Li River

The hotel beds in China are thinly disguised floorboards – I have to make myself into a sausage roll with duvet pastry in order to be able to sleep. This morning it is misty and grey for my Li river cruise. The landscape is one of Slartibartfast’s finest – limestone outcrops (karst) in the shape of snails or horses or dolphins or woman with baby on her back or clutching hand, dotted about like a sculpture park. The local tourists were glued to their iphones or tablets but I just stood on deck for 3 hours feeling overwhelmed by beauty, oblivious to the rain and wind.

Li River

Li River

Karst

Karst

We arrive at Yangshuo and head down West Street, home to a ribbon of tat-erias with the odd jewel thrown in. Most interesting is the handicraft shop selling work by the ethnic minorities – the Miao and Dong peoples, who are in much the same state as others around the world – by turns marginalised, romanticised, disenfranchised, patronised and held up as symbols of human rights magnanimity by the ruling elite. They produce intricate and numinous textiles, in spite of it all.

The Li River Retreat is my home for the next couple of nights. My gorgeous room has a balcony overlooking the river and the mountains and is disturbed only by birdsong and crickets. I shared a glass of wine or two with a couple of Aussies who I met on the boat and who are also staying here. It’s great to have some company – so far I have been the sole European/English speaker. Peter has fluffy Pooh Bear complimentary slippers from his room, while I only have standard issue plastic jobs. Am I a second class citizen? Should I get over my slipper envy? I think I might need a little lie down.

View from my room at Li River Retreat

View from my room at Li River Retreat

I’m reading “The Magnetic North” by Sara Wheeler at the moment. I’m thoroughly enjoying her mix of travelogue, science, history and ethnography of the Arctic, but it is also reminding me of the context of Dad’s youth. He was born in 1914 and in the ‘20s and ‘30s the papers would have been full of Mallory’s exploits on Everest, aviation feats and endless attempts to reach the North Pole. It was an age of adventure and exploration. It wasn’t just Dad’s duty as an officer to escape from the Japs: he was a mountaineer, he’d been learning to fly, he was a fearless rider – he wanted an adventure! He must have been happy as a pig in muck to be striking out across the unknown interior of China in wartime.

Danxia

Danxia Shan (rosy cloud mountain) Geopark received world heritage status in 2010 but you’ll be hard pressed to find it on a google search. It is the most amazing mountain range of sandstone outcrops – the several hundred metre high remnant of a landscape that has otherwise worn away. Where the terrain permits there is subtropical forest, now providing safe haven for numerous endangered animal and plant species. We took a cable car to the top and surveyed the scene, before strolling along a contour to a lookout pavilion. The authorities have worked hard to create weatherproof walkways, kiosks selling drinks and toilets along the way. Too sanitised for the intrepid hiker, too brutal for the environmentalist but great for the average punter. You could hike for days in the protected area and it looks good for climbers too.

Danxia landscape

Danxia landscape

The route down was little short of a cliff, with steps that made the Peak Tramway in HK look like a gentle incline. P1030161

On the way we spotted a Tung Oil tree in full bloom – Dad mentions these beautiful trees in his story and one of the reasons I wanted to come to China in spring was to see them. Some things haven’t changed in 70 years!

I was also taken to see the ‘male’ stone and the ‘female’ stone. These alarmingly anatomically correct rock formations may attract the attention of the ‘lewd police’ so I’ll leave them to your imagination.

Tung Oil Tree

Tung Oil Tree

At the bottom of the mountain is a lake, which we had to take a boat across. I was expecting a motorised ferry but in fact I was delighted with a small boat (capacity perhaps a dozen passengers), poled by a strong young man. My guide told me that this is the traditional style and I think it may be similar to Dad’s experience of being poled up the East river in a sampan. The poler stands at the rear facing forwards and has two long oars that cross in front of him. He gets into a rhythm of shifting back and forth on his feet (positioned as if taking a stride) and with a straight back, using his whole body, he could probably continue for hours, as Dad describes.

Lake in Danxia Park

Lake in Danxia Park

It has been a very enriching day. As we were speeding back to Guangzhou on the train at 300kph, we passed farmers ploughing their fields with buffalo. It’s like being in parallel universes. Onward and upward – I flew to Guilin and am settled in to the Guilin Park Hotel by the river.

HK – Shaoguan

Public transport in China is very efficient, from checking in, to on-board uniformed stewards bringing you free bottles of water, to getting through customs and immigration. We proceeded through the New Territories at a stately pace, which was convenient for those of us wanting to study the topography. Of course, it is largely built up now, with utilitarian tower blocks everywhere (unexpectedly, after we crossed the border into China the tower blocks had more of a nod to the aesthetic, with different colours or decorative balconies or other such flourishes). However, the hills remain resistant to development. How Dad and his colleagues managed to make their way through these very steep sided, scrub covered hills at night without serious mishap is a mystery. He complains that one of his companions had ‘no night sense’ and was frequently stumbling. I have some sympathy for the poor chap!

There was a moment’s panic when my guide, Nancy, was not at the meeting point, but it turned out to be a misunderstanding of the term ‘ground floor’. I thought I was at ground floor as people were going out and driving off, but there turned out to be another ground floor at the level below. Anyway, we had a quick tour of Guangzhou, which is the capital of Guangdong province, with huge skyscrapers and wide boulevards to prove it.

Guangzhou

Guangzhou

The high speed rail terminus is about the size of Luxembourg, but we eventually found our platform for the train to Shaoguan. We reached speeds of over 300kph, apparently slowed down since there was a massive crash of a train travelling at over 500kph some years ago.

Guangzhou South Station

Guangzhou South Station

The Japanese occupied China from 1937 and in 1941 they took over Guangzhou. The Chinese administration transferred to Shaoguan as temporary provincial capital. I’m guessing that that is why Dad came through here. He describes his journey to Shaoguan in the back of a truck, packed in like sardines with 34 others and their luggage, with no window and “to add to our comfort about 50% of the other passengers were constantly car sick”. At least the journey only took two days.

Shaoguan welcomed me with another comforting, familiar presence – rain. We went to the confluence of two rivers where I imagine Dad might have been staying for 10 days on his “floating house of delight”. Rather appropriately there was a symbol of love on the promenade.

Shaoguan

Shaoguan

I was then driven to Nanhua temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in China, founded in 502AD and patriarchal monastery of the Chan School. Over the centuries it has been in and out of use, and is currently enjoying revival and restoration. It is in the most beautiful setting, surrounded by forest and hills and with pools and fountains to create a tranquil mood. We were lucky enough to arrive during prayers and the monks were chanting to drums and bells.

Nanhua Buddhist Temple

Nanhua Buddhist Temple

Tomorrow we visit Danxia mountain, which is a world heritage site. To take advantage of this newly acquired status a large hotel has opened nearby, which I am staying at. The room is spacious and comfortable and the toilet is western. Sadly no-one speaks English and the TV has no English channels, so the international clientele may fail to flock. Worst of all are the house rules – number 5 states:

“lecherous acts, prostitution, drugs taking and trafficking, smuggling, gambling, wrestling or any other outlawed activities are strictly forbidden”

So what CAN I do then? I’m rather pleased with myself for having 2 conversations in Mandarin. Admittedly they were short, but I managed to score a couple of bottles of water from a shop and explain to the receptionist that I can’t speak Chinese and learned that she can’t speak English. In spite of the utter foreign-ness of it all, I feel completely at home here. I love the scenery, feel very welcome and even though I am stared at a lot (not my incomparable beauty, rather my tallness, whiteness and curly hair) they stare like children do, with no judgement.

Blogless

It turns out that blogging in China is a little difficult. Internet access is restricted to the sites that the authorities think are acceptable. Apparently blogs are potentially dangerous so I can’t log in or access my blog in any way. At this moment I am using someone else’s computer that has VPN which transfers the connection to the USA, bypassing Big Brother.

So, I am writing my blog in Word and will upload it all in due course. I didn’t know about this problem and you can’t buy VPN in China so I’m stuffed. Anyway, suffice to say that I am having a completely brilliant time, hiking in amazing mountains (Danxia Mountain near Shaoguan), sailing down the Li River at Guilin, cycling round the astonishing Karst landscape at Yangshuo, taking a bamboo raft down the Yulong river (more intrepid than it sounds – you have to sit on a lightly lashed deckchair on a raft made of 10 bamboos strung together, while the raft gets pushed down a slipway, to get from one section of river to the next). Tomorrow I have a long drive to the rice terraces at Long Ji.

Apologies for not anticipating this little hiccup. I do get emails so you can reach me that way if you want.

Lamma

Having had enough of skyscrapers, shops and subways, I decided to take the ferry to Lamma Island, where my sister Kathy (1951-87) lived for a year or two in about 1980. She always chose the most low rent district to live in, wherever she was, and I was curious to see whether this was similar to the more dire parts of Cairo/Edinburgh/London. Lamma is utterly gorgeous! There are no roads, only tracks, and it is a green, hilly, haven of peace just half an hour from the madness of HK city, via a ferry that costs £1.50.

Yung Shue Wan harbour

Yung Shue Wan harbour

Everyone walks or cycles to get around. I took a trail between the two main villages, through shady groves and up and down the hills. How dreadful to find myself at an unpopulated sandy beach, with a turquoise sea and warm sunshine, and, worst of all, a cocktail bar! With Christmas decorations! I tried a Lamma Mamma, which consists almost entirely of vitamin C with a splash of vodka to sharpen it up a bit.

P1030110

A kite circled more or less over my head as I paused to enjoy the view. It is the strangest thing but these birds make me feel that I am not alone – they are a sort of comforting, familiar presence watching over me.

P1030113

When I reached Sok Kwu Wan village there were more kites, a heron and an egret, possibly because of the fish farming in the harbour!

The Chinese like their fish fresh (still breathing ideally) and each harbour front restaurant had tanks of live fish, crabs, lobsters, squid, prawns, sea snails, clams….. I had lobster for lunch – nice chap, very attractive purple eyes, seemed a bit quiet. Tasted delicious steamed with garlic sauce.

Nice to (m)eat you!

Nice to (m)eat you!

I headed back to HK and decided to do the uber-touristy Peak Tram. This is an insanely steep, ludicrously expensive, 6 minute ride up The Peak to where the rich folk live. The view was marred by smog and there were ‘12 caverns of tat’ to fight your way through to get out, so all in all, not brilliant.

And tomorrow I go to China. I’m feeling more relaxed about it now – HK is a good introduction to the Chinese way, but with translation into English to make it easy. I’m over the jetlag and my gut seems to have surrendered to the local flora and fauna without too much of a fight. I’ve reread Dad’s escape story and can’t wait to get to Shaoguan tomorrow where he spent ten days on a floating brothel (unintentionally!).

Good advice in any language!

Good advice in any language!

Jenny

During the war and when he returned to HK in the 1950s, Dad had a Chinese interpreter to help him communicate with his local troops. This afternoon I met with the interpreter’s daughter, Jenny, who met me at the hotel. We did a bit of shopping, took the Star Ferry for a sunset ride to the Island and then went for a wander round Soho.

P1030091

There followed a very long walk in search of a bus stop, a very short bus ride and then another wait for a taxi to take us to a place dear to Jenny’s heart – a karaoke bar. I had, until that moment, spent a lifetime successfully avoiding amateur singers (except drunk ones, obviously) but it seemed my luck had turned. There were several performers, a couple quite good but one who apparently sang Danny Boy, in English, but sounded more like badly oiled brakes being applied. Jenny sang several songs. I think I’ll stop there.

Me and Jenny

Me and Jenny

I pleaded jetlag and sped home on the good old MTR. It was wonderful to meet someone who has such a long connection with our family and I am only sad that the interpreter himself is no longer with us.

Stanley

I went to Stanley, on the south side of the island, with Georgie Hunt, a Shropshire friend who now lives here. Once you are away from the north coast you get into lovely hilly, verdant country and the pace of life slows to the comprehensible.

Stanley

Stanley

We visited the war cemetery at Stanley and I found the grave of one of Dad’s colleagues, who he mentions in his story of the battle. The poor man, George Neve, died in January ’42, having been wounded in battle at Aberdeen in late December. I don’t suppose the healthcare in POW camp was up to treating wounds or fending off infection. On further investigation I find to my horror that wounded men in Stanley hospital were often bayoneted to death by the Japanese. Man’s inhumanity to man is unbearable.

George Neve's grave at Stanley

George Neve’s grave at Stanley

Most of the graves were for young men who’d died in the last 2 or 3 days of the battle. One can’t help feeling that they died in vain. They may have had a better time of it than those who were imprisoned, however, many of whom did not survive.

Kowloon

I’ve transferred to the YMCA – I took the tube (MTR) to get there which was quick, easy and cheap but involved rather a lot of stairs, for an old lady with a heavy suitcase. I also went over to the Intercity station to collect my ticket to Guangzhou, to suss out the lie of the land. I must say it has all been easy peasy so far. The YMCA is next to the Peninsula Hotel but about a quarter the price – my single room is great and is en suite. This place would not suit those who do not like lifts (you know who you are) – every building is a skyscraper and climbing stairs to the 12th or 25th floor is not really an option with luggage.

I went into the rather disreputable Chungking Mansions to get some Chinese currency. It is described in my Lonely Planet guidebook as a ‘huge, ramshackle, high rise dump’ with ‘a peculiar odour of cooking fat, incense and sewage’ – top tourist attraction then! Anyway, it has the advantage of having about 20 bureaux de change next to eachother, forcing competitive rates. Bizarrely the entrance is on the main shopping street in Kowloon, sandwiched between Rolex and Gucci (or similar).

In the evening I watched the harbour light show – all the main skyscrapers on HK Island light up to music. It was a really rather lovely sight. I’m not a huge fan of cities but this is the kind of thing that makes them special.

Battle Trail

Oh brilliant, I forgot to bring the melatonin, so did NOT get a good night’s sleep. Also it was rather warm (sorry folks but daytime is about 23C and night not much less) so I felt restless. This morning I met Martin Heyes, of Walk Hong Kong, who is an expert on the WW2 history of Hong Kong. My Dad spent most of his time at the Battle Box, the Allied HQ on HK island. Needless to say it has been destroyed and the spot is now occupied by the British Consulate. We went and had a look at the site, just so that I could orientate myself when reading his story.

British Consulate, HK

British Consulate, HK

We then headed uphill to Wong Nai Chung gap, the site of the decisive battle for HK. Martin walked me round a ‘discovery trail’ (with some limited printed information) bringing alive the battle – the tactical errors, the stories of survivors, the history of the Japanese in China and the roles of the various regiments and battalions. The British were utterly under-staffed and under-prepared, especially for an attack from land. The view from the UK War Office was that they didn’t stand a chance of succeeding and it seems that they didn’t want to waste resources (men, artillery or supporting troops) on a lost cause. Under the circumstances the Allies did well to last as long as they did! Here is a film of Martin Heyes describing the battle of Hong Kong:

 

Cricket ground, 1942

Cricket ground, 1942

Cricket ground, 2013

Cricket ground, 2013

While we were surveying the scene over the cricket ground and Happy Valley racecourse, 2 kites flew overhead. I love these birds – we often see several on our way to visit horsey clients along the M4. Julian and I have seen one or two when we’vc visited Roger’s grave in Wales – they always seem to be there, regardless of the weather.

Somehow it seemed like a wave from Dad – he was a keen birdwatcher and got very excited if he saw a kite (they were pretty rare in the ‘70s). I have fond, if slightly terrified, memories of travelling through Wales on the way to our annual holiday (a picnic on the beach at Aberdovey) with Dad birdspotting whilst driving on winding mountain roads with a substantial drop off.