Throw away the three pairs of long johns that have been adorning our legs for the past 3 months, get out the dumplings, hand out your red packets, hang up your lanterns?. HAPPY NEW YEAR! Third time lucky? the European New Year, Russian old new year and now the Chinese New Year. We have finally arrived in the Spring City ? Kunming, in time for the Spring Festival! It is the first time in 3 months that we have seen temperatures over +10oC and we are presently enjoying day time temperatures of +25oC and evening temperatures dropping to +18oC. It is a hard life walking around in shorts and t-shirts!! Anyway back to our adventure?
Lanzhou ? Tianshui - Hanzhong ? Chengdu - Leshan ? Emei - Mount Emei ? Zigong - Xiu Xong - Kunming
27th January ? 8th February 2005
Our interview with Ganzhou television and Lanzhou television went very well with us pushing our charities and raising awareness within China ? Save the Children and IFAW have a presence here but we also helped to raise awareness for the Land Mine Association. Greg had had a heavy night the previous night and so didn?t want to show his white pale hungover face to the 150 million people! From Lanzhou we drove to Tianshui with a little three hour stop off for a land slide that had blocked the main road. We had to wait for two hours before they blew it up with dynamite. Due to the landslide we had to travel in the dark ? always a bad idea ? especially in China where everyone drives without headlights or headlights on high beam! We travelled up into a mountain range in the dark and we were warned of snow and ice lining the road. We were stopped by enterprising business men on motorbikes insisting that we rent their snow chains?it was definitely too dangerous for us to drive down! We ignored them? we had driven across Russia, Kazakhstan and most of China without them. Just to be on the safe side though Tom and Adrian ran in front of the Beast for 5km on the downhill stretch to ensure that we drove the part of the road with the most grip on the sheet ice. No problems and no sliding! Jimmy, our guide, sat in the back terrified!
From Tianshui we passed through quiet villages and horrendous potholed gravel roads with chickens, dogs, pigs and children flying past. Around lunch time we passed through a village that had their weekly market on so we decided to stop for some lunch. We parked the Beast at the far end of the main street and wandered off for some food. Adrian was enveloped by a crowd of small children when he bought his food and on our return to the Beast there were more than 50 people standing around the Beast asking questions and practising their English. It is strange to think that in some of these villages we are the first white, non Chinese people that some of these people have ever met. We pushed on to Hanzhong passing through more small poverty stricken villages with maize and chillis hanging from doorways to dry for the more desperate periods of winter.
We arrived in Chengdu in the Sichuan region and wanted to head straight for the nearest Irish Bar ? the Shamrock on the advice of 3 Irish men whose diary of the same route we have been following as our bible for roads and sights ? but we were slightly hindered by not having a hotel booked and no hotel that we tried accepting foreigners (there are tourist hotels in China that have to be registered before they will accept foreigners). We eventually reached the pub and met the owner, a mad Spanish manager, a few ex pat teachers and a Dolly Parton look a like that ran a brothel. We dragged ourselves home at 5am after a visit to the night market (every Chinese town as a night market ? a food haven where you can buy noodles and shish kebabs at any time of the morning). We paid a visit to Chairman Mao who watches over People?s Square with almost a nazi salute and enjoyed a rickshaw ride around the square with Adrian attempting to take control of the bike and failing ? those rickshaw riders have strong legs.
Chengdu is most famous in the animal world for the Panda Research Centre which is located outside of the town and is dedicated to the research and saving the species from extinction. We got to see the ancient but rare Giant Panda (fossils shown to have dated back to dinosaur times) and the rare Red Panda having a light Bamboo lunch; a privilege when there is only 1000 left in the wild. The pandas are hindered in their breeding success rate through the male having a penis too small for the female!
Leshan is home to the Grand Buddha ? he sits looking over the Min River, hidden from view unless you walk to see him or get on a boat as we did. The Grand Buddha is 71m high and is now the largest stone Buddha in the world as the Afghani Buddhas were blown up in the 1990s by the Taliban. Construction was started in 713AD and he took 90 years to complete, his ears are 7m long and you can picnic on his big toe ? it is 8.5m long!!
Leaving the Grand Buddha we decided that we should stay in Emei, 40km to the west. We drove around the town looking for somewhere to stay and spotted a sign for a hotel with hot springs? we indulged in some food in the 5 star resort (a meagre #15 a night each) and relishing the positive air temperatures before plummeting into the yellow sulphurous pools of hot spring water pumped from 8km away and enjoying a few too many beers. It was in at the Emei Hot Spring resort that Alexis received an email from LRM ? Land Rover Monthly requesting an interview about the Beast and our adventure? so get your copy for May booked now!
From the Emei resort we took a two hour bus up into the rugged UNESCO protected Emei Mountain range, passing through mist drenched quartz, karst limestone and granite geological formations to a point where a guard blocked the road and insisted that the bus put on his snow chains. We climbed up to a height of 2500m. Daylight was closing in on us when we got to the base of the cable car station and the temperature had dropped to a numbing -3oC. Our sole intention of going up into the mountains was to stay in one of the monasteries that line the path to the top of the mountain. When we got off the bus we were inundated by people who said that the temple that we intended to go to was too dangerous and we would have to stay at the anonymous hotel next to the bus stop. We had met an English teacher from Beijing who was travelling around China with his Chinese friend, both called David and they were both intent on joining us on our adventure 7.5km down the hill to the Elephant?s Pool Monastery. Jimmy got very scared for our safety when the hotel manager insisted that we would die if we followed the clearly marked path down the hill and started pulling us all to the hotel. With the backing of David and David we set off down the hill, only after we had been forced to buy crampons that tie on to your shoes with string. It was truly an adventure as we walked past snow encrusted trees with ice frozen onto twigs and wind chill icicles frozen onto the ice. We felt quite safe as we had enlisted a guide, we had crampons and David (English) was a mountaineering cameraman. Jimmy however was still not sure and lead the way fumbling in the darkness until he slipped down several steps vanishing into the blackness when his crampons came off.
The icy walk down the hill was worth it when we arrived at the monastery to be confronted by the laughing fat Buddha and some monks dressed in grey. After a delicious meal consisting of bamboo shoots, the spongy gelatinous bamboo centre and bamboo slices we headed to bed. It wasn?t the most of luxurious of places to sleep with external temperatures being the same as the internal temperatures, -5oC and the most comfortable of way to sleep was with your hat completely covering your face. The electric blanket gave some respite but not a huge amount. Breakfast the following day showed the surrounding scenery ? wow? we were sitting in the clouds with icy pinnacles of limestone poking up through the mist. The local monkeys come to ascertain if there is anyone to rob of their food. We trudged our weary legs back up the hill to get to the top where we were told by other people coming down that we had a chance to see the top ? the first time in 4 months. We walked up to the cable car and stood admiring the scenery below; a sea of clouds with mountain ranges poking up.
We got back on the road stopping at Zigong and Xiu Xong. With the impending Six nations games (rugby) it was considered necessary that we get to Kunming in time for the 1am kick off. So we left Xiu Xong at 6am anticipating arriving in Kunming for at the latest 10pm. After voyaging up into misty mountains, down into river valleys, through dangerous bends with heavy lorries on the wrong side of the road, over gravel potholed roads and down beautiful straight motorways with no street lighting with the contra flow traffic on your side of the carriageway travelling at 80mph towards you, we arrived in Kunming. We had travelled a distance of 880km over 22 hours and still missed the England ? Wales match!
All the time that we are driving we have been keeping a worrying eye on our fuel and the lack of lead additive that we have. Since Europe, those we have asked have been unsure as to which fuel is leaded or unleaded which is not very useful when your engine pinks and will eventually start knocking and lead to complete engine failure without lead in the petrol. Alexis?s dad came to the rescue again! He made enquiries as to sending some additive to China. With the bad experiences of Russia and Kazakhstan, sending it by DHL seemed the only way to get it through. They refused to even think about it due to the hazardous content but eventually came up with a price, to send 4 bottles, to China of #360!! Alexis?s dad sent them by Royal Mail snail mail to Kunming for #17 and they arrived in one piece 15 days later, enabling us to complete our journey at least to Australia!
As we have been travelling so much we have been avoiding stopping for food to save on daylight hours. All of us have lost weight with Alexis losing almost a stone, Greg almost 2 stone, Tom a stone and Adrian seems to stay the same as he eats for lost time!
Since we arrived in Kunming we have been indulging in the festivities of the Spring Festival watching the fireworks and firecrackers fly up into the sky. I will leave you with some information about Chinese New Year, before we head off to the south to the Chinese Asian Elephant Reserve and into Laos.
Chinese New Year traditions
Chinese New Year is the lunar end to the year and the start of a new one and is the time that families to get together so there are many people that travel around the country during the 9 day holiday. There are some traditions that are celebrated and practised by the Chinese:
- The Chinese zodiac system consists of twelve years with each year having a different animal each year: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake horse, monkey, sheep, dog, rooster and pig. The strongest animal is the dragon and then the tiger with the snake as another strong animal (a small dragon!). The sheep and the pig are the weaker of the animals. This year is the year of the rooster (or cock!).
- Couplets are written and placed at either side of your front door.
- New clothes and hats are worn during the spring festival
- Dumplings are eaten at 12. The dumplings symbolise money and are a good sign for making money in the new year.
- Fireworks and firecrackers are often used as part of the celebrations.
- Red hair bands are worn
- Setting off firecrackers at 12 well in fact whenever anyone is awake.
- Cash gifts are given in little red packets
- In ancient times no one could make food for the 10 day period so a lot of food would have to be prepared before.
- It is popular to get married during the Spring Festival period.
A little note for our Chinese friends, there is a slight censorship of our webpage access here in China ? we have had no problems in other countries. Apologies ? your photos are on there, if you want copies of them we can email them to you.