Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Kunming to Guangzhou 2017

5 August, Golden Spring Hotel, Kunming China

We find ourselves in the little-known city of Kunming, in the province of Yunnan, as the result of our uncontrollable weakness for cheap air fares, courtesy of Air Asia X. Hot on the tail of a disastrous trip to South America, we probably didn't need too much encouragement to get back on a plane and head off ... "somewhere."

Silly as it might sound, "somewhere" was just where we were heading once we had locked in a couple of cheap return fares to Kuala Lumpur, our favourite entry point to Asia. A couple of beers later, we had decided on something a little different and a little off the Western tourist track - the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong.

So, after a relaxing night in our favourite airport hotel, the Tune at KLIA2, we continued on with Air Asia to Kunming, the only non-Chinese on the flight. We have travelled in China before so we were well-prepared for the pushing and shoving, the yelling at each other across open spaces and the overall uncivilised (by Western standards) behaviour of the Chinese. We weren't disappointed, but now, back in our hotel after our first day out and about in this tiny city (by Chinese standards) of 4 million people, we have adjusted. The Chinese have changed markedly, or the beer is kicking in and we are in a more mellow mood. The public behaviour of the good citizens of Kunming is far more civilised than we have experienced before in China. It could be the result of a public relations exercise evident all over the city promoting "Civilised Kunming", but it still could be the beer.

Our major task for today was to collect our train tickets for our overland journey from Kunming, through Guilin, to Guanghzou, with a couple of side trips. We pre-booked our tickets through a company called DIY China. We have used them before and we can't praise their services enough. For starters, they are partly Australian-owned, so for us there was the added advantage of being able to pay through Aussie bank transfers. On top of that, they provided everything needed to successfully navigate the maze that is the Chinese railway system, except for the instructions on dealing with the thousands of people in the queues at the ticket office! We should now dispel a couple of myths about the Chinese. Firstly, there is now some discipline in queues. We saw a queue-jumper yelled at and driven to the back by others who had just had enough, as well as ticket window staff who sent "jumpers" packing. The other myth that we have dispelled, having recently expanded our Mandarin vocabulary, adding "yes" and " no" to "thank you", was that next to nobody in this part of China had any English. Not true. We have been able to get by, even in some rather complicated circumstances, with a bit of sign language and the locals' basic English skills.

To us, this trip is an exposure to the "real" China, rather than what we have experienced before in more Westernized cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Xian. To do that, we are off on our own, using public transport and the railways.

Our starting point, Kunming, was a bit of a random choice, so we have been taken aback by just how civilised this 4th tier Chinese city is. Chinese cities are generally categorised in four levels, 20 million plus, 10-20 million, 5-10 million and less than 5 million. Yet here there is a skyline that would rival most large American cities, a well-functioning freeway system and a great public transport system. Not only that, as testament to China's claims to be addressing her pollution problems, the city is one big solar generator! Every roof that we can see from our hotel room has a solar hot water system fitted, the factories ringing the city, that we observed from the plane, are covered in solar panels and virtually all the motor bikes in the city are electric.

Aside from sorting out our tickets for the remainder of our train trips, we managed to squeeze in one tourist activity, the Yunnan Railway Museum. As usual, we learned a lot about the history of the area through the advance of the railways. French money and engineers provided the financial and technical backing for the construction of the then Tonkin (Vietnam) to Yunnan railway which opened in 1910. But it was the thousands of Chinese workers who really made it all happen.

Looking back on the way the scales of power were set in those colonial times, in comparison to today, the pendulum of history has swung and it is now the Chinese who have built the greatest rail network in the world and the Chinese who are financing the expansion of this network through South-East Asia and on to Europe through their "One belt, one road" project.

6 August, Golden Spring Hotel, Kunming

Kunming isn't an attractive city, although some of the areas we saw today were rather nice. Kunming is probably best defined as functional. Broad boulevards and a fairly extensive freeway system keep the masses of cars and buses moving, at least most of the time! Special lanes for motor bikes and push bikes assist greatly, although the common practice of zooming on to the footpath to avoid heavy traffic in the bike lanes can be somewhat disconcerting. All in all, Kunming City's motto. "Civilised Kunming" seems to be gaining some traction with the masses.

In the Metro we have noticed special, roped-off areas at normal carriage entry points, monitored by uniformed staff. It took us some time to realise that these areas are designed to train passengers in the appropriate etiquette for entering and exiting subway carriages. The normal practice in China is for entering passengers to barge through the just-opened doors, blocking those exiting. At peak times this can be a real problem on crowded Chinese Metro trains. The training is definitely having an effect, although there are always a few who haven't yet completed the curriculum!

Keeping with our theme of "going native", we ventured on to the Kunming local bus system today. Planning our journey was a real challenge because there are no maps available for Kunmimg's 50+ buslines. Nevertheless, we managed to find the right bus and actually catch it with not too much difficulty. No small feat when there is no English signage on the bus network. Our destination was the Yunnan Nationalities Village on the outskirts of the city. It was also the destination of what seemed to be half the population of Kunming. Our 40 minute bus trip cost us the princely sum of 2 yuan each (50c). This exorbitant sum was due to the fact that we had jumped on the "A1 Special Tourist Bus". If we had taken one of the several common buses, we would have done the trip for 1 yuan.

The village was a cultural Disneyland, featuring reconstructions of minority villages from the province, cultural displays of music and dancing rolling through the day, opportunities to buy and eat offerings from the various ethnic grooups, all set amongst lush tropical gardens.. We managed probably a third of it before we headed for the adjacent Yunnan Nationalities Museum. Not a must-see, but well-presented and free!

As with many of our travel experiences, particularly in Asia, the journey and what we see along the way is really what it is all about. As a couple of just a handful of Westerners in the crowd - we saw just four others -  we were constantly greeted with "hellos" from kids and adults alike. People smiled and waved, little kids looked at us shyly and broke into grins when we winked or smiled back at them. Another striking feature of the crowds around the village was just how gregarious they were. Invited up to dance with the performers at the many cultural events, everybody, from toddlers to grannies, joined in the fun. We haven't seen this side of the Chinese in previous trips. Perhaps it is just a part of the character of people from this part of the country.

We have wondered for some time why so many Chinese appear to be, in Western eyes, ill-mannered. We have a theory. As older folk ourselves, we pride ourselves in being able to cope with the rapid changes that we have experienced throughout our life time. But we have an advantage over Chinese people of our age or older or really even those somewhat younger. We have had a lifetime to adjust to change, having grown up with it. Imagine what a rural Chinese citizen, born in the years just after WWII, has been through - a Communist revolution, Mao's Cultural Revolution, The Great Leap Forward and the more recent, rapid growth of capitalism and technology. Those of us born into Western countries post-war have had 60 plus years to progressively adjust. Chinese of the same age, or older, or even those born in the 1960s, have had to, not only adapt to a whole new political environment, but also condense 50 years of change into a decade or so. Little wonder we see people our age struggling to use lifts, ATMs and subway ticket machines. The poor buggers are simply from another time. Their rudeness is more likely to be purely ignorance of the new norms.

So that explains the old folk. What about the rude young ones?

8 August, Dali Yunxi Boutique Inn, Dali

Our travels began relatively early yesterday. A little freaked by our visit to Kunming Main Station to pick up our tickets a couple of days back, we were leaving nothing to chance, leaving our hotel at 8:30 am to catch the 11:45 train. We made it, but as we sat in the waiting hall, we saw many punters who didn't factor in the incredible queues at the station's security check points and who, despite some valiant sprints, found the platform entry doors firmly closed. Although our train was a day train, the only alternative to "hard seat" class was "soft sleepers". We had one upper and one lower berth, which was fine for pint-sized Westerners but larger, economy-sized travellers are not adequately catered for! Even many of the newer-model Chinese males would have difficulty squeezing into a top bunk. These "newer models'"are generally 30% to 50% larger than their grandparents. Not surprising when  you see how they eat! We have been staggered by the servings they dish out for themselves at the breakfast buffet.

It is still summer holidays in China, so large numbers of locals are on the move. We purchased our tickets online on the day they were released, which is 30 days prior to travel, so we had no problems getting what we wanted. Given the tens of thousands of people streaming in and out of Kunming station, this was a good call.

Dali station is actually some distance from the Ancient Town of Dali that we had come to see. Our research told us that there was a local bus from the station to Dali Town. The chaos that accompanies Chinese travellers in a relatively small provincial "town" (Pop. 375,000) is something every Australian should experience at some time in their lives, if only to increase their appreciation of the comparatively civilised behaviour of Chinese Australians. Our native cunning, honed by experiences in other, similar situations, allowed us to rise above the yelling, pointing and pushing and jump on the first bus to pull into the bus parking lot, while our fellow travellers struggled with ports, sacks of Lord knows what and screaming children. The joys of carry-on only luggage!

The bus journey took more than twice the advertised 30 minutes because of peak-hour traffic. We think the driver leaning on the horn the whole way must have helped enormously! We have, until recently, been wary of bus travel in countries where we can't read the signage. What has made the difference for us lately is using the GPS on our phones to track our progress and estimate when we should alight.

The weather has turned our trip to Dali into a bit of a fizzer, so tomorrow we do it all again in reverse and take the seven hour train trip back to Kunming. From here on we are taking the CHR (Chinese High-speed Rail), so our journeys should be far more comfortable and definitely faster.

9 August, Golden Spring Hotel, Kunming

Our departure this morning was just as damp and miserable as yesterday. We had been admonishing ourselves for not planning for more time in Dali. As it turned out it was a good call. The weather was so bad that we would have had to spend the day in our hotel room.

But the trip was not a total failure.

It's not every day that we get to spend seven hours behind closed doors with a Captain in the PLA (People's Liberation Army) but today we did just that. We hadn't been arrested as spies or trangressed in any way at all. Captain Ocean (not a superhero character) - probably spelt Ochen - and his lovely girlfriend, Maggie, happened to share our compartment on our return to Kunming.  Maggie is a primary school teacher and spoke excellent English. Ochen was not so good, but with her help he was able to communicate effectively. We had an extremely entertaining and informative trip, with our greatest learning being that people really are the same the world over. We learned a great deal about Chinese culture and how it impacts on life in modern China from a young couple who were extremely open about their feelings about internal politics in China and its place in the world. Ochen was very professional and a couple of times chose not to comment on things we discussed. It was a rare opportunity for all of us to gain a real understanding of life in our respective, not so dissimilar worlds.

10 August, Moon Reflection River Inn, Guilin

We spent most of the day today on the train again, though this time it was on the CHR High Speed trains. For obvious reasons, the stations for the fairly new High Speed network are a long way out of the city. So we had long subway and bus rides to deal with at either end of our journey. We travelled over 1000 kms, with one change, in under six hours at a cost of about $80 AUD each. Our connections at either end, covering about 50 suburban kms, cost $2.20 each. The CHR trains were packed and one left every 10 -15 minutes. Every time we hear Australian politicians promoting high speed rail for Australia we just shudder. They have no idea!

Guilin is yet another city that we bet 90% of Westerners have never heard of. Like every other Chinese city we have visited, it is just amazing! Freeways, high-rise and traffic have to be seen to be believed! Our journey was uneventful except for a very hot wait for the number 22B bus from Guilin West station to the city. It has been 35C here for a few weeks. We are hoping for a change!

Our special reflection on Chinese culture for today is on Chinese eating habits. Put simply, the Chinese eat like there is no tomorrow and the bulk of their consumption seems to be carbs. Not so much just rice  or noodles, but deep-fried foods, packet chips and sweet bakery goods. The latter seem to be the latest big thing in the Chinese diet. In city centres there is a bakery almost every block and the crowds lined up for that deadly combo of sugar and carbs demonstrates the high demand. At our hotel in Kunming there was a table of cakes and sweet goodies at the entrance to the breakfast buffet. It required constant topping up!

China is not in the position of the US or Australia where obesity is a major problem, but it is a looming one, particularly among the young.

11 August, Moon Reflection River Inn, Guilin

Imagine Cairns in February, with the temperature hovering around 35C, 100% humidity and heavy rain broken by sultry breaks when the sun heats up the clouds just enough to make the humidity feel like 110% and the temperature 38C. Then add the sauna effect of high-rise buildings, wet footpaths and the constant threat of those silent killers - Electric Motor Scooters - and you get some idea of what this morning was like in Guilin. Trudging along the lakeside in the rain, through magnificent tropical gardens framing ancient pagodas, with a backdrop of towering karst mountains, we consoled ourselves with thoughts of how beautiful this city would be on any half-decent day, or any day other than today! So disillusioned were we that after several rounds of the floors of a beautifully air-conditioned department store we had Burger King (Hungry Jacks) for lunch! Shame... Shame. We are fairly sure that we have never eaten at Burger King before, but actually it wasn't all that bad, except for the fact that we are in China and American fast food isn't our idea of local cuisine, though the locals seem to have taken to it, especially the trendy young. Defeated, we sloshed on back to our hotel, cranked up the aircon to 17C and spent the afternoon doing the washing.

12 August Moon Reflection River Inn, Guilin

Becoming more confident by the day, we by-passed the day tour to the historic ancient river town of Daxu and opted for local buses for the 20 km trip through the burbs to this village that was once a major river trading centre. Alerted by our research, we walked around behind the main Guilin bus station to the "back lot", from where buses left for nearby villages. Flicking off the inevitable touts, we eventually were found by the actual bus driver and, after some unsuccessful haggling, coughed up our 15 yuan ($3) each for the journey. More than an hour later we were dropped by the main road with instructions, in Chinese, on how to find the village. Sustained by our breakfast of noodles and God knows what else, we walked through a few nondescript alleys and eventually found the village, at least the tourist entry point for the village - a square full of market tables and a nice, clean, public toilet.

The more easily accessed parts of the village streets were lined with the usual trinket shops, but further on, where the shopping interests of the local tourists were not so well satisfied, the village was pretty much as advertised - narrow streets, lined with a mix of two-storey old merchant houses mixed with smaller, more humble workers' dwellings.

The rain stayed away, but the alternative was stifling heat and humidity, forcing us to adopt what we call the Asian shuffle,  a very slow walking pace where the feet just clear the ground. The more out of the way parts of the village were populated by older Chinese men and women who seemed a bit overwhelmed by the crush of tourists, sheltering behind window shutters and greying wooden doors.

After an unadventurous lunch of an ice block and dried biscuits, we found our way back to the main road, just in time to board a bus, having been assured by the passengers that it was heading back to Guilin. We were pleased to learn that our fare was only 4 yuan each compared to the 15 yuan that we had paid on the way to the village, but as we got closer to the city, we realised that our bus was indeed going to Guilin, but not exactly our part of Guilin. Guilin is just a minor Chinese city, with a population of about 6 million, so it is easy to imagine just how many parts of the city we could be heading for. Luckily we were armed with our smartphone GPS and a good old paper map of the city and its bus routes. We were fine and managed to find our way home, two further bus trips later. 

15 August, Train D2965, Guilin to Guangzhou

A couple of long day trips out of Guilin have put us a bit behind with our blog. Our first trip was up the Li River through a spectacular, Karst-dotted landscape, reminiscent of Halong Bay in Vietnam. As usual, getting there was more than half the fun. The boat pier for the trip up the river is 20 kms north of the city, an hour and a half with traffic! Scores of buses disgorged thousands of tourists through a far from chaotic set of ticket gates that led to the wharf that was packed with large river cruise boats. Ours was an English language tour, so we had some English-speaking company for a change - a Moroccan couple, two young Germans and a family of French/Chinese Canadians. The Canadian family was interesting as the two boys, 10 and 8, spoke Mandarin, English and French. For the first time in many days, the rain held off for most of the boat trip and, even though the sky remained overcast, we had a great view of the spectacular Li River and the Karst pinnacles the seemed to go on forever. We had thought the 400 yuan each ($160 AUD for two) a little steep, but the trip was well worth it. One drawback was being left for three hours waiting at the disembarkation point, Yangshuo, for the bus back to Guilin. To make matters worse, the rain started up while we were killing time among the tourist stalls that lined every street of the town. A side trip was offered at an extra price, but the main attraction seemed to be the opportunity to have a photo taken with a water buffalo and a cormorant, so we had given that a miss.

Yesterday we scored a comfortable minibus with a reasonably good driver for the five-hour round trip to the Rice Terraces of of Longji. For most of the bus trip, the rain was torrential and rock slides and the rising river levels threatened to cut the road in several places. While the thought of spending five hours in a bus on rain-affected roads to see some rice paddies might sound a little crazy,  these rice terraces have to be seen to be believed. For almost 1000 years, the local minority group has been carving out these terraces on the steep slopes of this valley. Our day tour included something called the "Longhair Show". Unaware of the character of the local people, we were a little puzzled by what this might be. We were enthralled! We were greeted by a troupe of highly entertaining and exuberant ladies of all ages who performed some extremely lively folk dances. The highlight of the performance was the display of their long hair. The women cut their hair only once in a lifetime, at age 16. The hair they cut off at this point is saved and used as a kind of "hair extension" in their elaborate hairstyles.

We had chosen to add a return cable car ride to the top of the valley at 50 yuan each to our tour, which turned out to be a bargain. The fare on the spot was 110 yuan and, with the rain and mist closing in, the alternative of an hour's walk up to view the terraces and a 40 minute "slide" down would not have been a pleasant experience.

We headed back down the mountain in increasingly heavy rain. We had been told by our guide that the Li River was flowing so fast that small boat excursions had all been cancelled. The road had been cut up in many places by the bus and heavy vehicle traffic and, at one point, we were stopped by a rock fall. Visions of spending the night in our minivan flashed through our minds, but all was fine. Only in China! In minutes, a bulldozer arrived from nowhere and commenced clearing the road. Within ten to twenty minutes we were back on our way.

Chinese cultural note for today. Ever wondered how the Chinese can type on a smartphone or computer keyboard using a script that has many hundreds of characters that represent concepts rather than sounds? The answer is simple. They use Pinyin, a phonetic script that uses the Western alphabet to translate the vocalisation of the script to the Chinese characters. Confused? We were at first. The Chinese word for a station is "zhan" and it is pronounced fairly well as we would spell it using Western script. So, the Chinese type z, h, a, n and the device translates that to . Even more amazing is that Pinyin was developed in the early 1950s with the increased use of typewriters in China.

16 August, Zhuhai Special Economic Zone Hotel, Guangzhou

How more neo-Maoist can you get than the "Special Economic Zone" Hotel? Whatever the SEZ was 20 years ago, today it is just another thriving, enterprising part of the enormous city of Guangzhou. Classified as a Tier One City, Guangzhou is claimed to be highly developed and BIG. It is truly both. With the nearby metropolises of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, this conurbation could easily lay claim to being the biggest city on earth, with a population approaching 45 million.

The scale of the place is just daunting. Twenty million passenger journeys are made every day on the Guangzhou subway system. A few simple calculations will get you to the point where, in a year, the entire world's population could have made a journey on the Guangzhou subway. Frightening? Not really. It is only the third largest system, by passenger volume, after Tokyo and Seoul, and it works reasonably well. We grabbed a 3 day pass on arrival. After trying the ticket machines, which just wouldn't take our notes, we picked our passes up at the Customer Service window in our local subway station. For the princely sum of AUD$10 we can ride the rails for 72 hours. Trains are crowded all day, but at busy stations, doors open on both sides of the carriage, with passengers exiting one way and entering the other.

The pollution we experienced on earlier visits to China has not been so evident this trip. Today in Guangzhou we had clear blue skies in the morning, until the tropical haze closed in during the afternoon, making it hot and humid. There was none of the eye-stinging muck that we experienced in Beijing and Shanghai a few years back. Like many things in China, things are turning around. The West needs to recognise how difficult is must be to create and sustain change in a country with such a long history and tradition. The obvious economic change is well-documented, but the change in the people and their attitudes is not so well-recognised in the West. We see positive change everywhere. Simple things, like vehicular traffic stopping at zebra crossings, people putting litter in bins and our favourite, learning to be civilised in queues - still a bit of work to be done here - all contribute to, as the city of Kunming promotes, a civilised city. Next step is getting the motorcycle and bicycle riders to obey the same traffic rules as cars and trucks. Believe us, crossing at the lights, believing you have right of way and being assailed by bikes and motorbikes coming from all directions, is not fun.

We did a couple of historical tourist attractions today, focused around two major Chinese figures, Sun Yat-sen and the Nanyue king Zhao Mo. Those with even a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese history would have heard of Doctor San Yat-sen. Many, including us, may never have heard of Zhao Mo.

San Yat-sen was one of the three main characters in the complicated drama that resulted in the creation of the People's Republic of China. The others were Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek. The good Doctor, unlike the others, is loved on both sides of the Straits of Taiwan. Luckily for him, he died before the alliance that he had stitched together between his Kuomintang Party and the Communists fell apart. His Memorial Hall and statue stand in a beautiful park in the centre of the city. The hall has played a significant part in the history of the country since it was opened in 1931, just six years after Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925. For example, it was here that the Japanese general, Tanaka, was executed in 1947 for war crimes perpetrated by the Japanese in the Second World War.

When the foundations of an apartment block were being dug in the 1980s, the tomb of the Nanyue King Zhao Mo was discovered in downtown Guangzhou. For Chinese archaeologists, it must have been a Tutenkhamen-scale discovery. Thousands of articles of jade, pottery, bronze, gold and silver were unearthed, along with the remains of the king and fifteen attendants, who were probably sacrificed to assist him in his next life. We were able to go down into the excavated tomb, which was rather small and somewhat of a challenge for even the shorter of us, but well worth the stooping required. The items recovered from the tomb, displayed in the museum were just mind-boggling. Everything a king and his sacrificed servants, would need on their journey into the afterlife, including food, drink, chariots, tools, household implements - the list goes on and on - was buried with Zhao Mo. Yet another hidden wonder of China.

Today's cultural comment. The Chinese Emperors thought of their realm as the "Middle Kingdom". This myth was dispelled over time, as successive empires broke up and warlords took control of most of the country. Then, in the early years of the 20th century, Western powers carved out spheres of influence in China. In modern China, the notion of the Middle Kingdom has probably been reborn, but with a lot more of a realistic foundation than before. The Chinese Century is coming, if it isn't already here.

18 August. Zhuhai Special Economic Zone Hotel, Guangzhou

With a couple of fairly adventurous days under our belt, we are planning a sedate Pearl River cruise for tomorrow, our last day in China.

Yesterday we found the number 63 bus and headed off into the vast 'burbs of Guangzhou to find the Baiyun Mountain Scenic Area. Our routinely thorough research and preparation got us to the Cable Car Station that accesses the mountain with consummate ease. We favoured the Cable Car option to get up the mountain, given that it was again in the mid 30Cs and extremely humid. Also, the 25 yuan fare made it a no-brainer. We were fairly early, so the usual crowds of grandparents and kids being entertained for the summer holidays were not yet out in full force. The views from the top of the mountain would have been spectacular, except for the smog that hung over the city. We have to say that smog in the south of China is nowhere near the levels we have seen in the north.

We opted to walk the 3.5 km down the mountain and, despite the heat, it was a pleasant, mostly shaded walk through beautiful tropical gardens and forest.

Now comes the part where things got a little messy. We had foolishly assumed that the return bus would stop across the street from where we got off. There was no bus stop in sight, so we started walking back along our original direction of travel. We walked and walked and... no bus stops at all. Eventually we changed course and found a stop that had about half a dozen buses listed on the board, with all stops  in Chinese! This was the outer 'burbs and with no likely-looking English speakers in sight, we returned to study the route board and noticed that there were Metro symbols on some of the stops. Saved! We found the rough location of a Metro stop, using our GPS and got off. On the way, we also spotted a nice fruit shop, where the young lady spoke reasonable English. Where was she when we needed her?

Our suburban wanderings had taken us into some very  culturally diverse areas of Guangzhou. Africans and Middle-Eastern people were everywhere, a most unusual sight in China. We guessed we had stumbled upon a university area of the city.

Today, it was with some trepidation that we set off on probably our greatest challenge in China to date, an overland trip to Kaiping, 160 kms to the south of Guangzhou. We were seeking diaolou, iconic watchtowers that were built by Chinese returning home from the mid 19th century gold rushes in the USA and Australia. About 1800 diaolou remain today of around 3000 that were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

We had done extensive research on this trip, because it was in a fairly remote rural area and it involved several bus and subway interchanges. We set off early on the subway to the Fangcun Bus Station, on the southern edge of the city Here we purchased tickets to the city of Kaiping (58 yuan each). This was the easy part. Following a two hour bus trip we then  had to find the number 17 local bus to get us to the Li Garden (Li Yuan in Chinese) and the village of Zili. None of the buses we could see in this fairly large station had the number 17 on it and none of the stops was labelled as 17. Eventually an attendant pointed out the correct bus bay, for bus  617, not 17. Apparently all the buses operating out of Kaiping now have 6 added to their number!

The number 617 driver was most helpful, even pretending to understand our attempt at the Chinese for our destination. For 40 minutes we bumped along with a dozen or so locals, who were highly amused by the antics of one gent who got on the bus with something bound up in a fertiliser sack, not an uncommon sight on rural buses. We think he was telling all and sundry that he had his wife in the sack and he was off to dump her somewhere. The tale was re-told everytime a new passenger got on and the whole bus laughed and giggled all over again.

The driver let us know where to get off and pointed us in the direction of Li Garden, about a kilometre up a side road.

The Li family returned to China after making their fortune on the Californian gold fields. Generations of the family moved back and forth between the US and China until the 1940s The gardens are beautifully laid-out and well-maintained, as are the diaolou that the family built

The village of Zili was easily accessed via a free shuttle bus that runs between three of the sites in the area. Today it was not heavily used. We were the only tourists on the bus and the only Westerners we saw all day. Most of the locals had their own cars or were on tours.

For our return trip, we got the shuttle driver to let us off on the main road to catch the number 17 bus back to Kaiping. After some initial confusion about which side of the road we should wait for the bus on, we were on our way. Note: Rural Chinese bus route signs need to be treated with caution. They are routinely the reverse of how we would show a bus route in the West.

Back in Kaiping, we negotiated the ticket purchase with minimal difficulty and were on our way back to the Fangcun Bus station and the subway home.

As it turned out, things went very smoothly, but we need to give credit to the author of the web site, (insert web site reference). Their directions were near perfect.

Today's cultural note. It has to be said that the Chinese central and local governments are really trying hard to ensure more civilised behaviour in their citizens. Everywhere we have been on this trip we have seen posters and video messages emphasising "civilised" behaviour. It is working, but changing the habits and attitudes of 1.4 billion people doesn't happen overnight. Western countries need to reflect on just how uncivilised some of their citizens are before they criticise China. 

19 August, Zhuhai Special Economic Zone Hotel, Guangzhou.

Encouraged by our recent successes in navigating the more remote by-ways of Southern China, we decided to spend our last day on the Pearl River. River cruises are available but, as with most tourist activities in China, they can be a little costly. We knew Guangzhou had a public ferry system, so we decided to chance our hand. A short stroll from Beijing Lu metro station, saw us at Tianzi  Ferry Wharf. As usual, we were flying blind when it came to reading the signs and maps around the small terminal. What we could see was that the fare was 2 yuan (40c) for an air-conditioned "liner" and just 1 yuan (20c) for a non-airconditioned boat. Our 4 yuan tinkled into the collection box with no further debate. There seemed to be two or three distinct waiting areas. We just headed for the first seats we spotted, a habit quickly acquired in China. Within minutes, a River Cat-like ferry pulled in and we leapt to our feet to be first in line (another habit quickly acquired in China!) No. We were waved away. This was obviously not our ferry. Our second boarding attempt was more successful and we dived down to the "special" air-conditioned deck, to be confronted by a riot of tiny Chinese children under the not too strict supervision of their grandparents. Not only that, but every seat was taken and the air-conditioning was struggling against the heat generated by the scores of excited children.

We had no idea where we were heading, but it was a jolly cast and crew and we figured for under a $1 for both of us we could take up a spot on the outside deck, probably the 1 yuan cabin and enjoy the view. And a spectacular view it was.

Guangzhou has a reputation for innovative architecture and many of the best examples line the river. The sheer scale of the skyline is impressive on its own, but throw in some truly bizarre structures and you have one of the most interesting big city skylines we have seen.

A few stops into our journey, the reason for all the excited little people became evident. Half our complement disembarked, sporting rubber rings, flippers, kickboards and water pistols. A water park. As the last grandparents prodded their exuberant charges out the door of the 2 yuan deck, we moved down to grab a seat in the hope that the air-conditioning might now catch up. But no, there were enough hyped-up littlies and fan-waving oldies left to keep us sweltering.

Soon the second attraction of our mystery voyage loomed on the southern bank of the Pearl - the Canton Tower. Looking like a large, twisted white musk stick, the tower is something every city that doesn't have a ferris wheel "Eye" seems to need to compensate. It was hot and the crowds were gathering, which would undoubtly involve queues, so, noticing a subway entrance, we dived into the cool of Guangzhou's wonderful, fully air-conditioned metro system.

We counted our mystery river tour a great success. A forty-five minute river cruise on the Pearl River and a visit to the number one Guangzhou landmark, the Canton Tower, for under a dollar for both of us was a fine finale to our travels through the three southern provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guandong.


Forty years ago, as we drove through one of the worst European winters on record in our little Fiat Bambino, with one of us 5 months pregnant, we had no idea that we would still be adventurous enough in our advancing years to be revelling in the thrills of travelling independently in more and more countries that nobody then even imagined visiting. Back then, we would never have even considered China. Five years back, in 2013, we took our first tentative steps, with a couple of weeks spent in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. In 2014 we went to Xian to visit the Tombs of the Terracotta Warriors, then by train to Beijing and beyond, across central China to Mongolia as the first leg of a Trans-Mongolian/Trans-Siberian adventure that took us by train and bus through to Amsterdam.

Back this time on a whim, driven by cheap airfares, we felt a little more confident and more understanding of Chinese ways. What we didn't expect was just how developed even some of the more remote cities, towns and villages of China have become. Modern highways, great communication infrastructure, a rapidly improving standard of living - that for many is approaching or exceeding Western standards - and finally, the High Speed Train network that is by far the largest in the world, have all contributed to making China the powerhouse it has become.

All this is amazing, but China will always struggle with one simple thing. It is crowded. And as more and more of its citizens flood into the scores of mega-cities, the pressures on delivering services will remain a major challenge - not an insurmountable challenge, but one that will test the ability of a system that has come a long way in giving its people increased freedom, but now has to manage their expectations of higher living standards as well.

We see happy, mostly well-off people wherever we go in China. In the countryside, what would have historically be known as "peasant workers", may still struggle, but we still see many villages where multi -storey family houses have replaced mud dwellings that now house live stock or have become storage places for grain.

The key observation is that China is changing and developing way more rapidly than many in the West believe. This is a ship that won't be turned around. The 21st Century will be the Asian Century, led by China. Get on board because there isn't another boat coming.

Kunming to Guangzhou 2017

5 August, Golden Spring Hotel, Kunming China We find ourselves in the little-known city of Kunming, in the province of Yunnan, as th...