FIVE WEEKS FROM QINGHAI TO HONG KONG,
SEPTEMBER TO OCTOBER 2000,

with a weekend in Singapore.




  MAP
 

APOLOGY (in the sense of defensive explanation):

This account has two purposes, sometimes conflicting. Primarily it is a version of my diary, with the purpose of serving as a personal reminder together with a collection of photographs and maps. Secondly, it has been edited so as to provide practical details that may be of use to prospective travellers; for the general reader, much of that detailed information would be tedious. It also tries to explain what travelling to these places is like - travelling, that is, in the style which I adopt; readers can decide whether or not that style would appeal to them. My time on the road is always limited, and my appetite to visit more places strong; the appreciation of my journey, in both relevant senses of the word "appreciate", spills over long after my return. Part of that process is the writing of this account.



HOW TO USE THIS SITE:

Firstly, find a map, even a map in a guidebook. If you don't need a map then you know so much that you probably won't find this account useful.

Since the main usefulness of this site to other people will be its specific travel information, material of interest may best be found by doing text searches by place-names or words.

Places mentioned (Tibetan names in brackets): Qinghai: Jiuzhi (Jigdril), Baima (Padma, town name Selitang), Darlag or Dari (town name Gyume), Maqen (Machen) Sichuan: Chengdu, Xindu, Aba (Ngawa), Xichang, Puge, Yanyuan, Muli (Mili), Chabulang, Luzhou. Chongqing: Dazu, Baoding Shan, Beishan. Guizhou: Chishui, Sidonggou, Shizhangdong, Guiyang, Kaili, Chong'an, Taijiang, Fanpai, Congjiang, Pilin, Zhaoxing, Jitang, Diping, Sanjiang. Hunan: Zhangjiajie, Wulingyuan, Changsha, Xiangtan, Shaoshan, Nanyue, Hengshan, Hengyang Guangxi: Guilin, Yangshuo, Xingping, Yangti, Guangdong: Guangzhou, Zhuhai Macau: Macau, Coloane Island Hong Kong: Hong Kong Singapore: Singapore

Other words for searches include: Tibetan, Yi, Miao, Dong, games, church, cathedral, chapel, temple, monastery, police, bandits, knife, maps, guidebook, guidebooks, cave, mountain, train, railway, ticket, fishing, cormorants, etc.

Another journey, through Tibetan areas of north-western Yunnan, western Sichuan and Qinghai and through south-western and south Yunnan, is described at http://www.alphalink.com.au/~dawa/china99/htm.




CONTENTS:




THE PURPOSES OF THE JOURNEY

The journey began by flying to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, with two main purposes:

THE PLAN AND PREPARATION

This was, perforce, a hurried journey, seeing as much as possible in the time available. It was mostly by public bus. Most accommodation was "basic". In most places few if any foreigners were seen.

I bought a return ticket from Melbourne to Hong Kong - via Singapore so as to visit my younger son, Ben, who lives there. The booking had me leaving Melbourne at 1:00 a.m. on Saturday 2nd September 2000 and arriving in Hong Kong at 11:00 a.m.

I had gone to some trouble to see that I could reach Chengdu that night and be on a bus from Chengdu to Aba the next morning, equipped with the "necessary" People's Insurance Company of China insurance policy; I was amused at the prospect of being in Aba the day after I left Melbourne, amused to imagine that that would almost certainly be a first-time record. In the normal way, I would have needed to get the insurance policy in Chengdu on the Monday after arriving in Chengdu, and catch the bus to Aba the next day, Tuesday, and so the arrangements I had made were intended to save me two days. They were quite straightforward: my Chengdu travel agent had agreed to get the ticket and policy; I would collect them from him, and pay for them, on Saturday night. Two days before I left Melbourne, he assured me by telephone that everything was under control; neither he nor I had any idea of the disaster that would occur before I reached Chengdu.

I planned originally to fly on from Shenzhen, just over the Hong Kong border, but the only scheduled flight which was late enough - operated by Hainan Airlines - was brought forward by two hours, too early for a connection. So I booked a flight to leave at 7:40 p.m. from Guangzhou, about 210 kilometres from Hong Kong airport.

I was less than certain I could reach Guangzhou in time - doubtful about the bus transit time, and particularly about the time needed for "immigration" processing and customs at the border between Hong Kong and the "mainland" - procedures which, some people had suggested, could take hours at the busy time of Saturday afternoon. I weighed the alternative ways of getting to Guangzhou - express train from Hong Kong, local train to the border (with various alternative departure points, and alternative ways of getting to them) and local train from the border, various bus services, even fast ferry to Shenzhen. After taking everything into account, the alternative that offered clearly the best prospects of arriving in time was an expensive express bus service operated by C.T.S. from Hong Kong airport to the China Hotel in Guangzhou; the C.T.S. office at the airport promised to hold a seat for me on the 11:55 a.m. bus.


THE JOURNEY


From Hong Kong to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province

The plane, due to reach Hong Kong at 11:15 a.m., arrives a few minutes early. There should be no difficulty at all in making it to the bus before it leaves at 11:55: there has been all the publicity about the gee-whizz new Chek Lap Kok (shortened from Chek Lap Kok Up?) airport at Hong Kong, how it cost squillions of dollars; and there has been a year or so for any "teething problems" to be fixed. So it is with exasperation that I wait in the terminal for nearly an hour before this super new airport and its fancy staff manage to convey luggage the distance I walked in a few minutes, from the aeroplane to the terminal.

Having missed the 11:55 bus to Guangzhou, I catch the next one, at 1:00 p.m. It leaves more than half empty. Almost the entire route to Guangzhou is paved expressway, a route that goes almost directly north from the airport, including one long tunnel south of the border. The border crossing is at a place whose name sounds like ShanShuen, well to the west of the usual border crossing between Lo Wu and Shenzhen. The border is almost deserted [2a]. Customs and "immigration" for leaving Hong Kong and arriving in "mainland" China are a matter of walking through almost without a pause. Beyond the border the road passes through the outskirts of Shenzhen [2b], and seems to continue through the sprawling outskirts of something or other almost all the way to Guangzhou - excepting that many parts of the route are on a built-up road through submerged land. The bus reaches Guangzhou well before 4:00.

Now with plenty of time, I walk from the China Hotel towards the main railway station, the terminal for the 3-yuan airport bus. (The Rough Guide speaks only of an 8-yuan bus from CAAC in Huangshi Dong Lu, but the only location of CAAC on its map is where I catch the 3-yuan bus, next to the main railway station in either Huangshi Zhong Lu or Huangshi Xi Lu, but certainly not Huangshi Dong Lu; Dong means east, Zhong middle and Xi west). Almost immediately on setting out for the station, I am "befriended" by a man with a business card telling me that he works for a television station and is keen to practice his English while I walk. That does not prevent him, when we reach the airport bus, from asking for some money.

The ride to the airport only takes something like fifteen minutes. At the Air China counter I am actually able to change my booking to another flight, an hour and a half earlier. Suddenly I realize that, if all goes to plan, I will need to get today more than the few hundred yuan I brought from Australia; banks in Australia will not sell Chinese currency - surely a fact passing strange, particularly in the case of the national Bank of China. The only money-changing facility at the airport is in the international section of the terminal, but on arriving there I find a long queue, moving too slowly for me to get money and catch my new flight: a plane carrying many Germans has just arrived from overseas. A gentleman at the tail of the queue sees my plight and gets permission from the people at the head of the queue to let me be served first.

So it is that I arrive in Chengdu city by about nine o'clock. I head straight for my agent's office, where he has promised to meet me. It is on the north side of the Jin river, next to a cafe. But the shutter is down, and when I ask at the cafe the crowd at the table laughs, in a humourless way. The explanation is that my travel agent has been the victim of a gang attack, and is in hospital. Later I will speak with an eye-witness to the attack. He will tell me how, a day or two before I arrived, a bus-load of some twenty-five young "male" humanoids arrived and systematically bashed up my agent, while he screamed for help. No police came, no one called them - and it would have been a brave man who did so. Never mind the idea of Zhung Guo, the "Middle Kingdom" surrounded by barbarians: that's not where the barbarians are.

Efforts to contact my agent by telephone lead only to his family, whose telephone, after a first brief call, does not answer. When I am in Chengdu for the last time, ten days later, the agent's shutter will still be down and people will tell me not to expect him to be doing business again. There are things said about how he must have displeased people powerful enough to arrange what happened. Later I shall try to contact him to offer payment for the ticket and insurance which, for no fault of his, he did not deliver to me. (See note 6: Chengdu travel agent in business again).

So I abandon the nicety of the "necessary" insurance, and book into a dorm at the Jiaotong (Traffic) Hotel on the south side of the river.

The next morning (Sunday 3rd September) I catch a taxi (cheap enough at Y20, although later I find that the "real" fare is about Y12) to reach the faraway Ximen Bus Station when it opens at 6. But there is no bus from there to Aba today. I will not find out whether there is a bus from another bus station: there are several bus stations in Chengdu in addition to the few mentioned in guidebooks. But I buy a ticket for 6:30 a.m. tomorrow; no insurance requirement is mentioned.

I resign myself to spending a day in Chengdu [3a&b]. And as so often happens in China, when one door closes ...

It takes three buses to get back to the hotel for breakfast. The conductor of each bus stops another, and puts me on it, so that in the end I am close to the hotel.

Soon the congregation will be gathering at the old Anglican church just east of Chengdu's CBD. I head for it, but can't remember its exact location. With little time to spare, I jump on a trishaw and ask for the "jiao tang". Yes, the driver knows where it is, and quotes a fare of a couple of kuai, which does not seem too little for a place nearby. But the place where he takes me is not as nearby as the one I wanted, and turns out to be the Ang Guang Tang (which someone tells me means Light of Grace Church), a much larger, neo-gothic brick structure which I will later find out was built with the help of Canadian Methodists in 1921, closed during the holocaust and reopened in 1989. The service is scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m., but I will never find out when it did start because when I arrive at about 9:30 it is already in full swing, with a full house of about six hundred. So there I am, issued with Chinese bible and hymn book, finding the places in theirs for the less-than-fully-literate old couple next to me. The words are almost all lost on me, but the meaning is clear enough. Long, unsung recitations of psalms, bible readings, a long sermon, enormously long renditions of hymns like long meditations - quite unlike the spit-it-out-and-get-it-over hymns in the west [4a&b]. Afterwards I talk to Pastor Lu. He tells me that the building next door is a theological college for seventy-four students doing a three-year course, the "protestant" theological college for Sichuan, Guizhou and a few other provinces. He tells me that a few days ago he visited the eighty-five-year-old daughter of Bishop John Song, the last Bishop of Chengdu in the Holy Catholic Church of China (the name of China's Anglican church), who died in about 1965; before liberation the diocese had some close connections with the Diocese of Sydney. I tell him to expect the next missionary era to be different, because it will be from China to the west.

On the walk back towards the hotel, I drop in at the old Anglican church. The main church has an annex beside the nave of about the same size, full of seats, connected to it by windows. [See note 4 for locations of churches and service times].

It is hot, and I indulge myself by visiting McDonald's for a chocolate shake. The place is full of diners, mostly spending much more than I am prepared to spend.

Suddenly the streets are becoming crowded, with thousands of young people in fancy dress [5a]. Many of them are arriving in the backs of army trucks [5b]; hundreds of the trucks line both sides of a long road further than I can see. This looks like a massive street-parade in the making, but on enquiry I find that everyone is heading for the great People's Stadium for the opening of the Sixth National University Games. I chat to a few groups, most of whom are delighted to have photos taken [610a]. There are some small groups in a rather remote imitation of Tibetan national dress [7b], but they are the least friendly, almost sullen; perhaps they have reason to feel little pride in what is going on.

Some people I am speaking to ask me if I'd like to get a ticket for the stadium, but as it turns out none is available. So off I go towards my hotel. But my way is barred by some rather officious police, who redirect me back to the compound around the stadium. Rows of standard-issue cadres' limousines are standing in the compound [10b]. As I am wondering just how I can get to the hotel, a girl comes up and asks if I want a ticket to the stadium. With my nasty, suspicious Australian mind I expect scalping, and ask "Duoshao qien?" - "How much money?" "Nothing", is the answer; it is just a gift.

The strict police security stops me from entering the stadium because of my small day-pack, but soon that is resolved with the stadium cloakroom and I am sitting in the stadium. I can see no other foreigner, and wonder if I am the only non-Chinese person in the great crowd, musing at the extraordinary turns of events that have placed me here, a case certainly of being "in the right place at the right time". The ceremony is spectacular, and imitates the opening of an Olympic Games [12&13]. The costumed performers are in perhaps a dozen groups of about a thousand each, each group in uniform colourful costumes, performing choreographed movements; masses of balloons are released [11a], and there are brief speeches. The ceremony includes the arrival of an Olympic-style torch, and the lighting of a cauldron [11b]. It perpetrates, no doubt in a calculated way, a powerful sense of national pride.

A few days later I will be chatting to a Chinese person on a Chengdu bus. When he remarks that my presence at the stadium was reported on Chengdu television it will take me by surprise and I will tell him that he must be talking rubbish - how could the television station possibly know, or care, that I was there? But then I will recall that some of the people I spoke to outside the stadium did indeed tell me they were reporters and seemed most interested in the novelty of an Australian being at the games.

On the way back to the hotel, I stop off at the restaurant beside the closed office of my travel agent, just to find out if there is any news. I have an interesting talk to a young student from Las Vegas who has enrolled in a course to improve her Chinese at Sichuan University.


From Chengdu to northern Sichuan Province, and into Qinghai Province

On Monday (4th September), I take another taxi to get to the Ximen bus station before 6. Not long before the bus is due to leave, I search for my ticket and can't find it. Over-anxious and desperate to avoid losing another day at all costs, I buy another - a loss of Y65 to carelessness!

The distance from Chengdu to Aba county town is just over 500 kilometres. I suspect that the journey may take two days, but it is completed in one.

Much of the route follows three river systems - the great Min Jiang (which rises near Zhangla in northern Sichuan and joins the Chang Jiang or "Yangtzi" River at Yibin in southern Sichuan) and its tributary, tributaries of the Da Jinchuan (whose main branch rises in Qinghai and which becomes the Dadu He, eventually running into the Min Jiang at Leshan), and the Bai He (which runs north to join the Huang He or Yellow River on the Sichuan-Qinghai border).

After leaving Chengdu, the road follows the Min Jiang itself [16a] upstream to Wenchuan, 150 kilometres from Chengdu. It then follows a large tributary upstream to the west for about 160 kilometres, the valley sides steep and often forested, past Qiang villages with their massive stone houses, occasional watchtowers and fields of maize [16b-19b], giving way to Tibetan housing and monasteries[19b-22a] (with a 45-minute lunch stop) before rising to a high pass. Beyond the pass the road descends and follows the tributary of the Da Jinchuan upstream before rising to another pass about 50 kilometres from the last one [22b]. After the second pass the country is more open, with few trees, pastoral country of rolling plains and low rounded hills, the typical landscape of the Tibetan region of Amdo [23]. A few kilometres after the second pass the road to Aba turns left from the main road (which continues upstream to Hongyuan, Ruo'ergai and Ganzu province), reaching Aba just over 100 kilometres beyond the junction.

Aba is the county town of Aba county, part of Aba Tibetan "Autonomous" Prefecture, and a town where Tibetans are clearly in the majority. Despite giving its name to the prefecture, the decision was made long ago to place the prefecture capital elsewhere, at the less remote and more controllable Barkam. This parallels the adjacent Garze Tibetan "Autonomous" Prefecture, where the capital is not Garze but Kangding. Arriving in Aba at 10 o'clock, I book into a hotel past the bus-stop, on the left-hand side of Aba's main street [26b].

This is a friendly town, not used to foreigners. A high proportion of the people staying in the hotel are monks, two of whom invade my room to have their photos taken, to look at any papers with pictures or Tibetan writing that I may have, and to explain bus schedules [26b&27a]. One of the monks is from Tarthang monastery, the largest in Jiuzhi county over the border in Qinghai province, said to have more than a thousand monks. He tells me that to travel from Aba to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, it is necessary first to catch the two-daily bus from Aba to Maqen, which loops south, then west and then north, with overnight stops at Banma and Dari, and possibly a change of bus at one of them; I know that there are several buses every day from Maqen to Xining. I would like to travel this route and to return to Chengdu by train from Xining. I will find out later that there is also a daily bus to Jiuzhi, but that the only bus onward from there is to Maqu in Gansu province - a route where my maps do not even show a road. The monk explains that the bus through Banma does not go tomorrow but that he will come to my room at 9 a.m. and take me to get a ticket for the following day.

Up early the next day (Tuesday 5th September), I find a bus outside the hotel that is due to leave at 9 for Jiuzhi and to return to Aba the same day. I also see a bus leaving for Zamtang, the next county to the west in Sichuan; presumably it will follow the first section of the road to Banma. I am assured that there is no bus to Dari today. I decide to take the return trip to Jiuzhi. I search for the monk who was coming to meet me at 9, but don't know which room he is in; most of the monks are still in bed.

Waiting for the bus I stroll up and down the main street. It is lined with the almost uniformly characterless concrete-box buildings found in towns of this level throughout China, of one to four storeys, softened in places by a few trees. There are some motorbikes but few cars, and many two-wheeled carts laden with bags or with meat for sale on the street. The street is like an elongated town square, with people milling about, many of them monks [24&25]. Apart from the monks, few people are wearing distinctively Tibetan dress.

The crowd on the bus includes several friendly monks, anxious to point out the sights. Beyond the edge of town there are a few clusters of mud-walled traditional Tibetan houses [30], but they soon give way to nomad country with scattered Tibetan tents, some in white canvas and some in dark yak-hair cloth [31&32]. Approaching Jiuzhi, we pass a large Tibetan monastery, apparently Taklung Gonpa [33a], and a clear view up a wide valley on the left to the jagged peaks of Mt Nyenpo Yurtse (5369m), the principal holy mountain of the southern Golok region [33b].

The bus arrives at Jiuzhi at about 11:30, for a two-hour break before returning. I photograph a young monk standing in the middle of the street, beaming into my camera [34a], symbolizing to me the juxtaposition of high, ancient learning with the remoteness of this place and the uncouthness of an administration imposed on it by politicians far away.

I walk the single street, greeted by many friendly people. I photograph street scenes, pack-horses and buildings, trying to get a balance between the picturesque and the ugly. The courthouse occupies one compound, behind the usual wall and signed gateway [36a], looking like an ancient, derelict picture theatre. The picture theatre itself looks even more derelict [37b]. Another seedy-looking and muddy compound has a sign on its gateway saying it is a weather-forecasting station [36b]. A large white three-storey building of government offices is set behind a huge, multi-storey gatehouse building which is under construction, covered in scaffolding, like some kind of Monty Python folly [37a]. My camera battery runs flat, and as I change it a large crowd gathers, all fascinated, with open, Tibetan faces [38]. In several places beside the street there are groups of saddled horses and yaks taking on or unloading bagged produce [34b&35].

Just before one o'clock, two police officers call me into the police station. Although Jiuzhi is officially an open county there are closed counties on two sides and I suspect there may be trouble, but I am very friendly and they reciprocate, inspecting my visa in a jovial kind of way and not mentioning any requirement to register, shaking my hand as though I am an honoured guest - perhaps influenced by my assurances that I am leaving on the bus in half an hour. Chinese police are sometimes officious, but in my experience they are more often delighted to have an excuse to be friendly.

Back in Aba, I go in search of a place where I can buy a bus ticket. A monk escorts me down the street. There seems to be no bus station as such, but a few hundred metres back from the hotel along the main street in the direction of Chengdu there is a ticket window on the right and a few metres further on the other side another ticket window, the two windows apparently selling tickets for different buses, presumably operated by different companies. As I am enquiring at one window, a plain-clothes police officer intrudes, presenting his identity card in a pushy way and insisting that I come to the police station. Suddenly two young Frenchmen appear, sharing my predicament; they have come in by bus from Qinghai. None of the officers at the police station speaks any English at all.

We are told that Aba is closed to foreigners - a fact that I know, although it was denied repeatedly by travel agents in Chengdu; in China, the travel industry generally is ill-informed about which counties are closed, and in fact the information is exceptionally difficult to obtain from any other source than the local police, almost a state secret, to be produced only when it suits the authorities - like so much of the legal system in China a kind of sick joke.

The police maintain that their only concern is our safety; we are in a dangerous place. There is no mention of any penalty and no charge is made for the registration that is required. We must keep to our hotel, and on no account visit any monasteries: they are dangerous places. We must leave on the bus at six tomorrow morning. The next bus to Banma and Maqen is not in fact until the next day, but I am not permitted to wait for it.

Later, the Frenchmen tell me of armed individuals they saw in southern Qinghai and how they believed the danger of attack by bandits was great. This reinforces other information I have come across recently, about that danger, in southern Qinghai - the Golok prefecture - in particular. Time is short in any case, and if I travelled into Qinghai I would not have enough time to visit the newly-opened Muli Tibetan "Autonomous" County faraway in southern Sichuan instead. And so it is not with great regret that I accept the police directions.

After I leave the police station I walk back to my hotel by a circuitous route that takes me to the edge of town [27b]. A hundred metres or so from the edge is a group of large canvas tents, with most elaborate designs in the traditional Tibetan blue-on-white style [29b]. On the way back to the main street I pass the compound of a mosque with eaves and a separate minaret in traditional Chinese style [28a]. The keeper and two boys bid me to come in, and proudly show me the interior, a hall with room for perhaps two hundred people, luxuriously carpeted [29b]. They shows me a large garden bed, full of dahlias with flowers as large as I have seen anywhere [29a].

On Wednesday morning (6th September) I find two buses near the ticket offices, loading for Chengdu; neither will take me. A third bus does take me, but at Y110 - Y45 more than the fare from Chengdu; I am issued a stapled set of half-a-dozen tickets, including two of one yuan each for insurance. It is very cold and rains off and on all day; the other passengers are friendly and informative. The driver is competent and drives fast. We are held up for more than an hour for road-maintenance works being carried out by a gang of women: as usual, the delay is accepted without protest by driver or passengers.

South of Wenchuan [39b] there are innumerable trucks. The windscreen wipers do not work. Passing through a toll gate for an expressway, the bus hits the side of the guide-kerb, damaging it. The police come, call and wait for more senior police, complete written reports, take money from the driver, and photograph the damage - a delay of more than an hour. Arriving at Chengdu's Ximen bus station at 10:45, I am afraid the hotel reception may close before I arrive, and so take a taxi. Almost immediately a car rams its side. I jump out and take another, at the metered rate - which turns out to be only Y12, less than the Y20 I paid in the other direction.

I share a room with an Israeli couple bound for Tibet. As the first step towards Muli I want to get to Xichang tomorrow, but the hotel receptionist tells me there is no bus service and I must go by train.


An afternoon trip from Chengdu to Baoguang Si

On Thursday (7th September), I am up at 5:30, and go to the Xinnanmen Bus Station next door. A helpful English-speaking member of staff tells me there is indeed no bus from there to Xichang, but that there is one from the Beizhan (North Bus Station), which she locates for me on my map. At the Beizhan, there is no bus to Xichang. A woman points to a sign on the wall, which only shows buses to Zigong and Yibin - five different classes of bus to each; presumably this depot is for a company that operates buses only to those places. As I will later find out at Xichang, there is a bus service between there and Chengdu, but I will not find out which bus station serves it in Chengdu.

I catch a minibus to the railway station and buy a hard-sleeper ticket for the 2003 departure tonight. Bus 16 from the nearby bus station takes me back to the hotel for the "free" breakfast and for catching up with washing, changing traveller's cheques, and email, all at the hotel. I have decided to spend the rest of the day visiting Baoguang Si, the Buddhist monastery at Xindu, sixteen kilometres from Chengdu. Guidebooks say that minibuses to Xindu leave from the railway station forecourt.

I walk to Renmin Lu (the main north-south street) to get a number 16 bus to the station. It is on the bus that I meet MaLi, who is the person who tells me about the report on Chengdu television which noted my presence at the great University Games opening the previous Sunday; he says he plays the piano for the church I attended last Sunday, and he gives me his email address. He persuades me to take a bus number 1, which he says connects with a bus to Xindu. I do so and after I get off and enquire am directed to bus number 9; but the conductor of bus number 9 says it does not go to Xindu. After a walk I take a trishaw to go to the bus station for Xindu - and am taken to the railway station. This gives me the opportunity to offload my main pack at the left-luggage store, which has a closing time of 5:30. Extensive enquiry in the vicinity shows there is no bus to Xindu but that it is bus number 9 which will take me to the correct bus station. A girl on the bus gets off at the bus station just to make sure I do get the Xindu bus. So despite apparently wrong information in the guidebooks and being misdirected to the wrong bus in the first place, after something like an hour I do find the correct bus.

But that is not without incident. As I get on the bus, the conductress takes my day-pack and directs me to a seat. Very soon, a young Chinese man holding bottles of water is standing over me shouting in Chinese, seemingly in a rage. I have no idea what it is about and just act passively, bemused. When he unfolds a large, pointed flick knife it is no longer a joke. I move away as he continues to scream at me. The conductress hastily directs me to another seat. Clearly her main, perhaps her only, concern is that I do nothing to escalate the matter. The other passengers are impassive. I expect they would have continued impassive if the youth had proceeded to carve holes in me. This is the ugly face of China - not so much the deranged youth as the culture which encourages people to hide from the truth, no matter how obvious, in order to keep the appearance of order and conformity; but in that, China is hardly unique.

I gather that what must have happened is that the youth had occupied the seat, got off to buy some water, returned, and flown into a rage when he saw a foreigner in the seat. Why he was so deranged is a private matter unknowable to me. After the incident he is chatting to other youths on the bus, with all the appearance of normality. Twenty minutes later he gets off, looking at me as he rises and shouting, "Fahgyu", an attempt at an expression whose meaning is perhaps as little known to him as its pronunciation.

At Xindu, it is only a couple of hundred metres from the bus stop along Baoguang Jie to the monastery [14&15], where I spend a pleasant couple of hours. The complex is extensive, with pleasant gardens; around one garden pavilion some old men are congregated with their cages of song-birds [15b]. The few monks are remote, as is not unusual of Buddhist monks in Chinese monasteries; the difference from the generally friendly Tibetan monks, and indeed the often-friendly Chinese Daoist monks, must surely reflect some important religious differences. Chinese visitors are, as usual, friendly. I want to find the famous hall of five hundred Arhats, but I don't know the Chinese word for that and don't succeed in explaining without it: some things are indeed difficult to explain with sign language! Eventually I do find it, the statues somewhat larger than life-size, all of them, in the usual way, caught with exaggerated features and expressions, a grotesque assembly facing the long, snaking aisles. At an intersection of aisles an old monk is reciting his office from a Chinese book written in the old style of vertical columns, ringing a bell from time to time, and apparently unaware of the visitors who push past him.

After the monastery, I visit an adjacent, somewhat seedy, pleasure park where a few people are having picnics or playing board-games beside stagnant-looking pools.

I catch a minibus back towards Chengdu, but after a short distance it is stopped by police and not allowed to proceed; it seems that the driver does not have the correct licence. Another bus takes me to the bus station I left to go to Xindu.


To southern Sichuan Province and Muli County

I walk to the railway station and collect my bag. I wander about, have dinner in a restaurant opposite the station, and go to the waiting room to wait for my train. But in my haste I have made an astoundingly stupid mistake: I have supposed that the time on the ticket of 2003 means 10:03 p.m. As I am chatting to a man named Liu Ning in the waiting room, he asks to see my ticket, and explains that the train left several minutes ago. I am dismayed at such stupidity, which seems bound to undo more than I have saved by rushing about. Certainly I do not deserve what actually happens. Within a few minutes, Liu Ning has got me an 80% refund for the booking I didn't use and a new ticket for a sleeper berth on a train leaving at 10:40 - almost the same as the time I thought my original train would leave.

When I wake on Friday (8th September) it is still dark, but with occasional brief flashes of light [40a]. In fact, the darkness is because the train is running through almost continuous tunnels, with only short breaks where ravines intersect the track. Later, the countryside opens up; we run along a broad, green valley of the Anning He, flowing down towards the Jingsha Jiang [40b-42]. On arriving at Xichang at 8:30 a.m., a Chinese girl from Chengdu who has returned home to Xichang for a wedding and whose English name is Heaven [seen in 40a], puts me in a taxi that she and a friend are taking, and refuses to take any payment for the ride into town. At the bus station, she helps me get a bus ticket for Muli for 6:30 tomorrow morning, and gives me a note with her telephone number in case I need any help later.

Xichang is the capital of the Xichang Yi "Autonomous" Prefecture. Heaven explains that the Yi people can be distinguished from the Han by the shape of their noses; she tells me that the Yi do not have a keen interest in business. To a casual visitor, there is little obvious evidence of Yi culture in Xichang.

Following the advice of both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide, I go to the Wumao Hotel, but the tone of the "Mei you!" tells me it does not take foreigners. After I search unsuccessfully for the Liangyan Zhaodaisuo a student from Chengdu asks if he can help, and takes me there. The hotel is friendly, the room dank with a concrete floor and two beds, and very cheap. (This hotel is correctly located by the map in the Lonely Planet book, on the north side of Chang'an Zhong Lu a few metres west of Shengli Lu, with a reception desk on the left side inside an open roller-shutter front.)

Back at the bus station, I catch a minibus leaving at 11:15 for Puge. Soon after leaving Xichang, it passes the Qiong Hai, a lake about ten kilometres long and six wide, set between mountain ranges [43b]. Passing through misty hills, I see ploughs being pulled by water buffalo [44a]. The bus stops while a large ram is loaded onto the roof [44b].

Puge itself is a dump [45a]. The Rough Guide recommends it as having a big market and a lot of ethnic Yi in traditional dress. In fact, the market is pleasant enough but unexceptional [47b-48], the old houses few and surrounded with a plague of particularly ugly Chinese tiled-concrete offices and apartment buildings with caged-in balconies. They are part of a plague that infests the whole of China, seeming to express a kind of desperation that leaves no place for any aesthetic sentiments.

I wander up a hill on the outskirts and photograph old and new buildings [45b-47a]. Buses back to Xichang are said to leave every hour on the hour. I take a bus that leaves at 3:50 and arrives at about 6:10.

In light rain, I walk to the older part of Xichang. There are streets of houses with upper storeys projecting outwards, like Elizabethan houses. Part of the old city wall is intact, including the South Gate (Nanmen), where I am permitted a brief, after-hours look beyond the entrance. Dinner follows and beer at a street cafe.

On Saturday (9th September), up at 5:30 and let out by the concierge, already up to attend to her baby. My bus seat is by a window on the left-hand side, beside a friendly young Chinese man [49a]. The first few kilometres are a concrete expressway, followed by a muddy road over the mountains [49b], with many landslides. The views are extraordinary and spectacular, with many small clouds floating in the valleys and against the dark mountain-sides [50-53]. The Yalong Jiang flows in the deepest valley, at this stage of its course a large river. We cross it over a recently-constructed, massive single-arch concrete bridge [54a], and pass the old suspension bridge [54b].

At 12:20 we stop for an hour at the county-town of Yanyuan; lunch is a feast in a restaurant which my companion will not allow me to pay for. The town is a standard-issue Chinese frontier county town, with a wide main street, this time lined by mainly single-storey buildings, with a few of two or three storeys [55a]; today, it seems to have a relaxed and friendly feeling. A long row of horses with carts is angle-parked beside the street, heads in nose-bags for lunch, an "old" man sitting on one cart keeping watch, with Mao-suit, traditional straw hat and tobacco-pipe [54b]. Beyond Yanyuan, the road follows a broad, idyllic valley with orchards and many brick and tile kilns [56-59]. All housing is traditional, with roof tiles in good order [59b]. There is hardly a single building with glazed ceramic wall-tiles, and no blue glass. Later on, there is a lot of soil erosion, apparently caused by over-grazing; the river is a red soup.

At a village, the road is blocked by a truck, one side of which has slid of the side of the road [60a]. Two trucks, and later our bus, try to pull it out. Villagers and their children enjoy friendly banter with me [60b&61]. Eventually at 4:30, after a delay of nearly two hours, the truck is pulled out and we can go on.

At a pass which marking the boundary of Muli county, there is a large Tibetan choeten, one of very few signs of Tibetan culture that I shall see in the county. The road enters and descends to the bottom of the great valley of the Litang He, the tributary of the Yalong which rises on Geye Shan near Litang and runs the length of Muli county [62]. Vast erosion to the mountain-side has been caused by road construction and, perhaps, by over-grazing [63].

Arriving at Muli at 6:30, I take a room at the bus station guesthouse - a room expensive for its very basic standard. Muli county is designated "Tibetan Autonomous", but as I walk through the town I notice that there is no trace of Tibetan style in buildings or clothing; all signs in the town are in Chinese characters [64]. I meet a single Tibetan monk on the street, and we greet each other warmly; he will be the only person I encounter in identifiably Tibetan attire in all of Muli county.

A young man in police fatigues challenges me, speaking Chinese. I am unreasonably apprehensive, concerned that the recently-announced opening of Muli to foreigners may not have been noticed by the local police, forgetting that clothes of this kind can be bought by anyone.

I am greeted by Cheng Chang Shu, a teacher of English at the Muli Middle School. We walk and talk, followed by a crowd of about a dozen curious young women. We are joined by another teacher of English, Masuryar (English name "Violet"), whose mother is Chinese but whose father, husband and children are Tibetan and who regards herself as Tibetan. She says that Tibetans are one of seventeen nationalities in the county; she seems quite content to be in a country dominated by Chinese culture.

Cheng Chang Shu says that there are no monasteries near the town but that there are some on the way north to Chabulang, although distant from the road. He says that buses from Muli to Chabulang and from Chabulang to Muli leave at 7 a.m. daily. Beyond Chabulang, a summer road continues, perhaps even as far as Daochang county; there is no bus service, but there are some trucks on that road. He thinks that travel beyond Muli is dangerous because the Tibetans are very poor and "some of them steal money"; but the monasteries are safe because "the monks are all kind." He warns me against being on the streets in Muli after dark, because there are many drunk people. Foreigners sometimes visit Shrelo monastery, near Gongar Mountain. There is, he says, an internet shop in Muli. At Chabulang there is a middle school and a hotel. Cheng Chang Shu urges me to ask for him if I ever return to Muli.

A young Tibetan girl comes up to us and asks me to have dinner at her house; she is one of Cheng Chang Shu's pupils. Whether wisely or otherwise, I decline but thank her for the kind offer. I have a meal of spicy meat cooked over charcoal in front of an open shop with a couple of tables. I am the only diner, and eat my meal surrounded by half a dozen curious onlookers and an extraordinarily handsome lady called Nankar who tries very hard to converse with me in Chinese and who is, no doubt for the first time, now to be immortalized on the Worldwide Web.

When I set out for Muli, I regarded this town as the end of the road. Even a specialist Tibetan guidebook, replete with all manner of esoteric information about monasteries in remote places, had little to say about the county. But now it seems that what lies beyond is of the greatest interest. I am short of time, but decide to take the Chabulang bus tomorrow.

On Sunday (10th September) I am up at 5:30. The ticket office will not sell me a ticket for Chabulang, but I buy one on the bus (Y30). The driver and others are helpful in explaining locations on my map, and the bus leaves at about 7:10. At the start, there are only ten passengers, but this is a real milk-run, and the passengers and cargo will change continually through the day.


The road follows upstream the small tributary of the Litang He on which Muli is situated, passing through pristine, forested mountains, much tighter and more enclosed than yesterday's, moss-festooned fir trees over an understorey of varied shrubbery [65-67a]. We stop for fifteen minutes beside a mountain creek which is driving prayer-wheels enclosed in small huts with tiled roofs [67b]. After about 9 a.m., we cross into the valley of the Litang He and pine forest, much of it harvested, with soil-erosion in a few places [68]. Soon there are occasional settlements with rice terraces; I notice that there are no houses in what I would recognize as Tibetan style, and no Tibetan dress anywhere. The bus stops to unload some goods, including a box containing a satellite dish [69a].

The valley runs between steep mountains, green and mostly open country [70b-71]. It appears to offer great potential for adventurous trekking, although no doubt westerners on foot, camping in tents, would be a novelty, and perhaps there could be a danger of robbers.

My map shows the road following the Litang He all the way upstream to Chabulang. At a point shown on my map of the county (Sichuan Sheng Dituce, Sichuan Province Atlas, p135) as about 75 kilometres from Muli and eight kilometres north of Buoke [72], the bus turns left for a run of twenty minutes or so to a village shown by the map as Taoba, where most of the passengers leave. The map shows this township only about thirteen kilometres east of Jipo Shan, at 4809m one of the highest mountains in Muli county. On the way back to the main road, I catch glimpses of a Tibetan monastery, high above the road. Others on the bus make sure I have seen it: it is an important monastery. The map of Muli county in the Sichuan provincial atlas shows this just as Muli Da Si Yi Zhi, Muli Great Monastery Ancient Place. This will be the only monastery I see in the whole of Muli county.

After rejoining the main road, the bus continues north. It stops where the road is blocked by a large landslide of rock. There is no possibility of the bus getting across it or of the landslide being cleared. A very narrow and very rough path has been cleared through the rock. The passengers load their luggage on the back of a small truck which is on our side of the landslide, apparently hoping to travel on to Chabulang in the truck. They watch as the truck attempts to make the crossing, charging at it and bouncing violently [73a], but almost immediately it jams its back wheel against a big rock, the sump cracked and spurting black oil [73b&74a]. The other passengers begin to collect their luggage, expecting that some kind of transport will materialize on the other side to take them on. But I realize that, even if I get to Chabulang tonight, the landslide is so big that I will not be sure of getting transport back to Muli, perhaps for days. The bus will be returning to Muli tonight, and so I decide to cut my losses, and go back on it [75]. In a way, this is better than I could have hoped for: I am short of time, and have seen most of the countryside between Muli and Chabulang on what is turning out to be a day trip.

The driver charges me another Y30 for the return to Muli [76]. As is often the case for fares paid en route no ticket is issued, and so there is no record to suggest to the driver that he is not free to keep the money.

Arriving in Muli just before 9, I have another meal at the same place as last night, again in the company of onlookers and with Nankar, who this time has brought her two-year-old daughter. The meal is so salty that it is impossible to taste the beer. Tonight I have another room at the bus-station hotel - this time a concrete dungeon on the bottom level, with no furnishing of any kind apart from a large, very firm, bed.

On Monday (11th September) I am up at 5:40 for a breakfast of Melbourne muesli and milk from Melbourne milk powder. The ticket office opens at 6:20, but just as this happens a girl in the waiting room offers me a ticket for Xichang which she bought yesterday but did not use. The ticket office tells me it is a good ticket, but I cannot find a bus in the yard that will take it. Back at the ticket office the clerk scribbles an alteration on it which is incomprehensible but has the effect of getting my acceptance on a bus. My seat is on the right-hand-side next to the door; this is a favourite position, because it lets me stretch my legs into the door-well and not be trapped all day in a space that makes insufficient allowance for the thigh-bones of even an average westerner.

Crowded around the front of the bus there is a rowdy group of young toughs, male of course, smoking continually and spitting, engaging in what could be called strong peer-group interaction, one speaker after another seeking to impress his mates, oblivious to any perceptions from outside the group, giving cigarettes to one another which, if not needed immediately, are stored behind the ear. They are all between the ages of perhaps sixteen and twenty-five, wearing the ubiquitous jackets which are cheap imitations of western suit-coats, sometimes with mobile phones. Such groups, especially on buses, are a recurring phenomenon in China. What such people do for a living is uncertain, although their appearance suggests a predilection for some kind of petty wheeling and dealing. I wonder how far these people are representative of a rising generation, and how on earth one would ever convey to them anything touching on (to take an interest of mine) justice to the people of the Tibetan "minority" - or indeed any concept of social or environmental justice beyond their own circle on the one hand and government propaganda on another; I expect any attempt would be about as useful as talking to them about the health dangers of cigarettes.

It is important that I do not respond aggressively to the young toughs' behaviour. It is not directed at me. Through the day, one or another of them will press on me gifts - a large pear, an apple, walnuts.

At 8:45 we stop with several other buses at a landslide for fifty minutes while a bulldozer clears the way. Our bus cannot make the grade on its own but succeeds with the help of a cable from another bus [77a].

At Yanyuan for lunch, this time there is a busy and colourful market along the length of the main street.

Mid-afternoon, we stop behind twenty-odd stationary trucks, waiting for an hour in light rain and fog while some repairs are done to the truck at the front of the queue.

The girl who has sat beside me all day is pretty enough and sleepy, dozing on my shoulder from time to time. Later she comes to life, smoking cigarettes donated by the young toughs. Soon a mobile telephone emerges and a long telephone call begins - continuous, very loud, rapid-fire shouting, the girl revealed as a shrew and a termagant. Another call, clearly to a different person, is sweet and calm.

At Xichang, the bus arrives at 6 at a small bus station, different from the one I left the day before yesterday. I have decided to visit Dazu, between Chengdu and Chongqing. The immediate problem I must solve is how to get to Chengdu with a minimum of delay.

The experience that follows is typical of many occasions when small events seem to fall into place as though they were programmed. Within an hour of arriving in Xichang I have: set out to find the main bus station but walked in the wrong direction; been redirected; visited the bus station and ascertained that there are no buses to Chengdu until tomorrow afternoon; visited the hotel where I stayed last time and ascertained that it is open until midnight; been escorted to the bus stop concerned and caught a local bus to the railway station (six mao), the ticket office in town having closed for the night; and bought with the help of the ticket-seller's great patience and help from a girl in the queue a sleeper berth for the 11:03 p.m. train to Chengdu tonight. So here I am, standing outside the station, all pressure "off" for several hours, feeling the good fortune represented by the ticket in my pocket. Suddenly the ticket-seller emerges, her shift finished, looking for me in order to return my map - the important map I feverishly asked her to write on when I was buying the ticket and which I forgot to retrieve. Undeserved kindness.

There are many restaurants in the small market village that has grown up around the station, many with most of their tables under canvas awnings at the front. I sit down at one, where a great fuss is made of me and I have an excellent meal for seven yuan, including a clean glass mug for the beer I buy next door.

Back to the railway station by 8:30 for a session of diary-writing and a rest. The glass-skylight ceiling of the lofty waiting hall is adorned with a delightful set of inverted umbrellas in many different sizes and plain colours.

Although delighted to get a ticket, I was puzzled at the price - at Y139 much higher than the fare of Y95 I paid coming from Chengdu. When I find my berth on the train it dawns on me that, in my haste, I was pleased to get any sleeper, and did not think to mention that what I wanted was a hard sleeper. So for the first time I get experience of a soft sleeper - four berths to a cabin with a door instead of six berths to a compartment without a door. It is an interesting experience, but scarcely more comfortable than a hard sleeper. The toilets are shabby but, extraordinarily, western sit-up models. Some guidebooks have remarked that the cost of soft sleepers approaches that of air tickets; the cost of this one was about a quarter the cost of an air ticket.


From Chengdu to Dazu in Chongqing Province

Arriving at Chengdu station at about 10 a.m. (Tuesday 12th September) [77b] I catch the number 16 bus from the nearby bus station to the bridge over the Jin River and walk to the Jiaotong Hotel. I spend some time enquiring at a number of travel agents near the hotel and across the river, mainly about the current "state of play" for travel to Lhasa. Although the central government's legislation allows anyone with a valid visa to visit Lhasa, the local government and the airline run a swindle that restricts air tickets to people buying a "package" that include an illegal permit, transfers, accommodation in Lhasa and a guide for two or three days. All travel agents in Chengdu charge the same amount for this "package", 2300 yuan. A change has recently occurred in that it is no longer necessary for the "package" to include transport out of the Tibetan "Autonomous" Region.

Later there is time to catch up on some washing. For dinner, I go to a street of restaurants a short distance south-east of the adjacent Xinnanmen Bus Station. One of them produces an English menu, all of the prices very high. At the next, I ignore the English menu and order in Chinese, the resulting price much lower.

On Wednesday (13th September), after the "free" breakfast in the hotel restaurant I buy a ticket for Dazu at the next-door bus station. I have enough time to visit, for the first time, the Sichuan Provincial Museum, a short bus-ride down Renmin Nan Lu. The parts which are of interest are the two ground-floor halls housing an excellent new display of archaeological finds in Sichuan, with extensive English labelling, and good value at ten yuan.

After returning by bus and then foot along the north side of the river I change money at the hotel and catch the bus for Dazu at 2 p.m. We are in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams for the first hour, heading towards the Chongqing expressway - fast when we reach it. The road from the expressway to Dazu is also fast, and we arrive at 6:45, stopping in the town but not at a bus station. Surrounded by innumerable taxi-drivers and purveyors of I'm-not-sure-what, I am unable to get my bearings. I have no adequate map of the town, and descriptions in guidebooks are entirely unclear. Perhaps an author has indeed visited the town he is writing about, but perhaps his bus arrived in a different place, and he has assumed that anyone else will arrive at the same place and be able to follow directions relative to it.

As happens time after time in China, I have expected a small town and found myself in a sprawling city. After floundering around for a while, asking directions without success from a couple of people, I use the old fall-back trick and buy the services of a trishaw to take me to the hotel I name. This is the Tang Cheng Jiudian, recommended by the Let's Go guidebook (witness my humility in admitting to consulting it!). That is the only guidebook I know which does not say that foreigners are compelled to stay at the expensive Dazu Binguan. I am suspicious that the hotel will not accept me, but as I go up the steps to the front door the hotel staff welcome me and almost drag me in. Registering is very friendly; foreigners seem to be a novelty here. The accommodation is clean and cheap, with an en-suite bathroom.

As night falls, some of the streets are still full of market stalls, some of them street restaurants. For reasons I do not know, there are many shops selling swords. I go for a long stroll, buying freshly-roasted chestnuts for ten yuan a kilogram and a big meal of stick-food and beer from an excellent street-restaurant near the hotel entrance.

At 11:30, there is loud knocking on the door to my room. Asking "What is it?" more than once I get no reply at all. I suspect it is the police, and indeed it is - a young uniformed officer with a poker face who makes no attempt to speak anything but Chinese and acts as though non-comprehension of Chinese is a phenomenon he is unable to recognize. He is accompanied by one or two of the hotel staff, who are clearly embarrassed.

The demand is clear enough: I am in an "unauthorized" hotel and must leave - now. The "face-saving" pretext is that I am "unsafe" in this hotel. That angers me, because I believe that the demand reflects nothing beyond a mutually-beneficial arrangement between the police and persons who have a commercial interest in ensuring that foreigners' business goes to the expensive Dazu Binguan. It angers me in particular because the demand that I leave now, tonight, seems to typify a mindless adherence to "authority" that foreigners and conceivably even a few others find objectionable. So I am forthright and fiery in my response, pretending I have no idea what the man wants but am incensed at being disturbed at this hour, making dramatic play of reading and noting the number on the officer's uniform. Seeing that he is making no progress, and evidently unwilling to attempt physical compulsion, the man leaves. Soon he is back again, again with a couple of people from the hotel staff but this time also with someone who speaks some limited English. The hotel is most apologetic: it should not have allowed me to stay and it was contrary to a "regulation"; the hotel will provide a car to take me to the Dazu Binguan; it will refund my money. I argue insistently that I am quite willing to leave in the morning, to stay elsewhere tomorrow, that I have no argument at all with the hotel but only with the ineptitude of this police officer, and that it is entirely unreasonable to demand that I move tonight. Indeed I don't want to move, but I am also testing the water as to just what happens when a foreigner holds his ground in this way, pouring scorn on the man's inability to look me in the eye, insisting that if there is a "regulation" it must have been made by someone, and at a particular time, and exist in writing. Although I think I may be compelled to move, I doubt that the police will be game enough to attempt any punishment, with the disproportionately bad publicity it would cause. The argument goes on for some time, apparently without progress. I have been denying that there is any "regulation" behind the demand, treating the demand with ridicule, but the play seems to change when I begin insisting on seeing the text of the alleged "regulation"; the officer sneaks off and now the interpreter assures me that he will return with the "regulation" in the morning but that I will not be disturbed again tonight. Of course I never do get to see the "regulation".

So after a good night's sleep, on Thursday (14th September) I am up at 8. I accept the initiative of the hotel staff in putting me in a Santana taxi which, for five yuan, takes me to the Dazu Binguan [85b]. The smallest room available is a double in the rear building, at 180 yuan, the same for one or for two people; other double rooms are 300 yuan. I take the cheaper alternative. It is in fact a reasonable rate for an excellent standard of accommodation, which is to an international standard and includes a good breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

There are two sets of carvings near Dazu. The best known are a set of carvings executed in the Song Dynasty to a single plan under the guidance of monk Zhao Zhifeng at Baoding Shan, some 15 kilometres from the town; the other set is older, less consistent, executed over a long period, at Baishan, some three kilometres from town. I want to visit Baoding Shan first. My guidebooks say that buses to Baoding Shan leave from the main bus depot. There is a map of Dazu in a small brochure provided by the hotel, and it purports to show the main bus station. But in fact the map is wildly oversimplified and misleading; later I will realize that the only other map I have (in Stevens and Wehrfritz: "Southwest China off the Beaten Track", 1988, is reliable, and shows both the hotel and the bus station.) To get to the bus station from the Dazu Binguan, one takes the street which passes the north side of the hotel, goes a few hundred metres west and then turns left (south) at a cross-roads, into a street that crosses the Lai Xi He (river) on a bridge that is so wide it looks like a town square; the bus station is on the right-hand (west) side a short distance south of the bridge.

I find the bus station and a bus whose conductor says it will go to Baoding Shan but quotes an exorbitant fare. The ticket office, which does not sell tickets for this route, says that the fare should be two yuan. I will eventually realize that the exorbitant fare was in fact being quoted for a trip made specially for me. It is strange that there does not seem to be any normal bus service from here to Baoding Shan. Tao Xi, a young university teacher of English on a visit from Chongqing, is also looking for a Baoding Shan bus and puzzled that there is none. We join forces, and take a taxi for the purposes of finding and getting to a bus to Baoding Shan. It takes us to a small bus yard on the northern side of town, where we catch a bus almost immediately - at the fare of two yuan. The bus takes us up into the hills [78a], to a kind of village-square-cum-carpark where there are various shops and souvenir stalls. We walk for a hundred metres and then, to save time, take a trishaw to the park entrance.

The path follows the base of a horseshoe-shaped cliff in which there are caves and many niches filled with carved stone images, surrounded by luxuriant vegetation. The carvings have a vitality of a kind I have not seen elsewhere, many of them seeming almost modern, particularly in their representations of animals 78b-84a]. A number of carving groups depicting apparently natural scenes are telling stories with particular moral themes: one large group, for example, deals with the theme of filial piety [81b&82]. One group includes the original of a set of statues that I admired last year in Chongqing's exhibit at the great Kunming International Horticultural Exposition [79b].

Tao Xi and I follow a crowd being led by a Chinese guide. The guide gives extensive explanations of the carvings, and Tao Xi explains some of the key points to me.

I have told Tao Xi that I am looking for one particular statue, of a girl playing a flute. A photo of this statue was in a special supplement to the propaganda magazine "China Reconstructs" when I subscribed to it some forty years ago, at about the time of Mao's Great Leap Forward. I put her in a frame, and she has hung on walls wherever I have lived ever since. I supposed she would have been damaged in the Cultural Revolution, but a few months ago she turned up on a Web page, and so I knew she had survived. Tao Xi finds her, and points her out, and so suddenly I am face to face with the original which, when I first saw the photo so long ago, I never dreamt to see [83].

We walk up the hill from the reserve entrance, past an active Buddhist temple, visiting the Buddha's footprint in a pavilion in a small lake. This is said to have been discovered in recent years. It is much larger than life, a footprint in stone below water level but kept dry inside a retaining wall. A trishaw takes us back to the bus park, and a bus back to the Dazu bus station.

We catch a bus to Beishan, two kilometres or so from Dazu (although said, absurdly, by the Let's Go guide to be "in town"). Outside the entrance there are many stalls selling souvenirs, many of them very fine and cheap, including exquisite small statues of water buffalo and Buddhas in fine stone, each a small handful and selling for as little as ten yuan. But today there are no crowds here. The carvings are set into another cliff face, behind a metal grille enclosure which the visitor enters; the nearby vegetation is less luxuriant than at Baoding Shan. The carvings are older, less fine, less consistent in style, showing less evidence of imagination, more inscrutable and remote [86&87].

After leaving the enclosure we are accosted by vigorous hawkers (and manufacturers) of the small stone statues. I buy one small Buddha; it is weight and not price that deters me from buying many of the statues. We climb to a tall pagoda on the top of Baishan, the pagoda which seems to tower over Dazu. There we join a varied bunch of locals who are relaxing in the cool shade of a large tree [88a]. We circumambulate the pagoda, and look down through the thick haze at Dazu [88b]. We walk down many steps to the base of two great Buddha statues that stand in a huge niche underneath the ledge on which the pagoda stands [89a]. Tao Xi lights some incense sticks.

We walk towards town and half way down catch a taxi. Tao Xi goes on her way, and I return to the bus station.

I am wanting to travel down to Luzhou tomorrow, en route to Chishui just over the Sichuan-Guizhou border. At the bus station this morning, in my haste I made a stupid mistake, enquiring at the ticket office and pointing to the characters for Liuzhou - an entirely different name, to which the response was, of course, "Mei you!" - no service from Dazu to Liuzhou in faraway Guangxi province. But now I have recognized my mistake, and ask for the correct town, getting a ticket for the 10:30 a.m. bus.

After returning to the hotel I wander the streets, looking for a meal. At a street restaurant I choose a dish for a quoted four yuan, but stupidly allow the waiter to serve me with another serving and an extra dish, leaving myself open to the exorbitant charge which is made. I protest, pay somewhat less than the charge but certainly enough for what I have had, and leave.

I have seen few if any foreigners since leaving Chengdu, but on Friday morning (15th September) I notice a tour group of Europeans at the hotel. After changing money at the Bank of China, I am at the bus station by 10.


Through Luzhou to Chishui and district in northern Guizhou Province

The Luzhou bus is in fact a tiny van, and leaves beyond capacity, with fifteen bodies squeezed inside.

The bus travels to the Chengdu expressway which it follows for about 55 kilometres towards Chengdu before turning onto the Luzhou expressway heading south south-west, reaching the Luzhou long-distance bus station at about 12:30 [90b]. Enquiring about buses for Chishui, I am directed to buses parked outside the metal bus-compound enclosure (near the far right-hand corner of that enclosure as viewed from the terminal building). The driver of one bus says it is leaving for Chishui at 1 p.m.

Almost straight away, the bus moves off to a lane nearby, where many cartons of goods are loaded into and on top of the bus; they include a large quantity of fireworks, loaded into the bus, and I wonder what could happen in case of a collision [91a]. I am bothered by the fact that the sign on the front of the bus does not show the name of Chishui, but instead another name which I can't decipher at the time - Jiuzhi; even when I do decipher it, I will not be able to work out where that place is. The bus conductor says that that is the name of a town it is going through on the way to Chishui.

The bus leaves Luzhou at about 2, crossing the wide Chang Jianghe, so misty that one side is almost obscured from the other [91b]. It follows an expressway southward towards Bi Jie in Guizhou, and then travels eastward along rough roads through steamy, hilly bamboo country past farm houses with thatched roofs. The bus crosses the bridge over the Chishui He to Guizhou province and Chishui town, stopping at 5:30 on the north-south street closest to, and parallel with, the river. Near the bridge, this street forms a crossroads with the town's most important street, which crosses the bridge to the west and climbs a hill to the east [92] up to and past the long-distance bus station. Halfway up the hill, the Chishui Dajiudian is on a corner on the right-hand-side. This wonderful establishment provides a range of good, clean accommodation. I choose a thirty-yuan room but the staff, after some misunderstanding, persuade me to take a better room, with en suite bathroom - for the same price. I watch the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games on the room's TV.

The places I particularly want to visit near Chishui include Sidonggou (Four-cave Valley) and Shizhangdong waterfall - said to be the second-largest waterfall in China. To enquire about buses I walk up to the bus station only to find it closed, but I get some information from some people in the bus yard.

I walk down to the crossroads near the bridge and have a dinner of stick food, seated at a table in the street and surrounded by many people wanting to watch or talk to me, all of them eagerly friendly. When I have to pay at the end of my meal, the stall operator will take no more than Y5.50, less than the Y8.00 he quoted me.

As I climb the hill, a man who was in the dinner crowd draws my attention to an arena crowded with people in a park above the street. I go up to seek out what is going on and find hundreds of young people, mainly teenagers, dancing in formation to music with coloured sashes, with hundreds of people watching from low grandstands. It is a balmy night and an extraordinary experience to sit watching this spectacle in the twilight, in a place so far from the tourist trail.

On Saturday morning (16th September) I arrive at the bus station at 7:20, but find that the first bus to Shizhangdong has left already and the next is not due to go until 9. Anxious not to lose time, I board a minibus in the street outside, whose conductress says it is going to Sidonggou [93]. In fact it finishes at a small village, where passengers for Sidonggou transfer to a minivan that does go to Sidonggou - to the ticket office at the reserve entrance, arriving at about 8:30. There are two stone-paved paths up the valley, on either side of the river, giving access through a lush bamboo forest [94a,95b] to four waterfalls. The Rough Guide speaks only of "an impressive twin waterfall"; it is not clear which of the four waterfalls might be a twin, or indeed why the other three failed so badly to impress the authors that they went unmentioned. At first there are few tourists, although an hour or so later there will be several groups of Chinese on guided tours in their uniform tour-group peaked caps, many of the tourists being carried on bamboo chairs between a pair of bamboo poles held on the shoulders of wiry porters [94b&95a].

I walk up the side which is to my right hand, cross to the other path at the first waterfall and continue up to the second and third waterfalls and finally, at about 10 a.m., the fourth and highest waterfalls, returning on the first side [96&97]. The river and waterfalls are beautiful, with the steamy light filtering down through the tall bamboo forest.

From the ticket office, a minibus takes me back to Chishui. At the bus station, I buy tickets for a bus departure at 1 p.m. for Shizhangdong (Y8), and also for a sleeper-bus leaving at 4 p.m. tomorrow for Guiyang (Y105). Lunch is a hearty meal at a restaurant nearly opposite the bus station.

The attempt to reach the Shizhangdong waterfall is confusing. The bus, which would surely win the Coveted Award for Most Clapped-out Bus in China [98a], runs up the river valley [93b] with sides becoming steeper [98b], and reaches the small village of Shizhangdong at 2:30. The Lonely Planet guidebook says that the village is "next to the falls". That seems to fit some of the facts quite well: there is indeed a very high and spectacular waterfall just there, at the edge of the village [99a]. But I am suspicious. The waterfall does not resemble my recollection of photographs, and the said Lonely Planet guidebook gives its dimensions as 72m high and 68m wide: the waterfall is certainly as high, but would plainly never be as wide. The Rough Guide says even less, though at least it is not positively wrong: it just says that Shizhangdong falls are 40km from Chishui. Considering that they are the second-largest waterfall in China, the lack of further details is remarkable.

I can find no one to ask, except that the bus driver gives a sweeping gesture in the direction both of the tall waterfall at the edge of the village and also the main valley, continuing upstream in the same direction. So I charge off, following the road across a bridge, past the tall waterfall, and up the valley, the river to the right of the road. A huge gang of men is building part of the road to a high standard, both edges being in huge blocks of hand-dressed stone, hand-quarried from the cliffs beside the road, with the bed of the road being constructed in hand-crushed rock [99b]. There is one excavating machine, but for the most part the construction methods are ones that would have been available thousands of years ago. But clearly this road is regarded as important.

My problem is that the bus driver told me that the bus back to Chishui will leave at 3:50, and allowing for a reasonable margin that only leaves about an hour to find the waterfall - which, on the strength of the Lonely Planet book, I earlier expected to be next to the village. As I charge around bend after bend in the road [100a] there is no sign of a waterfall and no longer anyone to ask; I turn back, defeated for the time being. Tomorrow, instead of going to the Jinshagou Nature Reserve as I had begun to plan, I shall return here for another attack.

Back in the village, I enquire about the departure time of the bus back to Chishui. For some reason in this place I have special difficulty in communicating, but one shopkeeper says the bus leaves at 3:30. Asked about the "pubu", waterfall, she points up the valley, clearly well past the tall waterfall. The bus does arrive, and leaves at 3:45. Back in Chishui, I have another hearty meal at the restaurant where I had lunch.

On Sunday (17th September) I am determined to be on the first bus for Shizhangdong, and arrive at the bus station well before the 7 a.m. departure. After a slow run with many stops, the ancient bus reaches Shizhangdong at 8:55. This time I am lucky. When I ask the driver where the falls are, it turns out that a Chinese couple on the bus are headed there. We all walk along the road I travelled yesterday. Just past the point where I turned back it passes a handsome waterfall, the Zhongdong Waterfall, named in the Lonely Planet book as "nearby" the one which is "next to the village" (Chinese tourist literature gives its height at 20 metres and width at 60 metres) [100b]. Soon afterwards, just over half an hour from the bridge at the village, an inconspicuous flight of rough stone steps leaves the right-hand-side of the road, descending steeply to the river. The trail crosses the river and joins an extravagant new path nearing completion at and upstream from here [101a], with continuous paving and steps in hand-dressed stone slabs. Downstream, the new path is under construction in places and not yet begun in others. It seems that it will continue downstream, probably as far as an elaborate pedestrian bridge which crosses the river only a few hundred metres upstream from the village. Without doubt there will be, following completion, a substantial charge for admission; but there is none yet.

The walk along the new path upstream to the main falls takes about 45 minutes, and is delightful. The path is smooth and the vegetation luxuriant. My two companions [102a] have a keen interest in the vegetation, pausing to examine ferns and other plants; perhaps they are botanists. Not knowing how far the falls are, I charge ahead of them.

Gangs of workmen are splitting blocks of stone for the path from virgin rock, using the traditional method [101b]. Firstly, rectangular slots, perhaps eight centimetres deep, are made about sixty centimetres apart, using hammer-driven punches. Then wedges are driven into these holes with heavy sledge hammers, swung with great vigour on very long handles to the accompaniment of extraordinary grunts or yells, the wedges driving the sides of the slots apart to split the rock.

Arriving at the falls, I find masons at work among the great boulders at their foot, constructing steps and pathways and bridges. I scramble over various boulders and up a small cliff using foot-slots that have been carved into the face. When I encounter some difficulty or perhaps danger on the downward return, some of the masons rush to give me a hand. The falls are high and wide, although it is clear that there are times when the volume of water is much greater [102b&103].

I scamper back to the village, with a strong sense of relief that I am not returning after my second failed attempt to find the falls. As I arrive back at the village before midday, the bus has just pulled out for Chishui, but I am able to stop it and get on. I had been expecting a bus to leave at 1:00, but now suspect that there will be no other bus for at least two hours, and that missing the bus I am on would have meant missing my bus from Chishui to Guiyang; so it has been a close shave.

Through Guiyang to Kaili district and south-eastern Guizhou Province

As it turns out, the bus for Guiyang, due to leave Chishui at 4, does not leave until 5. It seems that the Guiyang departure and the one scheduled to leave at 5 for Zunyi have been combined. Several hours before sunrise (Monday 18th September) it stops at some roadworks and does not move again until 6 a.m., reaching Zunyi at 11. Further south, the countryside is a picturesque patchwork of cleared farmland with clusters of banana plants, and tropical woodland [105&106a].

We arrive in Guiyang at 2 o'clock [106b&107a]. The only business I have here is to get a visa extension. The perfect outcome would be to get that and catch a bus to Kaili, so as not to spend a night in Guiyang. I take a taxi to what appears to be the police office which the Lonely Planet guidebook says issues visa extensions. The police there certainly do not deal with visa extensions, but redirect me to another office in north-east Guiyang, near an expressway and Beijing Lu, giving directions to a taxi driver to take me there, to the large office-building which is the Guiyang police headquarters. The front door is locked, and access is through the rear carpark. Although I only want an extension for eight days, I am told to apply for 30 days - the standard extension. The police officer disappears with my passport and returns twenty minutes later to say that I have only been granted an extension for 20 days. I suspect this may be because I have applied while I still have 17 days left of my original visa; although on the several occasions when I have applied for extensions I have had similar periods of the original visas left and have never been refused an extension, it is often said in guidebooks and elsewhere that extensions are only granted in the last few days of original visas. But in any event, the authorities can't count: my original 30-day visa began on 2nd September and was therefore due to expire on 1st October; the extension I get expires on 28th October, which is to say that it is an extension for 27 days.

Another taxi takes me back to the bus station. The yard is full of buses, but many enquiries do not identify any bus going to Kaili. A number of people try to help, but without success. Then someone explains that buses to Kaili go from another bus depot, and that I need to go along the street to find it. It turns out to be adjacent, an even larger bus depot, next door. I find a Kaili bus, and am herded onto it by an enthusiastic conductress. It is a sleeper bus, and departs at 4. So I have been in Guiyang for two hours, taken three taxis at a total cost of thirty yuan, got my visa extension and gained the peace of mind that comes with a bus ticket to a desired destination.

I arrive at the long-distance bus station in Kaili at 10 p.m. and walk south along Wenhua Lu to the Wanhuan Guesthouse. It looks uninviting, and so I walk west along Beijing Lu to Lantian Jiudian, a comfortable, clean and cheap high-rise hotel with a smart lobby and lift and even a working telephone in the room.

Tuesday morning (19th September) is a time for catching up on washing and other chores before heading for the bus station, arriving at 11. I would like to visit Matang, a village of the Gejia "minority" (what a loaded word that is!). The Rough Guide says Matang is accessible by foot from the Kaili-Huangping road and that the bus driver will know where to put me off. But when I find a bus that travels this road and show the driver the name of Matang in Chinese characters, he has not heard of it. Later I will notice the contradiction between the Rough Guide, which says that Matang is a twenty-minute walk from the Kaili-Huangping road and the Lonely Planet book, which says it is about six kilometres from it: the authors of at least one of the guidebooks are writing about a place they have not visited.

So I decide to stay on the bus and travel to its destination, the Miao town of Chong'an. Leaving at 11:10, the bus crawls through Kaili, looking for more passengers. It stops inside what the Lonely Planet map of Kaili shows as the "local bus station", eventually leaving at 11:40. The countryside is beautiful, rice paddies on steep mountain-sides, the bus slow, the road bad. We reach Chong'an at 2. The town itself is mostly ugly [108a], the people subdued, the streets rough, only a few of the buildings in traditional style [108b&109a] most of the buildings seedy post-liberation and grey, the main attraction perhaps the five-daily market, but that is not today. A walk back along the road beside the river is pleasant [109b&110]. Chong'an is a starting-point for promising walks through the countryside.

The bus back leaves at 3:15. Halfway back to Kaili it has climbed out of the wide valley and there is a stupendous view back, of rice terraces and distant hills. Exactly in the middle is a school - a great white-tiled five-storey concrete building, totally discordant with the landscape [111a].

The approach to Kaili is ugly, a landscape of heavy industry [107b]. Kaili is the capital of the Qiandongnan Miao-Dong "Autonomous" Prefecture, but most evidence of "minority" culture is well hidden. As generally throughout China, the capital cities or towns are the parts of "minority" prefectures and counties where the swamping of the "minority" by Han culture (or non-culture) is most clearly evident.

The bus arrives at the same "local bus station" in Kaili. Dinner is at a rough restaurant beside the hotel entrance.

For Wednesday (20th September) my plan is a day trip to Fanpai, beyond Taijiang. Up at six, I save a few minutes by taking a cheap taxi to the long-distance bus station, only to find that the first bus to Taijiang is not due to go until 7:40. It leaves at 7:55, the road is good, and we reach Taijiang at 9:10 [111b]. Half an hour later, I leave Taijiang in a bus for Fanpai. The road is now rough earth, slow but motorable, winding through the steep hills and rice terraces, the views enchanting [112&113a,124a]. We arrive at Fanpai at 11:30.

Fanpai is a large village consisting entirely of traditional Miao timber buildings and a network of steep, narrow, slippery paths, with the tropical forest pressing in on all sides [113b-123]. A stream passes through the bottom of the village, crossed by several wind-and-rain bridges, covered bridges with seats along both sides, the social centres of the village. Several new three-storey houses are being built, entirely in traditional style, with massive use of timber.

Most of the women wear traditional clothing, all of it dark blue - a dress over trousers and a simple scarf-like head dress. The children wear clothing without a trace of Miao, or even Chinese, influence. The people are shy, the children friendly.

A couple of hours is sufficient to explore the village, and I catch a bus for Taijiang at 1:30. On the bus I chat to a uniformed policeman. When I tell him I am twice his age, he says "Then I should call you 'Uncle'." He tells me, if I need the police, that I should ask for him.

The bus from Taijiang leaves at 3:07 and arrives at Kaili's long-distance bus station at 4:40. I stop at an internet shop on the north side of Beijing Lu just east of Wenhua Lu, and collect my email. There is some disturbing news from home, and I feverishly type out instructions, trying to cover all of several possibilities.

Concerning one matter, the email I received asked me to telephone someone in Melbourne. International telephone calls from China are very expensive, more than enough to destroy very rapidly any planned reserves of Chinese currency; call-back numbers which charge calls to one's home account do not work outside the largest centres. A good solution, where it can be made to work, is to make a brief call to the other country, and ask for a call back from there. At the hotel reception I am able to telephone my wife Bernice, in Australia. A call of less than a minute costs Y33; I ask her to call back, and to ask for my room extension. She does that, and tells me that the operator who answered the hotel's number was able to understand the extension number in English. So I am able in this remote place to receive calls from Australia, and tonight I have two long calls.

On Thursday (21st September) I am up by 5 for the departure from the long-distance bus station at 6:20 for Congjiang. At first the road is through forested mountains [124]; Langde and other villages are picturesque [125]. Later the road follows a broadening valley [126a], cultivated in places, to Rongjiang for a brief lunch-stop before leaving at 12:30. Now the weather is suddenly hotter, the country much dryer and the road very dusty. Before Rongjiang the road was excellent, but an hour after Rongjiang it becomes very bad. Here the road follows the left bank of the Duliu Jiang, with views of Dong villages across the river [126b-128a].

We arrive at Congjiang [129b] at 3:45, at a small bus station. I plan to stay here tonight, but tomorrow I would like to follow the advice of the Rough Guide, travelling north-west on the road towards Pilin (on the road which eventually leads to Liping) but before reaching Pilin turning eastwards on another road, which the book says has no bus service, through Luoxiang to Zhaoxing. The Lonely Planet gives information about buses which is out-of-date since it does not show the recently-completed direct road from Congjiang to Sanjiang and so leaves the main route as the much longer one through Pilin. After confusing attempts to communicate at the Congjiang bus station (even the Lonely Planet book admits to "some confusion" at the bus station about departure times) I buy a ticket to Pilin for tomorrow morning, from where I believe I should be able to reach Zhaoxing.

I go in search of the Mingzhu Jiulou for accommodation, said by the less-than-helpful Rough Guide to be "near" the bus station but not mentioned by the Lonely Planet book. I am sent off in the wrong direction from the bus station and in due course fall back on the old remedy of hiring a trishaw to take me to this uncertain location - this time for the fare of one yuan. The hotel turns out to be almost adjacent to the bus station but in the other direction: coming out of the bus station, one turns right (that is, towards the intersection with the road that crosses the river) and finds the hotel almost immediately on the right (that is, on the side away from the river). The hotel is comfortable and cheap.

I go for a walk to the south bank of the river, whose main street is lined with tall buildings and construction work. I pass a water-buffalo munching in the street. On the river-side of the street in one place there are no buildings, and an unprotected drop of many metres at the edge of the footpath; I wonder how many children will have to die before someone has the bright idea of installing a railing.

Between the main street and the river, on one side of the bridge a Dong village is squashed, its dark timber and bark roofs contrasting with the concrete and tiles of the rest of the town. I wander through the village [129a], a rather squalid place with primitive housing and rubbish in the streets, a different world. Are there girls here who put on their western clothes and shoes and lipstick and go off in the morning with their plastic handbags to work in shops or offices, crossing from the remnants of one world into the other? Can "ethnic" culture survive when it is surrounded by all the products of modern consumer technology?

But perhaps modern technology is not quite as pervasive as I thought it might be, since my attempts to find an internet shop in this town are unsuccessful. I expect there is one hidden away somewhere, but all I find are a couple of shops with computers that are being used for plotting advertising signs.

On Friday (22nd September) I am at the bus station by 6, and the bus for Pilin leaves at 6:30. Inexplicably, it goes across the river to the south side and turns right, past the Dong village, travelling west. Soon it will be going in what seems to be the correct compass direction, north-east. Eventually I will conclude that a kink in the river at Congjiang must mean that what is here the south side of the river would, if the river were straight, be on the north side. Once again, I am at a disadvantage for having no adequate map.

We travel through a countryside of rice fields and haystacks, and Dong villages with drum towers [129b]. At 9, the bus conductress puts me off at a T-junction and points along the joining road to the right, saying it goes to Pilin. Walking along the road, it appears that it must carry regular traffic. There are many water-buffalo and haystacks in the rice-fields beside the road [130a], and at last there is the relaxing rhythm of hearing my own footsteps. On the bus a short distance back I caught sight of a town up the valley which this road now follows, and expect it must be Pilin. It is in fact only about one kilometre before I reach Pilin. There I ask about a bus to Zhaoxing and am told it is due at 9:30, only a few minutes away, or barely enough time for a bottle of cool water. The bus arrives, and an hour later I reach Zhaoxing [130b].

A "Foreigners' Hotel" (well, at least it's not called "Aliens' Hotel") on a corner on the right of the main street solicits my custom vigorously, a unattractive concrete building. A short distance down the side street, on its opposite, right-hand, side there is another hotel, Wenzhua Zhaodaisuo, this one a timber building in traditional Dong style. The manager is keen to do business and especially proud of the clean toilets and the new showers that he has just had installed with hot-water heaters; the shower-room has a clear-glass window onto the school-yard, which serves as the village playground. In the reception room upstairs there are interesting displays of photos and artefacts, some for sale. I book into an attractive room in the upper floor [131a].

I walk around the town, an intact Dong village, almost all buildings in traditional style, including a number of drum towers and adjacent wind-and-rain bridges, some of them being used for their function as places for people of all ages to sit and gossip and for children to play [131b-132]. Some mischievous young boys are climbing high on the timber frame inside one of the towers [133a].

Most of the concrete pavement of the main street is covered in rice set out to dry. After lunch in a restaurant, I set off on a walk up to Jitang, a Dong village high in the mountains. As I leave Zhaoxing, people are feverishly gathering up the rice on the pavement [133b], and a glance at the sky confirms that this is because rain is coming. It does come, heavily, while a fair proportion of the rice remains on the pavement. I shelter under a drum tower in the main street: the bottom sections of drum towers are open, with seats between the tree-trunk pillars that support the towers, places to meet and gossip.

The rain abates, and I set off in my raincoat in the direction of Pilin. At a Y-junction just before the town gate I follow a dirt road which climbs away to the left. After a few hundred metres, I bear left at another Y-junction. The road to the right is, I believe, the one already mentioned that comes from Luoxiang. I take the left-hand road and follow it as it winds up into the mountains past idyllic rice terraces [134,135,138], about five kilometres to the large Dong village of Jitang, high on the mountain ridge, entered through an elaborate archway [136a].

The Lonely Planet book says that it is an hour-long walk to Jitang. That is a reasonable time for the downhill return walk from Jitang, but if the authors did ever visit Jitang and walked there in that time then they were desperate to prove a rather pointless point: the walk demands a slow pace so that the wonderful views that unfold at every bend can be enjoyed.

I wander through the town [136b&137a]. The people are friendly. An old woman comes up, touching me affectionately and hugging me, fussing over me and talking as though I am a wonderful visitor. I am not quite sure what she is on about, but she is clearly happy to meet me. I find that there are (at least) three drum towers in this town - more than the single drum tower mentioned by the learned Lonely Planet book. All the buildings are in traditional timber construction with the exception of the three-storey brick and concrete school building [137b], hidden away at the top end of town. I look in through the school windows, and see that the furnishings inside are minimal - wooden desks that have seen many generations, blackboards desperate for a new coat of black paint, scarcely different from the furnishings of Mao's childhood school which I shall see at Shaoshan.

The walk back is steep, and it is easy to walk fast. It is seldom more than a minute or two between groups of farm-workers walking up the hill to Jitang. I notice that I have seen no farmhouses along this road: the farms are worked by people who live in the village.

Back in town, I find that a group of eight Frenchmen doing a tour in a minibus with a Chinese guide has booked into the hotel. The wooden walls of my room are thin, and perhaps it will be a noisy night, although in the end they want to turn in early enough. The guide enquires for me about buses to Sanjiang and is told that there are two, coming from different places, passing through Xiaoxing at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m.

On Saturday (23rd September) I am outside the hotel by 6. Several buses are parked in, or pass along the main street. A tout for a truck that is loading people for Sanjiang lies to me, saying that there is no bus service there. I find that a bus which has been parked outside the hotel overnight is going to Sanjiang; I am on it when it leaves just before 7. We come upon another bus, which has broken down and wait for an hour or so while our driver tries to help. We pass through hills with a mixture of forest and rice terraces, in light rain.

At a road bridge just after the Dong village of Diping, the bus stops [140a], apparently so that I can photograph the spectacular wind-and-rain bridge a couple of hundred metres away, described by the Lonely Planet guide as the best in the region. But the conductress wants to take me to the bridge. I follow her along a path by the river, and take a few photographs of the bridge. It is an elaborate building, with roofs of up to six tiers, almost like pagodas [139]. It seems that the conductress just wants me to see the bridge, perhaps because she is proud of it. There is no sign of impatience on the part of the other passengers.

On the road we pass a car decked out with colourful flags and loudspeakers, with painted signs on the roof 141a]. At one time a car of this kind would have been spreading political propaganda, but this one is promoting the Sanjiang lottery, first prize a million yuan.

West of Sanjiang we pass another elaborate wind-and-rain bridge. The bus arrives at Sanjiang just after midday, but not at the bus station. I take a trishaw to the bus station. Sanjiang county is designated "Dong Autonomous", part of Liuzhou Prefecture of Guangxi Zhuang "Autonomous" Region - "Region" in this context effectively meaning "province". If I had time I would spend several days here, exploring the countryside and its Dong villages. But if I move on quickly there is just enough time to see some of the most important places in Hunan province.

At the bus station an English-speaking tout for a hotel is very helpful, explaining that trains for Zhangjiajie leave at about 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., that tickets can be bought at the railway station some 15 kilometres north of the town, and that buses to the station leave from the street in front of the bus station. I leave my pack at the bus station office, and find a bus outside bound for the railway station, but after waiting in it for 45 minutes it is still far from full. Nearby I find a van that is going to the station, and soon after I transfer to it it leaves. On arriving at about 1:15, I am told that the ticket office does not open until 3. Meanwhile, I get an excellent and cheap meal at the restaurant on the railway platform.

The ticket office opens early, at 2:50. The ticket-seller, visible only through the mouse-hole opening, is clearly a gentleman of the old school, considerate and thorough; later I will not even be sure that he is not wearing an old Mao jacket. He sells me a handwritten ticket of the greatest complexity for a train at 11:50 p.m., and also prepares a handwritten note on a separate piece of paper. I guess that what is going on is that he is not able, at this small intermediate station, to sell me anything but a seat and that he is providing me with a note to the train conductor so that I can get an upgrade on the train to a hard sleeper. After I return to the bus station in Sanjiang, the hotel tout confirms that my guess is correct.

After a wander through the town centre, I catch a minibus back to the station at 6:30, thinking that I may as well eat and relax there as anywhere else. I have a big meal and receive the most considerate attention at the station restaurant, enjoying a bottle of beer as I watch the Olympic Games from Sydney on the restaurant's TV. Having at least a bottle of beer a day is one of the pleasures of being in China. It is always very light, and fresh-tasting, not over-bitter; at as little as two or two and a half yuan for a 650 ml bottle, it is as cheap as bottled water. It is always interesting to try the local beers in a new place.



Into Hunan Province: Zhangjiajie, Changsha, Shaoshan and HengShan

Slowly through the evening, the number of passengers in the waiting-room grows. The room is lit by only one functioning light-globe, of perhaps fifteen watts, and so reading is difficult. But I am concerned about one thing: there are three tracks, but outside the waiting room the only platform is occupied by a long train of goods trucks which does not look as though it is at all likely to move. I do not know which of the other tracks the Zhangjiajie train will use, or which side will be open for boarding - or, in fact, which direction it will travel. I am worried that when the train does arrive there will not be enough time to get around the end of the goods train before it leaves. The ticket office is closed, and it seems there is no one to ask. But there is no need for the worry. At the far end of the long platform, a traffic office is fully functional, with several uniformed officers. Well before the train arrives they ensure that I know exactly what is going to happen. When the train does arrive they make sure I get around the end of the goods wagons and help me scramble up into the passenger train. In China, things often turn out as though there are people watching everywhere to make sure that the foreigner is looked after; perhaps there are.

On the train, I proffer my note to the conductress. The train conductors who are able to arrange upgrades are said to be the ones closest to the dining car, and that fits with my experience this time. We sit down in the dining car, and the conductress goes through the complex procedures of calculating the cost of the upgrade - a function of distance, the class of train and, of course, the fare I have already paid. The transaction done, she shows me to my berth, and without difficulty I get a sound night's sleep. In fact, the train is less than half full, and so it would have been possible without the upgrade to stretch out and sleep on a row of seats.

At 7:45 on Sunday morning (24th September) the train stops at Jishou, about 240 kilometres from Zhangjiajie city. Beyond Jishou there are many tunnels through the hills, and the train arrives at Zhangjiajie station at about 10:15.

At the station, a tout for tours from the CITS office on the forecourt approaches me. I need to send an important email. When I ask where I can find an internet shop, he says he will take me to Zhangjiajie city, about nine kilometres from the station, and to a computer school which he attends and where I can use a terminal for five yuan an hour. We get on a bus and I pay both fares. We get off in the centre of the city and climb up the stairs to the fourth floor of a building, to a classroom full of personal computers. His teacher is there, and agrees that I may use a terminal. I do so for an hour, and then we catch a bus back, arriving at the station at 12:30. Although I have explained all along that I am an independent traveller wanting to make my own way and not go on a package tour, he makes one last attempt at persuading me that a package costing several hundred yuan would in fact save me money. He accepts that I am not interested, and I give him ten yuan - enough to have made it worthwhile to spend time with me.

A minibus takes me the forty-odd kilometres to the main entrance of the Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve at Zhangjiajie village [142], a place sharing the name of the much larger Zhangjiajie city. The village is mainly one long street of hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants. My two guidebooks that cover this town both recommend the Zhangjiajie Binguan; the Rough Guide says that rooms cost between Y75 and 100, and Let's Go says that rooms without bath cost Y80. The reception desk is staffed by the rudest and most ignorant receptionist I will encounter in China this year, presumably employed by an absentee landlord, but the net result of my enquiry is that the lowest charge the hotel will accept is Y200; so there is no business to be done at Zhangjiajie Binguan. A hotel opposite has professionally pleasant reception staff, but the minimum charge is Y180. A hotel closer to the park and on the same side as the Zhangjiajie Binguan charges Y150, and I accept. Later I will hear that persistence would reveal dorm beds in the town at Y60, although I wonder whether they would be available to foreigners, particularly at what is a busy holiday season.

Admission to the park costs Y108 for two days. I want to use the two full days, and so decide to buy a ticket tomorrow morning and spend this afternoon looking over the village. Some of the more expensive restaurants have a wide variety of caged animals in tiny cages. One contains what appears to be a badger; it seems to be in good health except that the lower part of one front leg is missing, bone and muscle exposed, as though someone has actually dined on part of the animal.

[See Note 5 concerning admission charges and access to different sections of the Wulingyuan Reserve].

There are many restaurants, including a collection of them in a dingy canvas-roofed area behind a building opposite the Zhangjiajie Binguan. They quote silly prices. I have a reasonably-priced and tasty stick-food dinner at a street cafe, watch the Olympic Games in the hotel and have an early night.

At 3 a.m. (Monday 25th September) continuously loud thunderstorms begin, with heavy rain. By 10 the rain is lighter. I buy a collapsible umbrella, bargaining down from Y20 to Y15, although I will later be informed that the "real" price is Y10; this is a commonplace contraption, especially in China where male and female alike are to be seen with their collapsible umbrellas in floral or other pretty designs, but it is not a contraption I have used before, and my personal discovery of it is long-overdue. I also buy a plastic poncho with hood for two yuan, although the steamy conditions will mean that it quickly becomes as wet inside as out.

Signs inside the park offer little concession to anyone who does not read Chinese. A couple of hundred metres beyond the entrance a large hoarding contains an inscrutable map and some descriptive text in Chinese and what, in poor taste, is more and more widely known as Chinglish. As I stand trying to work out whether anything useful can be extracted, the inevitable Chinese person appears beside me, a twenty-four-year-old girl, assuring me that she wishes to accompany me wherever I wish to go, that she wants nothing except to be with me and show me the way, and perhaps learn a little English. Mei is in fact a professional tour guide, apparently today without an engagement. I assure her that I really prefer just to find my own way, that I am old and quite beyond holding a conversation as I climb thousands of steps, that I have no money with me and no intention of paying her for anything; she assures me that she doesn't expect any payment. But she still follows me all the way up the mountain and down again and does give me quite a bit of useful information, and in the end I pay her ten yuan, perhaps barely enough to prevent her wishing she hadn't bothered.

We climb on almost continuous stone steps, said to number 3880 [144&145], to the top of Huangshizhai mountain, at 1227 metres the highest in the park. We then walk a circuit of perhaps three kilometres counter-clockwise around what is effectively a small plateau edged with cliffs towering above a valley that seems like a remote abyss [145]; as the heavy clouds move, we catch mysterious glimpses of huge rock columns and the billowing carpet of treetops in the valley far below. On completion of the circuit, we descend by a different route, below cables for overhead cars, some of which emerge from the mist and pass silently far above. Returning to our starting point, the pinnacles are again towering above [146].

We return to the park entrance, and Mei arranges the complicated procedures for me to gain admission again tomorrow without paying for another ticket.

I go off on my own, following the path along the Golden Whip Stream for about 4 1/2 kilometres to a road and the usual gaggle of souvenir and food stalls. This time the great pinnacles are seen from below, towering above. The path is easy, stone-paved throughout and with only a few steps as it follows the stream. Now that the rain has stopped, there are innumerable tour groups, each in its uniform peak caps and each with its guide, moving slowly and pausing for long explanations, many of them no doubt about fanciful resemblances seen in the rock formations. There are so many of the groups that it is actually difficult to move fast along the path, but when I return upstream in the last hour of daylight they have all disappeared; a few people-porters are returning home with their sedan chairs, mostly empty.

I have been using two maps of the reserve, both on sale in the village. One has a few English place-names with the Chinese. It shows the mountains as if viewed obliquely, so that roads and paths disappear behind them. Another map which is conventional, in Chinese only, does not show the mountains at all, but is much clearer and, it seems to me, more accurate in showing the roads and paths. A map of the reserve appended to a large tourist map of Hunan [see note 1] is also useful.

I watch more of the Olympics - a great escape and diversion, entertaining in the combination of the Australian venue and the Chinese coverage, with its natural attention to the many Chinese victories; at this stage in the gold-medal count, China is running second to America, and seems within striking distance of the top position.

On Tuesday (26th September) the weather is better - no rain, overcast but with little low cloud. As I present my special paper for the second day's admission, the attendant matches it with a copy that the "readmission" kiosk faxed yesterday. The cumbersome procedure shows that the overwhelming number of visitors, most of them in Chinese tour groups, only visit the park, or at least this part of it, for one day.

Today I walk along the Golden Whip Stream again [147], but turn east to follow the Shadao Gully path [148&149b] through Yanchou village. But at two key points I am misdirected, and find myself travelling a route overgrown with wet vegetation [149b&150a], heading steeply north to a high pass which I reach an hour after leaving the main path. The route consists of stone steps connecting many short sections of an old, overgrown road formation. Because the route sees few walkers, the sandstone paving is not kept scrubbed by foot-traffic, and it is exceedingly slippery. At the pass there is a minor road and some cultivated fields. After winding about I find a path that seems to be going on and which descends steeply. I have lost contact with where I am, and the bearings of my compass don't seem to make sense, but the path is clearly going somewhere. It is only a short distance before it ends that I realize I am following downward the same path that I followed up the hill. If I had spent more time in careful study of maps and compass, and paid less attention to directions from people who knew no more about what is where than I do, I would have done better.

I work out where I am, and walk back along the Golden Whip Stream before turning north-west along the Shadao Gully path. After about 1.2 kilometres, I turn right onto a path which, though still paved with stone, is much rougher. It ascends a gully very steeply for perhaps another 1.2 kilometres and reaches a road lined with hotels and restaurants. This road has no direct road connection to Zhangjiajie, but comes from Tianzishan. The village looks as though it sees very few foreigners. One of the hotels urges me to stay there, at Y50 a night. So this is one place where the traveller could follow the suggestion of Let's Go and stay on in the park without buying another ticket; but a backpack would make it a hard haul, and be conspicuous as well.

Returning to the Shadao Gully [150b], I follow the excellent main path east, climbing to a high pass where there are wonderful views. Short of time to go further east through Yanchou village, I take the shortest route back to Zhangjiajie village [151]. More restaurants quote high prices and go without my custom, and so I enjoy another dinner of stick-food.

Soon after 7 on Wednesday morning (27th September), I catch a bus to the bus station Zhangjiajie city and from the street outside the bus station another bus, to the railway station. Last time I was here, the CITS tout told me that there are three trains every day to Changsha, but that the train at 1:42 p.m. is fastest, reaching Changsha in about four hours. This is an important piece of information, especially since the greater part of the railway, about 250 kilometres from Shimen south-east to Changsha, is not shown in my guidebook maps. (The "current" year's Rough Guide and Let's Go give the transit times as 8 to 16 hours and 11 hours respectively; the Let's Go book shows a single railway joining Huaihua in western Hunan with Changde - in fact on the Shimen-Changsha line - following an extraordinary route roughly halfway between the two actual railway lines joining Huaihua and Changsha.)

I buy a ticket for the 1:42 train and catch a bus back towards Zhangjiajie city in order to change money at the Bank of China; there is a prominent branch of the bank on a corner on the left-hand-side before reaching central Zhangjiajie city. After getting the money, I walk south south-west along a lane towards the wide Lishui river [152a]. I am wanting to get to a large church on the river bank, which I have noticed from the main road from the station. People at the church office unlock the church and show it to me, explaining with pride that it can seat 1600 people 152b&153a]. My Chinese is not up to enquiring whether it is full every Sunday.

After returning along the lane to the main road I notice the YuLong Temple [153b] in its park on a high wooded hill a short distance to the north-east. I walk along the road in the direction of the station, looking for a tall pagoda I have noticed between the road and the river. I find it down a steep lane, inside a locked compound [154a]. It is in a state, not untypically, of some decay, with sizeable shrubs growing in the masonry at different levels. Outside the gate is a shrine with a smoke-stained image in a niche [154b], and the stumps of many incense sticks.

Back at the railway station, I have a conversation with a young man called Zhou Han who has been speaking with a Dutch traveller, Freda. He is a final-year medical student, returning home to visit his parents in Changsha, and he speaks good English. We all sit together on the train, and chat for the duration of the trip. The train is fast, stopping only at Cili, Changde and Yiyang.

We discuss many things. Zhou Han has a lecturer who comes from America, who had to lie low for a while after the Americans bombed China's embassy in Belgrade in May 1999. Zhou Han received great acclamation at the time for a three-thousand word article he wrote, condemning the U.S. He likes the American lecturer, and had no bad feelings towards him. I ask him about the Falun Gong movement, which in recent months has been suppressed by the government. Although Zhou Han did not know any followers himself, he did see some practicing, but that is now "past tense".

We arrive at Changsha just before dark. Zhou Han invites me and Freda to stay the night at his parents' house, and it is clear that he really does hope we will accept. We do accept, but on condition that he phone his mother from the station, and genuinely ascertain that she is happy to have us. He does that, and after buying her a small gift we head off in a taxi.

The home is an apartment a few floors up, on the south side of Changsha [155b]. On arrival we meet Zhou Han's parents, Zhou Jun Li and Chen Xia Lin, and his sister Zhou Hui. Zhou Jun Li is at his computer, on the internet. Chen Xia Lin has prepared, in the short time it took to come from the airport, a magnificent meal for all of us. We eat and talk. Somehow the subject gets to Zhang Yimou's films, which I say I like. Chen Xia Lin does not like them, and considers they pander to sentiments that are important in the west but not in China - designed that way so as to win prizes in the west. We watch the Olympics on TV: everyone is very proud of China's medal tally. Afterwards, we watch part of a video of "Independence Day".

Zhou Han telephones the South Bus Depot to enquire about buses to Shaoshan tomorrow. The number gives a recorded message which says that there are no buses to Shaoshan tomorrow, an announcement that seems hard to believe. Zhou Jun Li says that there are many buses from the railway station to Xiangtan, the large city en route to Shaoshan, and that from there it will be easy to find a bus for Shaoshan.

Up at 6 on Thursday (28th September) Zhou Han and I enjoy breakfast prepared by Chen Xia Lin before we catch a bus to the railway station. We go to the bus station nearby, and following some enquiry by Zhou Han he puts me on a bus which takes me to the South Bus Depot. Zhou Han seems to have ascertained that there will indeed be a bus to Shaoshan from there. The bus stops beside a large truck depot, and the bus conductor escorts me through the truck depot to the adjacent bus depot and a minibus waiting for passengers to Shaoshan. It fills only slowly and at 9:40, an hour and twenty minutes after I arrive at the bus depot, it leaves.

The bus passes through Xiangtan at 10:30 and arrives in Shaoshan city at 11:17. There I transfer to a minibus that takes me to Shaoshan village and to the entrance of a large park set back a couple of hundred metres on the opposite side of the road from Mao's house [156a]. This park, which charges for admission, is an attraction visited by large numbers of Chinese tourist buses. There is a left-luggage facility at the ticket office. I leave my bag there and go off to look at Mao's house [156b-157]; admission is free.

The house is large; Mao's family shared it with another family. Part of the original house was destroyed by fire and has been rebuilt. The presentation of the house itself is unpretentious. It contains some original furniture [158a], a small number of photographs, and tasteful signs outlining what happened in the various rooms - the birth of Mao, early meetings of the Communist Party. Back rooms off a courtyard contain old farming implements. Just here, where modern buildings (in the Chinese version of modern, that is) are everywhere nearby, this house seems to belong to a lost age; on the other hand, there are vast regions of China where this house, with its furnishings and farm implements, would even today seem comfortable and wealthy.

Almost next door, the school which Mao attended [159a] is a museum, with a 7-yuan admission charge. There are photographic displays and a classroom, furnished as it was in Mao's time. As already mentioned in the case of Jitang, there are schools in China still which are furnished and equipped in much the same way as that room.

I walk up to Shaoshan village. Near Mao's house and in the village there are shops selling mementos of Mao, including many gold-coloured statues and busts [159b], furnishings no doubt for many a quasi-religious shrine.

In the village square I board a bus for Xiangtan, and after waiting to fill, it leaves at 2:15, arriving at Xiangtan bus station at 3:10. Some people I met in Shaoshan told me that I would not be able to get to Nanyue tonight, but would have to stay in Xiangtan. For that reason, I am anxious to find a bus for Nanyue as quickly as possible, in case it is the last one for the day. Outside the bus station, the conductress of a bus says that it will take me to Nanyue, and I jump on; the bus leaves at 3:25. This is another case of excessive haste: the destination written at the front of the bus is not Nanyue or any other name I recognize. With a little thought I could conclude that there must be buses today, if not for Nanyue as a destination, then certainly passing through Nanyue en route to Hengyang. But I do not engage in even a little thought, and so I am again flying blind.

After about an hour, I notice the conductress waving down other buses, asking their drivers questions, but without getting what she wants. At first I do not understand that this has anything to do with me. That becomes clear when she waves down a taxi and all but drags me from the bus, telling the driver to take me to Nanyue. Having now no idea of where I am, I am hardly in a position to protest. I ask the driver "How much?", to which he replies with "sixty yuan"; I counter-offer fifty yuan, he accepts, and off we go. At that price, I am expecting a ride of perhaps half an hour, but in fact it lasts for an hour and twenty minutes, and since the driver has to pay a road-toll of ten yuan, the effective fare is only forty yuan.

I estimate the total distance travelled by bus and taxi from Xiangtan to Nanyue at not less than 140 kilometres - an hour and twenty minutes in the bus, and the same in the taxi. The bus passed through a large city. I am itching to acquire an adequate map and work out where I went. Later I will get a good map, but I shall never work out where I went: the distance by the direct road is 87 kilometres, and it passes nowhere near a large city.

The Rough Guide speaks about "inexpensive accommodation ... above a hairdresser and restaurant" at Nanyue, but with only vague directions as to location. I do find the place matching the description, on the main Changsha-Hengyang highway, a short distance south-west from the bus depot which is behind the corner of the highway (National Road 107) and Deng Shan Lu. The name of the hotel is San Xing Dajiudian; it offers spotless rooms at 80 yuan.

The bus station is closed, but a shopkeeper tells me that a bus for Guilin leaves every morning at 7:30.

There are a number of sit-down restaurants in a street parallel with the highway, turning left off Deng Shan Lu. I have dinner at one, which attempts without success to charge me double the quoted price.

On Friday, Michaelmas (29th September) I go to the bus station to buy a ticket for tomorrow's bus to Guilin. But I was misinformed. There is no bus service from Nanyue to Guilin; instead I must first catch a bus to Hengyang and from there a bus to Guilin. Buses to Hengyang, I am told, leave on the hour, the last at 6 p.m. I decide to aim to be back for the 5 p.m. departure.

I walk through the streets [160a] to Nanyue Damiao, the great temple that may have its origins as long ago as the Qin dynasty. In the large and spacious walled enclosure there are many temples [161&162a], set out in the usual symmetrical way, with a succession of large shrines on the central axis and cloisters and other buildings on the sides. These buildings on the sides include some where huge quantities of very loud fire-crackers are let off [160a], presumably to frighten away undesirable spirits. Outside the side wall of the complex, to the south-west, there are more temples, one with a large cast-iron, pagoda-like incense stand [162b].

At the far end of the complex the exit lets out onto a small square where there are minibuses bound for the summit of Hengshan. They quote a fare of forty yuan, and refuse to haggle, claiming that the summit is 27 kilometres away. Irritated, I charge off up the summit road. Almost immediately, I realize that if the distance of 27 kilometres is correct it will take a heroic effort to prove a point and cover the climb up and back on foot in time for the Hengyang bus. But there is no need to worry: after a few hundred metres I reach the gates to the reserve and immediately beyond find a large yard with buses taking passengers at ten yuan for the bottom cable car station. The cable car costs Y30 (the fare down is Y25, return Y50), and a bus from the top cable car station to just below the summit Y5. So the total of fares to the top is Y45, Y5 more than the minibus all the way; but the ride on the cable car more than justified the difference.

The mountain is covered in cloud, and there are no long views. The cable car ride [163] is far above the forest swirling in the rain and mist. On the peak, Zhurong Gong [164] is a rather austere stone temple crowded with people.

I walk all the way back to Nanyue. From the summit, I follow the steps from the temple down to the road terminus, just beyond that steps which leave the right-hand side of the road on a path leading back to the road at a turntable, and then the road to the top cable car station. Below the station, the road passes between rows of restaurants [166a]. At a granite platform on the left-hand side a short distance beyond the restaurants, stone steps leaving the road are the beginning of a walking trail to the bottom station. The trail is mainly stone-paved, with many steps [166b] and with short distances along a minor road, whose bends it links, following a route not far from the cable car; the main road between the cable car stations winds faraway to the north-west. The delightful walk links many Buddhist and Daoist temples [165]. Just above the bottom cable car station is Xuandu Si, the principal Daoist centre for Hunan province.

Below the bottom cable car station I follow the road, with only occasional stretches of path between bends. The road passes the grand Martyrs' Memorial Hall [167a]; this is the only memorial in China to honour the Guomindang soldiers killed in the anti-Japanese war.

The walk from the summit back to Nanyue Damiao takes just over three hours, with the bottom cable car station about halfway. From the Martyrs' Memorial to Nanyue Damiao takes less than forty minutes; against that, the Rough Guide gives a time (in the upward direction) of two hours. Eight hours would be ample time for a walk from Nanyue to the summit and the back, including some breaks on the way.

Back in Nanyue, I visit the Buddhist Zhusheng Si [167b], smaller than Nanyue Damiao and peaceful, with few visitors. On a street nearby, there are many workshops producing Buddha statues carved from wood [168a], evidently a supply centre for a large region.

I am ahead of time, and decide to try for the 4 p.m. Hengyang bus. Arriving at the bus station I board a bus which in fact leaves at 3:35. Arriving at a busy bus station in Hengyang at 4:30 I go straight to the ticket office to enquire about departures for Guilin. A man helps me get a ticket for a sleeper bus scheduled to leave at 5 p.m. - a connection which has depended on leaving Nanyue when I did. Bus station staff tell me to wait in the waiting room, and keep on telling me to do that well after 5 o'clock passes. I am anxious, and not sure what is going on, but the explanation turns out to be simple: the bus originates elsewhere and has not yet arrived. There is no prospect of me being allowed to miss the bus. Eventually it arrives, and leaves at 5:30.

This turns out to be the worst sleeper bus trip with the worst driver I have ever experienced. Between departing and about 9 p.m. it stops three times, for several hours in total, to load many bags of live ducks and fowls on the roof. The bus stops several times after that. At prolongued stops and at other times as well, the driver jabbers almost continuously at the top of his voice, with no regard for a load of passengers wishing, presumably, to sleep. At 4:30 a.m. (30th September) it stops again for a long unloading operation, the driver again shouting. No one complains. As I get off after the bus reaches Guilin [168b] at 5:30 (Saturday 30th September) I tell the driver just what I think of him, more by way of vengeance than any reasonable aspiration to reform.


Yangshuo and district in Guangxi Province

A guidebook says that most buses from Guilin to Yangshuo leave from the railway station. I get and follow wrong instructions and walk off in the wrong direction, eventually needing to enquire again from someone in the street and catching a local bus in the other direction to the bus station.

Arriving in Yangshuo mid-morning I am suddenly in a town where there are many foreigners, and many signs in English [169]. I shall enjoy the luxury of having no language problems. After a breakfast of honey pancakes I make my way to Xi Jie, the tourist heart of this tourist town, and to the Shi Hai hotel. The price of a room (single or double) in this comfortable hotel is 40 yuan, but the staff explain that that will double during the national holiday week that starts tomorrow; even at the doubled rate, the charge seems reasonable.

A travel agent, "Uncle Bob", has a counter in the hotel reception. It is marked "C.I.T.S.", one of several such in town. C.I.T.S. also has its own branch in the same street; the connection between these businesses seems loose, and by no means necessarily friendly.

I want to go for a boat trip on the famous Li Jiang. An enormous number of ferry boats cater to the tourist trade, mostly out of Guilin, many carrying passengers downstream to Yangshuo and returning empty while the passengers return by bus. Many of these ferries provide dining facilities [169b]. The whole operation is geared for tourists, mainly Chinese, prepared to spend large amounts on a luxury cruise. This is not what I want. "Uncle Bob" has the solution - a ride on a fishing boat. The scheme is a boat ride along the most scenic part of the river, from Xingping to Yangti and back, four persons in two boats; I and three others will catch a bus to Xingping and back; "Uncle Bob" will make the boat arrangements through Mary at One World Cafe ("Chinese and western food, free maps of Xingping, local tour service, buses and bicycles for rent", telephone 0773 870 2106); the cost for the boat will be 37.5 yuan each.

The bus to Xingping gives such a rough ride that my back will hurt for days; the return bus will have a functioning suspension, and it will feel as though the road has been rebuilt. The four of us walk the few hundred metres from the Xingping bus stop through the town to the cafe, get directions from Mary, and walk a few hundred metres to and along the river to meet the two fishermen who will operate the boats.

The boats are for fishing with cormorants at night [170a]. A pair of cormorants is perched on the bow of the boat I travel in [171]. In addition to the fisherman, it would be difficult to fit more than two people in a boat: there is a spot for one at the bow and a spot for another behind the motor and canopy, at the stern.

I sit at the stern. The ride is sweltering, and in desperation I clamber over the hot roof to get my umbrella from my bag near the bow, to use it as a parasol. The scenery is as spectacular as the photographs I have seen - this paramount source of inspiration for what Ying Yang Peterson calls "idealized images (of landscape) conceived in paintings and poetry (which are) not portraits of the topography of real places (but) vehicles carrying Chinese philosophies and thoughts" [The Chinese Landscape as a Tourist Attraction: Image and Reality, in Tourism in China, edited Lew and Yu]. On this stretch of river, the great limestone cone mountains are close to the river, some of them at the water's edge [170a-176a]. Many ferry boats pass by. A few lone buffaloes are swimming with their keepers [172a,173b]; weed-gatherers work from bamboo rafts [173a].

The ride upstream to Yangti takes two hours, the boat sometimes almost stationary, struggling against the current. Near Yangti we stop for half an hour. For a photo, I lift the two docile cormorants on the ends of a bamboo pole. The ride back to Xingping takes only an hour.

Because of a number of unexpectedly tight transport connections, I arrived in Yangshuo earlier than expected. Under normal circumstances, that would have given me time to go off to some of the many other places I would like to visit between here and Guangzhou. I must be quite sure to catch my plane in Hong Kong on 7th October. But the national holiday week is starting, and I am worried that getting transport towards Hong Kong may be difficult. "Uncle Bob" confirms the need to book days in advance. I call at the C.I.T.S. branch in Xi Jie, where the manager quotes me a charge for a hard sleeper from Guilin to Guangzhou. An hour later when I return to make a booking, he tells me that because of the holidays he will charge me a much higher booking fee - one hundred yuan. This shift angers me. I have no compunction in telling him just what I think of the extortion, and I hope that a dressing-down in front of his assistant is an uncomfortable experience for him; what it does for my own "face" is immaterial. The continual ineptitude of China International Travel Service, a nationwide enterprise supposedly directed at getting business from foreign tourists, is breathtaking, explained only by the fact that, being government-owned, there are no shareholders to impose a demand for efficiency over internal politics.

I return to "Uncle Bob" and discuss ways of getting to Zhuhai (for Macau) or Guangzhou - all transport being from Guilin. He expresses uncertainty about getting a train ticket to Guangzhou and says he believes the air-conditioned bus from Guilin to Zhuhai will be more comfortable than either the train to Guangzhou or a standard sleeper-bus to Zhuhai; it has, he says, aircraft-type reclining seats and on-board toilet, does not take cargo, and travels without stopping. I order a ticket on a range of preferences, the highest being Tuesday's air-conditioned bus to Zhuhai. His "friend" in Guilin will get a ticket to him by tomorrow night.

On Sunday (1st October) I am up at 8. After a good breakfast at Hard Rock Cafe on the highway - worth the walk - I catch up with washing and then go in search of information about how to get into the local caves. The guidebooks talk about two or three caves open commercially, with electric lighting and "improvements", accessible by guided tours. A number of shops in Xi Jie advertise cave tours, but "Uncle Bob" does not offer them. On enquiry, some of the shops quote silly, inflated prices which they say reflect special surcharges for the national holiday week just beginning. A girl in the street who says she is a guide offers to escort me to a cave for 70 yuan including admission.

I decide to climb Moon Hill [176b] fifty minutes' bike ride from town. Bikes can be hired at several places in Xi Jie. I hire an old geared bike at my hotel for ten yuan, double the non-holiday rate. A couple of kilometres before reaching Moon Hill, on the right-hand side of the road where it bends before crossing a bridge, I see a large portable sign leaning against a tree advertising Mo's Cave Tours. As I read the information on the sign, Mo He Yang comes up. He speaks a bit of English and says he can give me a two-hour cave tour for twenty yuan, all-inclusive, with no additional charge for admission. This sounds almost too good to be true, but I arrange to meet him at the same place at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Beside the road at the base of Moon Hill is a ticket office (admission 9 yuan, bike parking 1 yuan). The path up the mountain - it is indeed a mountain - begins climbing almost immediately, stone-paved, mostly steps. There are said to be eight hundred steps to the top. That is a tiny fraction of the number I climbed at Zhangjiajie, but that was in cool conditions and now it is hot and very humid. At points along the path, there are many women trying to sell bottled water; I am carrying a large bottle of Coke, but they assure me that that is no good at all - "bu hao!" The paving ends where the path reaches the great hole that gives the mountain its name. Here the mountain forms a great semi-circular arch over an opening through the mountain, the bottom of the opening appearing rounded because of the distant hill seen through it so that the hole, seen from below, has the shape of a crescent moon. Here a few weary climbers are resting. The path passes through the opening. Beside the far side of the hole the face of the mountain above is a vertical cliff; a couple of rock-climbers are dangling half way up on ropes.

The path from the opening to the summit is unmade, very steep and slippery. At the summit there is a gaggle of water-sellers, noisy and pesky. The view is superb, filled in every direction with the limestone cone-mountains that make this landscape famous [177]. The three or four nationalities on the summit exchange cameras for photos. Back at the ticket office, I find Hanna and another Finnish girl who tell me they have been staying at the YHA hostel in Yangshuo, where they say no YHA membership was required.

Back in Yangshuo I explore the town. I discover that soft drinks in the supermarket are much cheaper than in small shops - 4.5 yuan instead of six yuan for 1250ml. Mr Mo has told me that the cave tour will involve some wading along an underground river, and so I buy a pair of plastic sandals for eight yuan.

Xi Jie is lined with many restaurants charging high prices. They all have English menus placed on lecterns beside the street; waitresses pounce on any foreigners silly enough to look at the menus. But despite all the tourism, Yangshuo is still a Chinese town, and there are many other eating-places not directed at foreigners. Some are gathered together under canvas awnings on the north-west side of Xi Jie not far before the highway. I have dinner there, but the food has a most unpleasant taste as though it is contaminated.

Back at the hotel, "Uncle Bob" has the ticket I wanted, for the air-conditioned bus from Guilin to Zhuhai at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday. He tells me that, even though the bus to Zhuhai will pass through Yangshuo it will not step here, and I must catch it in Guilin; to allow for delays, I should catch a bus to Guilin not later than 4 p.m. on Tuesday.

Up at 7:15 on Monday (2nd October I hire a bike for the day and head off to meet Mr Mo. Yesterday I assumed that his colourful sign would be in the same place today and I paid hardly any attention to the location. Today there is no sign, and I find myself arriving at the base of Moon Hill. I loop back, searching for the place where I met him. Only one spot is a possibility, near a small shop, but when I enquire there the shopkeeper doesn't admit to understanding what I am talking about. I ride to and fro. Mr Mo appears on his bike, riding towards me. The woman at the shop, who pretended not to understand me, had told him that I was looking for him. Mr Mo was not late or unreliable: it is not yet the agreed time of 9:30.

Mr Mo will explain that he is a rice farmer but wants to improve his situation, and has a tour-guide's licence, costing 200 yuan a year. No matter how hard a rice farmer works, he will remain poor, with barely enough money to buy fertilizers; in this locality, a farmer must sell 30 per cent of his crop to the government for 35 yuan for each 50 kilograms. Mo's village - the base unit of local government - controls caves in its area and allows him to show them to tourists. The entrances to the commercial caves face the road that passes Moon Hill; there are car-parks and ticket offices. The entrance to the cave he will show me is on the far side of a hill which is behind a commercial cave entrance. The cave will in fact be part of the same system, running through to the commercial cave.

Mo and I turn left onto a road which begins almost opposite the Moon Hill entrance, passing between rice fields. I leave my day-pack at a small shop on the left. We ride on past a large white building - a government rice store. We leave our bikes at a small building on the right-hand side of the road, and walk across rice fields towards a hole in the hill a couple of hundred metres from the road [178b]. On one side we pass a field belonging to Mo, on the other a field belonging to his brother, all planted meticulously, like a garden.

At the entrance to the cave there is an old grille gate, but it stands open. Mo has brought two torches with heavy rechargeable batteries. We climb down a short ladder and a few crude concrete steps that Mo has built. After a scramble we reach the underground river, which we follow upstream for over an hour, the water often up to our thighs but never as high as our waists. The cave is entirely natural and "unimproved", full of stalagmites and stalactites [179-181b]. Some of the chambers it passes through are huge, with ceilings far above; at other times, we have to bend low or crawl. We see some tiny fish. Eventually we encounter a few light bulbs, at first switched on, then off. This is the extremity of the commercial cave, although Mo says that few tourists come this far. But when he hears some approaching, be backs off. He is not allowed to intrude into the commercial area from this end.

We return to collect our bikes. Mo's wife and child are waiting on the road for a truck to take them somewhere. Mo and I ride back to his base beside the bridge, where he has some association with an art gallery in a large rectangular building set back off the road, full of hand-painted scrolls, some of them just calligraphy but most of them pictures. The sign on the building is "Li's Calligraphy Factory". Mo asks me whether I can think of a better name; I suggest "Li's Painting Studio" or "Li's Art Studio", and that an appropriate invitation underneath could be "Come in and browse!" Mo asks me to help with the new wording he is drafting in English for his sign, and I spend an hour trying to choose the best words. I pay him forty yuan - more than he asked, but I bargain hard for a painted scroll that I admire, buying it for an absurdly low ten yuan.

Mo tells how he was able to show one enthusiast through a different cave every day for a week. His rates are negotiable, but it seems he would be happy with fifty yuan a day. He is, it seems, also able to act as a guide in the commercial caves. He is quite clearly a man of complete honesty, and tells with perplexity of some people who refused to make an agreed payment.

On the road back to Yangshuo I see two American girls who were on the boat trip two days ago, and wave. They are carrying kayaks. Later I meet them in town and tell them about Mr Mo. They will go for a tour with Mr Mo, and after I return to Australia I will receive a message that they were delighted with it.

After a late lunch of delicious fried eggplant at the Hard Rock Cafe there is time for browsing around the shops. Later I have my one meal at a tourist restaurant on Xi Jie - an expensive, horrible dish of grossly over-salted eggplant, accompanied by loud, unpleasant rock music.

On Tuesday 3rd October, after another breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe I take some postcards to the post office on the highway. I will later discover that the ones addressed to Australia will be delivered nearly three weeks later. I shop for another scroll, gifts and some tee-shirts. One of the tee-shirts I buy carries a message in Chinese characters, four "Mei you's" - "No job, no love, no money, no problem". It is probably no more absurd than some of the tee-shirts worn by Chinese people and carrying messages in English that they presumably do not understand.

I go towards the bus station on the highway soon after 3. There are swarms of buses on the road and in a large bus-park beside it. Every one bound for Guilin is either full or empty. For fifteen minutes I am unable to find a bus that has room and will leave soon. I am sure that I am losing time only because I am early, have time to waste and am not desperate. I eventually discover that what I want is to be found inside the bus depot.

At Guilin it takes me a few minutes to get my bearings, and I walk from the bus depot where I arrived, past the railway station, to the long-distance bus station. As I am walking, a man with a bicycle follows and talks to me. He tells me his name is Wei, and that he works at Guilin railway station - at window number 5, in fact. With instant genius, I remember that window number 5 at Guilin station is the special one for foreigners and realize that this will be an interesting encounter. Wei comes with me to the bus station, and sits with me for an hour. He tells me that I could have bought tickets for that night's train to Guangzhou even this same morning, and that extra trains have been put on to absorb the extra demand for the holiday. He also says that from early next year a new computerized system will allow bookings to be made up to fifteen days in advance throughout China, at train stations (I think big ones) and at large hotels.


Through Zhuhai to Macau and Hong Kong

The bus to Zhuhai is comfortable - clean, reclining seats, no stops, no fowls It is a bit cold, and the man next to me expects to share the already inadequate blanket supplied to me by the conductress.

Early on Wednesday morning (4th October) the bus arrives at a bus station at the northern end of Zhuhai. I catch a local bus down to the Macau border [181b], where China "immigration" and customs and Macau immigration involve no delays. I decide to change my Chinese money to Hong Kong money at the border and to spend Hong Kong money as though it were Macau money, the slightly cheaper cost of Macau money being outweighed by the difficulty of being left with it.

A local bus takes me to the southern end of Macau city, near the Lisboa Hotel and Casino. It seems that Macau has no large collection of cheap accommodation resembling Hong Kong's Chunking Mansions or Mirador Mansions. The Let's Go guide (the one which, in moments of tiredness, exasperation, cynicism or realism, I call the "Kids' Guide") lists cheap accommodation at the Wai Lee Guest House at 38 Ave. de Dom Joao IV, "possibly the best value in Macau". Fortunately the address is correct, because the location shown in the book's map is certainly not. It is actually on the north side of the Ave. de Dom Joao IV, close to Ave. do Infante D. Henrique. In this town, buildings do carry street numbers. The only external sign for this establishment is in Chinese, a very small sign beside a doorway off the street that leads to stairs up to the guest house. It is the size of a single flat, converted into a few guest-rooms. My room is small but comfortable, and has a tiny bathroom. The manager is friendly, speaks some English, gives me a map of Macau, and helps with information.

I spend the rest of the day wandering about central Macau [182a], passing the old government house [183a] and visiting several old Portuguese churches [183b-185a] and the cathedral, and the great Jesuit-built Monte Fort [185b], now housing the new Macau Museum. I visit the ruins of the early sixteenth-century church of St Paul (burnt down in 1835), pictures of whose remaining carved granite western facade I have seen so often; the extent of works to preserve and explain the ruins is extraordinary [186]. At the Morrison Chapel, a small Anglican church, there is a photograph of the priest and vestry (parish council), all Chinese, in 1945; the priest, ordained by the Bishop of Hong Kong nearly sixty years ago when the Diocese was still part of the Holy Catholic Church of China, was the Rev'd Florence Li Tim-oi, the first female priest in the Anglican Communion [187a]. Behind the church is the well-maintained Macau Protestant Cemetery, a shady spot with an extraordinary collection of tombstones dated over several centuries. Next to the church I visit the Camoes Garden, a park tumbling over a steep rocky hill, cool and shady in the heat, full of people [187b].

Food is expensive in this town, and I choose a meal from the small number of stick-food stalls.

The next morning (Thursday 5th October) I catch a bus from the Lisboa Hotel to Coloane Island, one of two islands in Macau, accessed by passing across the other island and over two bridges. Much of Coloane Island is a national park, and there are a number of well-maintained paths. The bus puts me off at the long Hac Sa Beach [189b&190a]. I walk to the southern end of the beach and along the road towards Coloane Village for a short distance to a path going off on the left and leading to the wonderful path around the coast to Cheoc Van (Trilho do Morro de Hac-sa); the path is high above the sea, closely following a contour, and leading to two lookouts with wonderful views [190b]. From near Cheoc Van I climb a steep path to join a path that is a circuit of the main, central part of the island, walking counter-clockwise and later climbing from the circuit path up to the highest point of the island [192a], crowned by a white marble statue of the goddess A-ma [191], protector of seafarers, originally a native of Fujian; the name Macau means pavilion or bay of A-ma. The statue is truly beautiful, said to have been a gift from the Portuguese government for the transfer of Macau in 1999. At 20 metres high it is huge - although rather less huge than the height of 120 metres attributed to it by the Rough Guide. From the summit I regain the circuit path and eventually descend to the Seac Pai Van Park, where there is a well-presented (and air-conditioned) museum and a pleasant small zoo, with no charge for admission.

A bus takes me back to the Hotel Lisboa. There is a long row of taxis, all of them Mercedes Benzes, and a row of trishaws waiting for custom [182b]. I walk along the water's-edge path [188a] to the south-western tip of the peninsula and, from the far side, up a very steep road to the Chapel of our Lady of Penha (1837), a building crowning the hill and spectacular from afar but rather plain on closer inspection [188b]. There is a spectacular view of the busy Inner Harbour [189a]. The way back passes the Ritz Hotel and casino, where Chinese boys look comical, dressed up in attempted imitation of English footmen in order to pander to the vanities of the funny-money boys arriving in their European motorcars.

After a dinner of stick food and a couple of McDonald's ice creams I visit the Lisboa Casino (no bags or cameras allowed). The Let's Go guidebook observed that the gamblers "rarely smile, never laugh", failing to observe that their difficulty may not be so much a lack of happiness as lack of sufficient personality to experience such an emotion. The place is crowded over its four or five floors all decorated in cheaply vulgar taste, funny people milling about their incomprehensible business, the only occasional smiles and laughter on the faces of the staff. Twenty minutes is enough to see it all.

On Friday morning (6th October) I catch a bus from the Lisboa to the Hong Kong ferry terminal, arriving at about 9:15. The fare to Hong Kong is HKD134 - inflated because it is the holiday week. I buy a ferry ticket and note with disappointment that it is for the 10:30 departure. But as I walk towards the departure point I am herded onto a ferry immediately, and it leaves at 9:30. The ferry has seats for several hundred but is carrying a total of thirteen passengers. So even the obnoxiously inflated ticket price is no more than a fraction of the cost to the operators. As we pass the Hong Kong coast, I am perplexed at the lack of settlement. I have expected the route to be north of Lantau Island, but in fact it runs south of it, and so the coast I am seeing is the island's.

At the ferry terminal in Hong Kong [192b] I must go through immigration, reminding me that this is another quasi-international crossing. I walk to Nathan Road and to Chunking Mansions, expecting to be assaulted verbally by a gaggle of accommodation touts. But I am well inside the building before anyone approaches me. Then it is Tom, proprietor of three guest houses, on the 8th floor of Block A (telephone 2722 4956) and the 16th floors of Blocks B and C (2367 9258 and 2722 6035). When I tell him my budget is HKD100 for the night, I classify myself as a customer for the 8th floor flat, which I gather is the cheapest of the guest houses. He says he can meet that price, but when we get to the room the price has - surprise, surprise - increased to HKD110. When I turn immediately to depart, the price quickly reverts to HKD100. It is a very good price for a small room with a quiet air-conditioner, a window that actually shows a faint glimmer of daylight, and a tiny but clean bathroom. Tom has had a guest house at Chunking Mansions for 20 years. His mother lives in and looks after the 8th floor guest house. I will certainly enquire here next time I visit Hong Kong.

I have noticed a number of money-changer shops listing a rate of about HKD7.07 for USD1.00. When I complain to Tom about this, he says this is a trick which the money-changers concerned are hoping will not be noticed, and that reputable money-changers are offering a rate of about HKD7.77; he takes me to one such, in the ground-floor lobby leading to the lifts, but well in from the street.

I head for the Star Ferry for the delight of the crossing to Hong Kong Island [193]. I love the cool breeze, the roll of the ferry, the extraordinary bustle of the harbour. Every time I make the crossing, I wish it would last longer.

From the ferry I walk to the series of escalators that run almost to the top of Central city. Then I walk down to the zoo - a beautiful and shady place, with excellently presented enclosures, and free. The zoo is a relaxing and interesting diversion for a couple of hours. Afterwards I walk down the hill past St John's Cathedral, locked because today is a public holiday.

Everywhere on the lower levels of Central people, mainly Filipinos, are sitting on mats, in the manner of having a picnic - in the open undercrofts of office buildings, along covered pedestrian ways, on footpaths [194a]. In the city square is a large gathering of Filipinos observing the Jubilee 2000 Migrants' Celebrations, with speeches and dancing on a stage.

Back in Kowloon, I browse at Swindon Books' shop at the Star Ferry Terminal and also at the main branch in Lock Street, looking particularly at the good collection of books about Chinese culture, politics and history.

For my 10:30 a.m. flight to Singapore on Saturday (7th October) I must be at the airport bus stop in Nathan Road opposite Chungking Mansions by 7:15. The ride to the airport takes about three quarters of an hour.


Singapore

At Singapore airport Ben [my son] meets me. We catch a bus to a railway station and a train, and then walk for fifteen minutes to his room in West Coast Road, where I deposit my bags. It is in an 11th-floor flat owned and occupied by a Chinese family, sparsely furnished, with tiled floors, bare walls, exposed plumbing and electric conduits, and lacking any trace of personality. The building's lifts have landings at only every third floor: in Singapore, heaven help anyone who is not fit and agile.

Singapore is very tropical - very green, with avenues of trees along the main roads. By comparison with China, things are very tasteful. In fact the same can be said of Hong Kong. Why so much in China is so bloody hideous is some kind of indictment on Chinese or PRC culture.

We catch a train to the city centre for a look around, visiting St Andrew's Cathedral [195a] and shops and restaurants in the vicinity of Raffles Hotel [195a-196] before walking to Arab Street and catching a bus to meet Tim [my nephew] and Tris [his wife] at their flat in the best part of Singapore. Tim's cousin David and his partner Vanessa are staying with them, and we all go off on a train to a huge eating place, the largest of a kind known as hawker centres, to be found in many places in Singapore, where stalls selling a wide variety of cooked meals are set around a covered area of common tables and chairs and with a common supply of cutlery. Every stall displays pictures of the meals with their prices, which are generally very low. We have a tasty meal and go off to a more formal restaurant for iced deserts.

Bed is my Thermarest on the tiled floor of Ben's room. We get up late on Sunday (8th October), just in time to catch the train for the 11 a.m. service at St Andrew's Cathedral. We arrive at about a minute after 11, but it is impossible to get in immediately because the last congregation, of a Mandarin service, is still pouring out. Away in the distance I can see the cross and choir processing into the cathedral. In a few minutes we are inside, and the cathedral is full once more. The majority of the congregation for this English service seems to be Chinese, together with Malays, Indians and Europeans. The cathedral holds twelve services every Sunday, and several every other day of the week. I have some reservations about what goes on in this place, because it was here only a few months ago that the Primates of South-east Asia and Uganda joined in consecration of two bishops to work in the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. without any authority from that church - a response by the consecrating bishops to what they regard as liberalism in the Episcopal Church, an expression of the fundamentalism that characterizes much of the church in the third world.

Afterwards we catch a bus to the Botanic Gardens, lush tropical gardens spoiled only by some noisome and excessively noisy rehearsing for a jazz concert later in the day. We visit the orchid garden, which is spectacular. We return to the flat to collect my bags and catch two buses for a long haul to the airport for the 9 p.m. departure to Melbourne - departing, that is, at midnight destination time.

The lunatics who run the airline serve dinner at 1 a.m., destination time, and breakfast less than four hours later; it is a brief night's sleep.

But my journey has not ended. There will be many enjoyable hours to spend poring over maps and books and photographs, Australian friends to punish with my traveller's tales, and new, Chinese, names in my email mailboxes.








NOTES


1. ABOUT MAPS

For any detailed exploration away from the most major roads, maps in guidebooks are inadequate. They are sometimes wrong as well. The only adequate maps I know of are in Chinese.

Maps of China in most general atlases are works of fantasy. An exception is The Times Atlas of the World, whose maps of China are excellent for overall trip planning, although naturally on too small a scale for detailed planning.

Maps produced by tourism authorities are variable, but can be very poor, produced by people who have no idea of what a map is for. The largest-scale map I took to Hunan province was a tourist map at 1:1000000 (although no scale was shown) which was wildly misleading; on the other hand, an appended map of Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve (headed "Tourist Map of Zhang-jiajie") at about 1:35000 was of some use.

American government aeronautical maps are available in scales of 1:500000 ("TPC's", Tactical Pilotage Charts) and 1:1000000 ("ONC's", Operational Navigation Charts), but are useful only for topographical information. Place-names are often comical and roads unreliable. Commercial English-language sheet maps of China are often fraudulent works of fantasy.

The only generally useful maps of a scale 1:2000000 or larger are Chinese-language maps. The most useful are usually of two kinds. Each province has a large sheet-map and, in most if not all cases, a small atlas showing one or more counties to a page. The atlases usually show more, but perhaps not much more, information than the sheet maps. Unfortunately, I know of no reliable source for buying these maps apart from bookshops in the provinces concerned. Perhaps there is somewhere in Beijing ... The maps may be in university libraries: for example, Melbourne University has a collection of provincial atlases, mostly out-of-date ones in the general Asian collection and more up-to-date ones in the Asian reference collection; its maps library has a collection of mostly out-of-date provincial sheet maps. Usually a traveller will only need detailed maps for a few small areas, and photocopies of a few pages or sections of maps will suffice. They can be enlarged and become most useful, even to a traveller who knows no Chinese language, if a few place-names are added in Pinyin.


2. ABOUT GUIDEBOOKS

It is inevitable that guidebooks will be out of date. It is inevitable that the author of a guidebook to all of China or a large part of it will not have visited every place of possible interest to the traveller. One thing that is neither inevitable nor excusable professionally is for a guidebook author to write about a place that he has not visited without making it clear that he has not visited it. One of several examples of that is mentioned in the account of my visit to Shizhangdong waterfall.

Some of my travels were at or beyond the boundary where guidebooks are useful. But on this journey my opinion of guidebooks declined in general. I have never understood how anyone would be capable of writing a good guidebook to China, and am beginning to believe that few if any have.

References above to guidebooks are as follows:

"the Rough Guide" means "China, the Rough Guide" (The Rough Guides, London, 2nd edition 2000).
"the Lonely Planet" means "South-west China" (Lonely Planet Publications, Melbourne, 1st edition November 1998).
"Let's Go" means "Let's Go China" (Let's Go Inc., Cambridge, U.S.A., 1st edition 2000).

I also carried:
"Tibet Handbook with Bhutan" (Footprint Handbooks, Bath, 2nd edition 1999).

A month after I left China, I received a review copy of a book that I would certainly have taken if it had been available:
"Mapping the Tibetan World" by Yukiyasu Osada and others (Kotan Books, Reno, Nevada, December 2000, USD27.95, available from Amazon Books).

This book attempts to cover all Tibetan homelands, including those in China, Nepal, India and Bhutan. It emphasizes practical information, including information about local bus services, and contains a large number of maps; it contains maps of 126 towns, many not mapped in other publications - including even Muli and Aba. It is a book of admirable qualities and with much scope for improvement.
The publishers of this book are associated with an excellent Web directory of Tibetan subjects at http://.www.kotan.org/t-directory/index.html.

3. COSTS

Excluding expenditure while in Singapore, costs were as follows: