We completed our four-night and three full-day cruise on the mighty Yangtze River and were the first to disembark at the port of Chongqing. We were amazed that they used porters to carry our heavy baggage up hundreds of steps from the river level to the road above.
The metropolitan area of Chongqing has a population of 32 million within the metro area, and with our 8.00 AM disembarkation, we were travelling in the local rush hour. Like elsewhere in China, we were provided with a car, driver and guide – typically the driver spoke no English, whereas the guide was usually university educated and spoke fluent English, even if sometime s the pronunciation was a little difficult to understand.
Our plan for the day was to drive to Dazu, visit the 7th century rock carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage site, have lunch in Dazu, then to continue by car to Chengdu, the capital City of Sichuan Province and home to the Giant Panda.
An hour after leaving Chongqing, we turned right onto a country-road. At first glance, it reminded us of the beautiful countryside around Bath, UK, that is our UK home city, but we were soon to notice many differences. This part of China is very fertile, quite humid, with regular summer temperatures of forty degrees Celsius, plenty of rain and high humidity – in short, it is ideal for farming. Our eyes were soon delighted with a patchwork of colours, set off against rolling hills. The patchwork included farms, trees, dwellings and people typically wearing the famous Chinese pointed conical hat, which offer good shade from the intense sun. We saw hundreds of rice fields and terraces in different stages of the growth process but most of the rice had been harvested three months earlier. The rice fields were of all shapes and sizes, generally with water in the fields, so it provided a stunning setting, twinkling in the watery sunlight. Periodically, we had variations, with other crops of fruit, vegetables and grains. There is no mechanization on the farms in this part of China – everything is done by hand, with the help of their prized water buffalo, much the same as it has been done for centuries. When we asked our guide about farm mechanization, he replied that it was difficult because of the hilly terrain. Every so often, our journey was punctuated by little villages, with colorful markets, and wicker baskets on people’s backs, carrying everything from food to babies, or even both food and babies!
Farm people in China are typically very poor but generally with simple but happy lives. There are no luxuries but the produce is of excellent quality and traded daily in the local markets, so it is incredibly fresh and organic, without chemicals – it is light years away from the Western supermarkets with pretty but tasteless produce, produced in a highly organized and refrigerated supply-chain. Over recent decades, many farmers have left their farms seeking an easier life in the cities. Others supplement their incomes with part-time jobs in towns and cities, often doing some form of menial work, like sweeping the streets. In the harvest time, children are released from school and work alongside the farmers from dawn to dusk. Despite the relative poverty and physical hardship of their lives today, we were reminded that older farmers still remember the huge contrast with the early fifties, in the early days of the Peoples Republic of China – sadly, in the fifties, it is suspected that huge numbers of people died from starvation in China.
Currently in China, the farmers do not own their land, unlike in other countries where farmers are relatively wealthy (although frequently cash poor) but we suspect that this policy will be a candidate for reform within the next decade.
Our guide was an expert on the 7th century rock carvings at Dazu, so we received an excellent explanation as we walked around the sight in the rain. The Dazu Rock Carvings are an amazing series of Chinese religious sculptures and carvings worked into the rocks and dating back as far as the 7th century AD, depicting beliefs of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. This site is a true spectacle. Unsurprisingly, this vast site has UNESCO World Heritage approval. It comprises:
- 75 protected sites
- Circa 50,000 statues, and
- Over 100,000 Chinese characters providing inscriptions and epigraphs.
Whilst walking around this site we experienced a miracle. Marilyn’s umbrella broke and so our guide suggested that we took it to the huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy and ask her to repair it. We smiled, but guess what? Yes, as we left her the umbrella worked!
The Dazu Rock Carvings will always rank with our top memories of China, despite the rain.
After the Dazu Rock Carvings, we returned to Dazu city centre for a light lunch and our first introduction in China to the highly spicy Sichuan cuisine, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
At the end of a long-day, we finally arrived in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. Sichuan is World famous for two things, Sichuan food and Giant Pandas (that’s the subject of a future blog). It took our driver nearly an hour to find our hotel – it was right in the centre of an amazing, reconstructed, typical, historic Chinese quarter, pedestrians only, and hundreds of small boutique shops, and our hotel. Our hotel was called the Buddha Zen hotel and proved to be amazingly peaceful & relaxing. We were recommended to try the hotel’s restaurant and had an excellent Sichuan dinner of eggplant, spicy tofu, chicken and cashews – we also had a bottle of imported red wine to wash it down. Next morning, we met many of our fellow guests at breakfast – there was a small American group, some French and a Chinese couple – we had a power-outage during breakfast, but we were lucky to have finished ours before the lights went out! We were amused at the Western tourists struggling to cope with this disaster and we could hear “how will we manage to get into our room?” forgetting that this is China, and Alf explained to them that the hotel will have a mechanical override for the electronic key locks – needless, to say that is exactly what they had!
We met our guide at 8AM, ready to be taken to “Panda City”. Watch this space for Panda update….