and we drove along The Bund with its bright street lamps and golden lights on the staid old colonial buildings, contrasting with the varied shapes and brash colours of the high-rise 21st century Shanghai across the river.  A magical way to finish the evening. 


Another flight, this time to Guilin.  All the internal flights have been on time, clean, efficient – most impressive.   Guilin greeted us with high humidity and a day temperature of about 40°C.  It is surprisingly green in Guilin, plenty of trees, bamboo stands, planted flowerbeds and attractive walks along the Li River where little humpy bridges criss-cross the streams and but for the heat, it’s all very lovely.  Small bamboo and wooden craft sit patiently waiting for passengers to sit idly in wooden deckchairs and be punted down the river.   A couple of cormorants sat idly by the water and flopped in to keep cool while patiently waiting their turn to show off superior fishing skills.   All very relaxing.


Not only is this hot day country, this is hot food country.  Here in Szechwan most of the dishes we are offered at meal times do a good job of nose-clearing, eye-watering and vicious throat paring!  They look and smell good, but we all develop delicate portion taking!  

Our local guide had obviously been doing the same job for a few years so had some well-worn phrases that we were about to get to know rather well.   “Thirty three thousand, three hundred and thirty three hills and a da mountains!”   Guilin is a geologically unique area, full of visually incredible Karst hills and mountains.   “Location, Formation, Imagination” - the Chinese habitually give imaginative and symbolic names to every hillock: Five-fingers Hill,  Dragon-head Hill, Green Lotus Peak, Penholder Peak, Nine Horses Cliff, Dragons Playing Water, A Boy worships Buddha, Reflection of Yellow Cloth.   We ran out of imagination.  But they provided inspiration for poets and artists for centuries.  We couldn’t appreciate the Chinese poems but we saw plenty of the dark, weird, unbelievable paintings – and understood their inspiration.  

Included in our visit to hot and humid Guilin was a day trip on the Li River where  ‘The hills are like emerald hairpins   And the water is a winding beautiful jade ribbon”  

Reader, it was beautiful.    

The water was shallow and clear; the hills were like fairytale peaks, lightening in colour as they faded into the distance; the surrounding fields were green and fertile; idle water buffalo looked at us through long lashes; small semi-naked children played in the shallows, ducks dabbled and sitting prettily along the banks were small pastoral villages.    The problem, if problem it was to others, was the number of tourists being ferried back and forth along the jade ribbon.  Ours was one of dozens and dozens of boats honking their presence and full of camera clicking cruisers.  It quite detracted from the expected dreamy, inspirational and artistic experience.  Somehow we’d envisaged gently drifting down the river on a small Chinese craft without the intrusion of so much commercialism.   How did it develop to the point where the dining room on the boat was lit by chandeliers?! 

In the evening as the light faded we went back down to the river for the Cormorant Show.  Even this  has been commercialized.  Yer pays yer money, yer gets the Show!   This time the boat had been adapted with wooden benches down the sides and it set off down river accompanied by a fisherman on a bamboo raft with his 5 cormorants.  Each bird had a string around its throat and a string around its foot and as soon as we were moving he released the leg string and pushed the birds into the water.  Zoot, they were gone!   We could just about make out the one albino cormorant as it snaked through the water but gradually our eyes became more accustomed to the night and the birds began to show their skills.   The tightness of the neck string allowed the birds to swallow tiddlers but as soon as they caught anything biggish the fisherman unceremoniously hoiked the bird onto the raft, left it there choking for a while then grabbed it by the neck and reverse-thrust the fish into his basket.  Who’d be a cormorant in Guilin?!


Who’d be a tiger or a bear either?  

On returning to the airport we added in a visit to the local Tiger and Bear Park.   A monstrous entrance flanked by huge painted cement tigers and bears and a mission statement painted on the wall proclaiming their intention to raise awareness of animal welfare, preservation and conduct a breeding programme.   Through the entrance was a wide tree-lined path flanked on one side with a huge acreage of grass, lake and black bears and on the other huge cages with indolent tigers lying in the grass under the shade of their trees.   Each of the enclosures had up to three magnificent tigers in them, one of the rare white tigers was cooling off in his bit of river.   There were also breeding cages – we saw an attempted bonk, but it was too hot for much effort! 

Our guide called for us to make haste to an area where they have a show.  A large round cage with ominous trappings of a circus and tiered seats for the audience.   On came 10 young tigers and 2 young lions.  Men cracking whips got the animals to ‘perform’’ by fear.  We sat with little enthusiasm for the spectacle in front of us – thoughts of animal dignity and rights never far away.   But it was when we saw that every one of these lovely young animals had had their canine teeth filed to nothing and the emergence of round red balls for the tigers to balance on – we quietly wandered away from the stand.     Next to the cage was a large oval arena, the rear of the track hidden by shrubs and plants.  Marshalling in the background we could see ostriches, bears, a camel, horses, water buffalo.  Ominous.    The show transferred to the arena and first a group of young men raced horses around the arena – without stirrups.  Then about twenty young black bears were paraded around on their hind legs, grotesquely clothed in dresses and feebly hitting  half of a cymbal tied to their wrists against the other half that was tied around their middle.  Each animal led by strings through the nose.   More parades of animals – the young tigers, water buffalo, camel and ostrich more bears and all the while a young Chinese girl was shrieking amplified comments to the audience. 

A tawdry, grotesque exhibition that sat uneasily in our minds with the ‘mission statement’ on the outside wall.   Again, we left discreetly (or not so…)  

At the end of the show we were again called over by our guide, “This will be interesting for you – here they are training tigers for return to the wild – very interesting.”    In a large fenced enclosure a young water buffalo was investigating his territory, walking up and down and occasionally, realizing that he was in an enclosure running at the wire fencing.  Languidly pacing on the other side of the fence were 4 adult tigers, they knew what was to come.  Sitting on the fence high above the tigers a keeper opened a gate and released two tigers into the enclosure with the water buffalo.  It didn’t take many strides before the tigers leaped on the water buffalo, immobilised him and started tearing at his flesh.  We left abruptly, the cries of the distressed animal haunting our ears for a long while after.  

What was this place?  

This wasn’t entertainment. 

We walked back towards the entrance past cages of baby bears and tigers.  What future for them?


On the way to the coach we passed two more enchanting little diversions for the public:

1.  Dangle a piece of apple on a fishing line – to feed (or is it tease) the bears. 

2.  Dangle a live frog, tied by one back leg, on the end of a fishing rod line to make the alligators snap!


We’d seen enough!    It was time to fly home.

But I don’t want to leave that as the last impression of China. It is but one facet of a huge, varied, cultured, beautiful and fascinating country.



Previous page      Return to main page