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  • A Chinese tour guide (Yen's Story)

    One of the great things about travelling is the people you meet. Across South East Asia, over many years, I have had the pleasure of engaging with and befriending people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. This experience leads me to think that there is little that separates the human spirit; the consistencies far outweigh the differences. As Yoko Ono famously sang ‘there may not be much difference between Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon if we strip them naked’. As part of my work as a tour manager and director of a travel company I  meet and work with tour guides, mostly young and enthusiastic men and women. They all display an interest for meeting people and sharing each other’s culture.

    In Szechuan Province deep in the south west of China I met Yen (Helen). Typically she is bubbly and entertaining, sharing her thoughts and personality with me and our groups that pass through the national park at Jiuzhaigou. This stunningly beautiful part of China concludes our Manchuria & Yellow River hinterland journey. Here you will find 100 turquoise lakes formed in a glacial valley where soaring mountains and massive pine trees dwarf the undergrowth of peonies and anemones.

    In a quiet moment Helen and I chat about our lives and work. She is eager to share her story. Starting life in a small village near Chengdu she is one of only three girls from her village who were able to escape the cycle of poverty to get an education. Her parents are rightly proud of her and she is deeply indebted to them for the opportunity they managed to provide at great personal sacrifice.

    She began tour guiding in May 2008, this coincided with the massive earthquake that shook Szechuan province and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. At the time she was escorting a bus full of Chinese tourists following the winding road through steep mountain country from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou. The earthquake struck and she watched in horror as landslides tumbled from above, giant boulders crashing into vehicles all around her. The bus immediately in front of her took a direct hit; all were lost in those horrific few moments. She can’t explain why they survived, wedged in between the chaos, people injured and dead. They were cut off and it took three nights for the emergency crews to reach them. They had little food and water and it did not take long to exhaust their supplies. Miraculously she survived however her parents saw the whole event as an omen – she should not continue to be a tour guide.

    After the earthquake rebuilding was tough; the grieving for lost loved ones tougher. She became a primary school teacher and in true Chinese tradition she did what her parents wished and helped support them in their village which had also been badly affected by the quake. After two years the call was too strong and with the blessing of her parents she went back to tour guiding and now hosts groups from all over the world. Yen’s story is one of hope, tragedy, then finally recovery.


    It snowed most of the day. A white cover across the mountains and grasslands of Gansu province here in north-west China. The unexpected wintery blast caught us all a little off-guard but made for spectacular viewing along the road from Xi He to here. We stopped a couple of times to take photos, thirteen Australians frolicking in the snowflakes. When we arrived in Langmusi we ate yak burgers at a café called Leshi’s owned and run by a tough looking Tibetan girl, who cooks out the back and rattles off a few English words. We eat heartedly as the snow falls, not quite settling on the street outside but covering the mountains and pine forest on the lower slopes. As I write sunshine is now filling my room, it’s late in the day. I can see blue sky making its way from the south-west and I hope it clears for tomorrow’s drive down to the national park at Jiuzhaigou. I went for a pleasant walk earlier today and discovered dry stone walls and tiny bridges over rapid mountain streams. Every now and then I could see the mountain range through the pushing snow storms. I passed monks and walked up small lanes to a house on top of a hill that had an outside Tibetan chimney blowing smoke from its fuel of barley husk and pine. A puffing monk came up behind me carrying some dried shrub and a plastic bag with his shopping. Inside the courtyard house was a bizarre menagerie of stuffed or taxidermy animals. Pigs, goats and sheep were hanging from the ceiling of the drying room; they had ribbons or perhaps prayer flags attached, moving slightly in the breeze.

    The weather has cleared beautifully and there is now the most wonderful evening light dancing on green valleys; monasteries and soaring snow capped mountains are everywhere. On tops of hills all around are wooden spears pushed together pointing to the sky like miniature rockets sending messages to the spirit of the mountain.


    Here in Shanxi province northern China, the sky is a greyish colour. This part of China is big on coal mining and power generation. There are coking factories, metallurgical coal refineries and coal-fired power stations everywhere, all spewing out clouds of white toxic gas. Clusters of chimney stacks reach out to the sky – sometimes six or more – like monuments to a long forgotten god. Around them, quite incongruously, are freshly ploughed fields, most preparing to plant their crops of wheat and barley, although there are stands of mature wheat, greenish in the murky sky. In the field a lone figure stands, the ubiquitous hoe his only accompaniment.

    I am driving the back way to Pingyao with my Chinese friend, no freeway here. Along the roadside it looks like devastation; an urban strip crumble of two story buildings, the lower floor to sell services to the huge red coal trucks that rumble past. Upstairs the aluminium framed windows are shrouded with colourless curtains. There is junk everywhere, people squatting talking on their mobile phones, and the men in suit jackets always smoking. The hard-looking women of this area with forearms like steel rods, toss out water from their doorsteps onto the coal-stained slush before retreating though grubby doorways. The big red trucks stream endlessly, even on this back road. There are smaller, puffing blue trucks with their engines protruding from a bonnet-less chassis, struggling up the smallest of inclines with their loads of pink bricks. Black smoke belches from behind. The Chinese driver, ever patient it seems, cigarette dangling, just thinking of the money at the end of the day when he can discharge his load then do it all over again. Plastic bags and empty cigarette packets tossed from a car window blow into the furrowed field.

    My Chinese friend offers: ‘This is an industrial area’. I remark: ‘You can say that again’. She says: ‘This is an industrial area’.


    ‘You don’t make any noise when you eat’, said my Chinese friend as we ate lunch. ` That’s right’ I said. ‘My parents insisted I never eat with my mouth open or, even worse, speak with food in my mouth’. ` Bad manners ‘, I said. She shrugged ‘It’s not like that in China’.

    Indeed it isn’t. For many foreigners travelling in China for the first time it comes as a shock to see (hear) the eating habits of some Chinese. Western sensibilities are quickly tested as the sounds of slurping, burping and spitting abound. In some restaurants you can expect a table of diners to be raucous to the point of noise pollution! The slapping of chops contributes to the din as the dumplings, stir fired cucumber and steamed buns disappear at a frightening rate. We westerner’s coir in the corner muttering to ourselves and wondering where there manners are. And that’s the point; the concept of western middle class public behaviour does not sit in the post communist period of China. Of course I am being general. If you wander down the Bund in Shanghai you may think you are in Milan or New York. At stylish eateries like` Mr and Mrs Bund ‘or `M on The Bund ‘it is new China ‘Chic’ at its peak. No spitting here.

    It takes a bit of getting used to when a Chinese friend gives you a big toothy smile with bits of rice wedged between their teeth and green vegetable hanging from the corner of their mouth. But you do get used to it and you do and in time begin to understand. Liberated from feudalism just 100 years ago China has endured a fast track growth from desperate poverty to become the second largest economy in the world. Will the Chinese adopt western behaviour and become just like us?  How knows, however, it can never be said that the Chinese don’t enjoy a good old nosh.


    A visit to Beijing is never complete without sampling Peking duck. Around the back lakes of Beijing there are plenty of restaurants touting their wares, so it was here that I ventured to find the very best duck in Beijing. Bright lights, music and a plethora of bars and restaurants edge the lake, but my destination took me underground, two floors down from a rather bleak passageway that amazingly opens to a restaurant reception area complete with glamorous Chinese girls and red and yellow happiness and longevity symbols.  These lead into a theatre that hosts small round tables with attractive nightlights. Chinese couples are sitting back enjoying the entertainment. Above them it’s like a Shakespearean style balcony where the VIPs look down to the stage. Here a series of performances rotate; an ebullient host introducing the acts that change from acrobats to magicians, to singers of Chinese pop. Alongside the stage are private rooms where we are seated and out comes the Tsing Tao (local beer), or for the brave, a bottle of Great Wall Red (it’s not that bad). The main course is duck and the presentation is part of the theatre. A chef resplendent in immaculate hat and apron rolls in with two ducks, cooked to perfection. First he slices the skin and it is served on small plates with an accompaniment of sugar. It tastes delicious and there is no holding back. During the first tasting I am entertained by two musicians playing traditional instruments and singing songs of the Qing dynasty. At this time I am feeling a little like the last emperor – indulged, entertained and fed. The flesh of the duck is succulent and comes with a delightful pancake, light and smooth, the consistency perfect, served with a brown sauce (a bit like hoi sin). You roll it up and down it goes.

    On stage a magician is performing tricks with ropes and knots as a phalanx of waiting staff, in a flurry of activity around the tables, serve more ducks, beers and rice. I leave slowly. Peking duck, at this restaurant anyway, is a total experience and also a reflection of the new China where people want to enjoy their food and entertainment as well.


    In the far north-east of China just a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border the industrial city of Harbin rises from the Manchurian Plain. It’s cold up here in the winter with the lowest temperature down to minus 20 degrees, cold enough to host the annual Ice and Snow festival that brings visitors from around the world to see spectacular designs of snow art. In the summer the days are mild and the city relaxes, and Goddard & Howse visit on our Manchuria & Yellow River Hinterland China discovery trip.

    Harbin has a colourful history that dates to the 1890s when the area was petitioned from the Qing dynasty by the Russian tsars to continue their railway to the eastern port of Vladivostok. The Russian presence grew substantially after the 1917 revolution as white Russians escaped to the east and apparent safety. Here they flourished as money poured in and the remnants of Russian aristocracy set about creating a little Moscow on the plains of Manchuria. The city was vibrant and during the Nationalist times in China (1912- 1949) Harbin held representation of 19 foreign consulates and quickly became the gateway for Europeans into China. There were regular society events including beauty contests, cabaret and music reviews run by Russian and Jewish interests, and Harbin society became notorious. It is said that some Russian girls would buy their clothes on credit and take them off for cash.

    Everything changed in 1932 when the Japanese invaded and the good times came quickly to an end. Many left for the safety of Shanghai and its cosmopolitan society to continue their business. Those who stayed became embroiled in the increasingly bloody anti-Japanese war (as the Chinese call it). Harbin became the centre for germ-warfare research by the Japanese with the establishment of Unit 731 – a top secret research facility that cultivated virus and bacteria for use on the battlefield. Many Chinese nationals were used as guinea pigs or ‘logs’ as the Japanese called them, in the development of these horrific weapons.

    By 1945 the Japanese had been defeated and the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai Shek stood just 30 kilometers to the south. They never entered Harbin; instead the city was taken from the north by the Red Army of the Russians, and the remaining white Russians were summarily rounded up and shipped off to Siberia.

    Now when you visit Harbin, the city is modern and vast, almost 6 million live here. In its heart you will find old cobblestone streets and art nouveaux mansions, St Sophia’s ‘onion‘church, sausage and bread in the markets, and local Chinese who speak Russian. The old days have gone but left their mark making Harbin a unique destination in China.


    In China there is a circulating joke amongst locals. They say the national bird is the crane. Commonly spotted on a water buffalo’s back and wallowing in the rice field, the joke suggests it is now the crane of construction. Sources indicate there are collectively more building zones and deployed cranes in China than the rest of the world combined. The fast growing building industry is matched only by the tourism industry as entertainment-starved Chinese find they have more free time and money to spend. The Chinese government was quick to recognise the potential of its fast growing middle class and across the country there are tourism projects everywhere. I call these projects the ‘old new towns’ or the ‘new old towns’, take your pick – knock down the old buildings and rebuild in the original way with a shopfront.

    In Lijiang in Yunnan province this 12th century town has been largely remodelled from original design, around a centre square, courtyard houses and narrow cobblestone streets. If you did not know you would think it was original. Here the Chinese tourists are thick on the ground showing off their designer brand sunglasses and jeans, spending money and taking photographs with their iPhones and iPads. They are all young and mostly childless. The narrow lanes of Lijiang are thick with revellers; the Chinese girls dressed ‘after five’ with high heels and coiffured hair. Each small shop sells the same thing, or at best a slightly different version of the same thing. Despite this uniformity and contrived environment, underneath you can still feel the pulse of this ancient caravan town and its sturdy inhabitants, the Nazi people. Famed for their conciliatory ways the Nazi men do not work. Their days are filled with games of Mahjong, smoking tobacco, playing music and writing poetry. The women do all of the manual work including tilling the fields, cooking the family food and raising the children. Their colourful costume includes a sheepskin apron with seven circular symbols lined across its rim representing the seven days of the week, the stars and the moon, the sun and the snow, reminding everyone how hard they work.

    Lijiang lies at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – the gateway to the high country of western China and the Tibetan plateau. It was once an important link on the southern Silk Road, and the major caravan stop for the Tea Horse trails. These fabled routes were essential to the expansion of the Chinese empire and provided local indigenous groups like the Nazi an opportunity to hone their negotiating skills. Tea from the southern part of Yunnan province would make its way through the town in tea horse convoys bound for Tibet. Tea was used as a medicine in those days by the local people. Starved of fresh fruit or vegetables at such high altitudes they used tea mixed with yak milk to balance their diet and reduce illness. Up there it was yak meat or yak milk for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    Lijiang remained a sleepy backwater in the far south west of China after the new China was born in 1949, and has only come to prominence since 1996 when an earthquake that killed almost 8000 people put this ancient town back on the map. Now Lijiang is a popular destination for Chinese and foreigners alike. The mix of the old with the new has a charm and appeal that is infectious. Visit Lijiang on our Old Burma Road journey departing on 2 October 2015.

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