Following on from my visit to Town Tree Farm nature garden in early Spring, I decided to create a photo-journal about it, visiting every six weeks or so and recording the changes. The trees around this urn sculpture are now in full leaf.
A more spectacular transformation is taking place in the wreckage of the mysterious plants – the chair is much larger than a normal one!
This was the scene in February. In March, a very few tiny green shoots could be seen in these great piles of fallen stems and flowers, but by late May, a whole jungle was springing up!
Below is another clump (without a chair in the way). You could use that image to try and identify it – search programmes struggle to come to terms with the scale. It probably isn’t a West Indian gherkin.
The Nature Garden is a labyrinth rather than a maze. There are only a few places where you can take a wrong turn and get lost, and these are service tracks, only visible in winter. The paths are usually bordered on both sides by water – pool or wide ditch – so when you encounter a family of swans there’s no way around them!
We persuaded them back into the water on the way into the gardens. The male chased us furiously up the lake once the cygnets were safe, but stopped short of following us along the path!
Unluckily for us, they were back when we returned. It was now early evening and they were settled for the night. Why a creature would spend so much effort adapting to life on the water then park its young on a path which must be used by every predator in the district is a mystery to me!
They recognised us; they didn’t like us. We retreated to consider our options. Swans are quite dangerous, but my companion walks with a stick and it was several miles to the road by the other route.
There was a big pile of dead pine brush by the track. Arming ourselves with long branches tipped with large fans of twig, we approached the birds in what we hoped was a confident manner. They hissed and raised their wings, glaring menacingly, but as long as we kept the twigs between us, they couldn’t get to us and we managed to edge past!
In future, we may avoid the Nature Garden on spring evenings! Once the cygnets can fly, the family departs on their travels.
Even though the whole globe has been mapped out and uploaded, adventure can still be found in the details. The Somerset Levels are best explored by cycle or on foot, but there is one bus which crosses them. The number 67, from Wells to Burnham-on-Sea via Wedmore, takes the intrepid traveller right through this iconic countryside to enjoy a couple of hours at the seaside.
A distinctly rural minibus pulls up at Wells Bus Station, down the platform from its sleek, Bristol-bound brethren, and we are off on the ancient trackway to Wedmore. The modern B3139 follows this intricate path, connecting two projections of higher land separating broad expanses of marshland. Building space was limited on this dry ridge; the hamlets are strung along this narrow, twisting country lane, almost submerged in greenery at this time of year.
Exuberant hedges are covered in flowers; creamy elder, clouds of pink-blushed hawthorn, spikes of lilac and chestnut, curves of honeysuckle. Gaps in the foliage reveal little orchards, families of black sheep, contented donkeys. We pass through Yarley, Bleadney and Theale, past ivy-draped stone walls, verges scattered with the white flowers of cow parsley, fields decorated with buttercups, and into Wedmore.
Here, there are elegant town houses, stone built cottages with purple flowers pouring over garden walls, and foxgloves in full bloom. Wedmore, founded by the Saxons, was a busy market town in medieval times. The Market Cross dates back to the 14th century, and there are some other building of historic interest. Wedmore is the home of the infamous Turnip Prize for modern art, and an annual Real Ale festival.
You could plan a few hours wandering around this pleasant area and return to Wells, but we are changing here for Burnham-on-Sea.
Our next driver was a trainee, learning the invisible stops on the route. The passengers cheered when she edged past a horse box on a lane where ‘single track road’ would be a generous designation.
The countryside is more open as we approach the sea, crossing the old tidal marshes on our rocky ridge. Black and white dairy cows, familiar to Glastonbury Festival followers, graze in the summer pastures. Swans resting by willow-hung streams are a reminder that these fields are the domain of waterfowl in winter time.
Another set of villages is linked by this slender road, like beads on a wire. We pass quaint churches, pubs, an aquafarm and an Aikido centre. The bus begins to fill up, mainly with elderly local residents. Sit at the back if you can, as many passengers have walking frames or shopping trollies. There isn’t a bell to ring; call out if you need to get off before the terminus. The other passengers join in until the driver responds!
The gentle rural lane ended at the A38, the main coast road, lined with caravan parks. We detoured through Highbridge and arrived opposite the Old Pier Tavern in Burnham.
It’s a short walk – about two minutes – to the sea front. There’s a typical British seaside sort of building there, housing the Bay View Cafe, a remarkably well stocked Tourist Information centre, and public toilets.
I picked up a leaflet for the Heritage Trail in Burnham, found the main street easily, past the bucket-and-spade shop. There was a Farmers’ Market going on, and the second hand shops were worth a visit; there were coffee shops and cashpoints, icecreams, seaside rock in strange and wonderful flavours, chips and amusement arcades. Everyone was excited about the Food Festival on Saturday; unfortunately the 67 bus doesn’t run at weekends.
Back at the seafront, there was a good view of the Low Lighthouse, Burnham’s iconic landmark. This was built in 1832, and is still operational; the remains of the previous lighthouse are now part of a hotel.
The abandoned jetty speaks of a busier past. Steamships from Wales would arrive here, connecting with the railway service whose tracks used to run right out to the dock; now even the station has gone.
The seawall is high and curved, there are storms in winter. The tide was out, exposing the mudflats. Rippled channels of water were almost invisible on the gleaming surface, swiftly filling up the flat expanse, bringing the sea back to the sandcastles.
Gulls loitered in the seaweed crusted dampness under the pier; it was a quiet day at the beach.
A short one too; the last bus leaves Burnham at one o’clock. Still, I had a good couple of hours at the seaside and a relaxing journey through beautiful countryside – just like being on holiday!
This service got dumped by First Bus, since it wasn’t profitable, and has had to be patched back together by the town and parish councils along its route. It’s the only public transport for the outlying villages. Taking journeys like this is good training for using local buses in unfamiliar countries.
Some key points need to be considered wherever you are.
Timetables may be out of date. Check your return journey, or connections, with the driver before the bus abandons you in the middle of nowhere. Have some useful phrases printed or practised if you’re in a foreign country.
Buses may be early. A rural bus with no passengers waiting is bound to be ahead of schedule at some points on its route. Arrive at the stop in good time.
The bus may be full. A popular journey, such as the last bus back, may be crowded. Have a Plan B; an alternate way of getting back. Plot another bus route if possible, or check local taxi services before leaving.
Testing your personal resilience with small, accessible challenges is a great way to build up your self confidence.
The challenges of growing vegetables continue; a very brief Spring has been swiftly followed by long hot days with no rain. The seedlings, root systems stunted by the unseasonable cold, struggle to gather water from the hard soil.
A greenhouse is becoming essential to cope with this erratic weather. If you plan to assemble your own, read the instructions carefully and proceed slowly. Photos of the demonstration model in the garden centre could prove useful.
Watering the allotment, some miles from where I live, is a daily chore. Mature plants are doing far better than fresh sowings, but I’m still concerned about the meagre amount of food coming up. The Resilience Garden benefits from waste household water and a handy tap.
The role of water in cultivation is highlighted by this drought. The kitchen gardens of old came as much from the availability of used water as from the convenience of having herbs to hand.
Early summer is a time of leisure for the resilience smallholder, of watching the plants grow and enjoying the flowers. Many events, cancelled because of the snow, reinvented themselves. Seedy Sunday became Seedling Sunday…
Somerset Day was celebrated…
…and there was a Graffiti Day at the skateboard park.
We went to try out the archery at Mendip Snowsports Centre, and discovered Frisbee Golf! Although not all the baskets were this deep in woodland, my frisbee always headed for the nearest nettle patch!
The centre offers bushcraft and target shooting, as well as the artificial slopes for snow-related activities. There’s a pleasant cafe and bar; a good place to have a day brushing up your resilience skills.
Networking is an important part of community resilience, a whole section of the Resilience Plan. People need to exchange news after the winter season, when travel can be limited. It’s important to be aware of dangers and opportunities in the local area and beyond.
The concept of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ was identified before the internet was developed; we need not be dependent on technology for our world news. Local events, with their travelling pedlars and performers, were once key information nodes, and often more fun!
When Spring finally arrived in Somerset, it came with all the gardening jobs it was just too cold to tackle earlier. May is proving another busy month! The festival of Beltane, marking the start of summer, should be the time when you can relax, stop treading on the soil, and watch your crops grow.
This year, I had three batches of peas fail to come up – though one is starting to show now – which was a disaster, since this is a heritage variety called Telegraph which I’m seed-saving from. The very last seeds were being soaked before planting – something I don’t normally bother with – when I took a day off to attend the May Day festivities in Glastonbury.
The Tuesday market was occupying the Market Cross, so the Morris dancing took place on the newly acquired patio of the Town Hall. Speeches and bardic recitations followed until the Maypole itself was carried down the High Street by the Green Men.
More speeches and announcements followed. I was at the edge of a growing crowd and it felt like the sketch from the ‘Life of Brian’ (‘What did he say?’ ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers, I think’). The procession wended back up the High Street, past the White Spring to Bushy Combe, as described in this post from 2015.
The White Spring is run by a committee of volunteers now, who endeavour to keep it open as much as possible. It’s well worth seeing if you’re in the area!
The Maypole was duly erected following more ceremonies and recitations. I would have preferred blessings on my peas to vague invocations of universal love, but few people appreciate vegetables these days.
It’s a colourful spectacle though; both celebrants and audience take some trouble to dress up for the occasion. The practical aspects, such as untangling the ribbons as the pole goes up, offer plenty of breaks for chatting.
Quite often in previous years, the ribbons ended up tangled in a big clump off to one side of the pole! Now, enough people have got the hang of the right way to weave in and out that they can keep others on the right track – anyone at the ceremony can take a ribbon and join the dance.
This nice tight winding lasted all the way down. During most of the dance, four strong Green Men braced the pole, as it takes a surprising amount of strain from the flimsy ribbons! The completed pole is moved when all is done, and stored until next year when a new pole and ribbons are sourced, since the field is needed for other things.
The Community section of the Resilience Handbook provides advice on organising your own community events. These are a good way to meet neighbours. Even casual acquaintance helps, should you ever need to cope with an emergency together. Make a point of attending local events, if only in a ‘walk-on’ role!
Earth Hour is an annual event which celebrates a global network committed to creating a sustainable world. It’s organised by the World Wildlife Fund, and began as a ‘lights out’ event in Sydney, Australia in 2007.
The idea is for people, organisations and businesses to turn off all non-essential lights, and other electrical devices, for one hour. The hour begins at 8.30pm local time, so the effect ripples around the world. City landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Shard, participate now, as well as millions of individuals.
Some people organise whole events around the occasion, and one such is Earth Hour Chard where I was booked to talk about Resilience. Their first event had been a magnificent street fair, betrayed by a bitterly cold March wind. They’d hired the Guildhall this time, for a whole day’s programme of activities supported by a cafe, bar and numerous stalls.
I arrived early; the kids’ activities were in full swing. Everyone was busy, so after I unloaded and parked, I took a walk to the museum.
In a county of farming communities, Chard always stood out as a factory town. The textile industry was important, particularly machine made lace for net curtains and clothing. As outlined in the Resilience Handbook, the presence of machinery in the area encouraged a support network of craftspeople. These skills were then available to inventors.
It was in Chard, in 1848, that John Stringfellow’s Aerial Steam Carriage first showed that engine powered flight was possible. Other major advances credited to the town include the development of articulated artificial limbs and of X-ray photography. Today, it’s the home of the Henry vacuum cleaner.
I strolled down Fore Street, admiring the remaining old countryside architecture, the thatched houses and diamond pane windows, arriving back in time for the judging of the colouring in competition. I hastened over to the Phoenix Hotel; the talks were being held there while the Guildhall was set up for the evening event.
I’d decided to create a new talk, outlining how the Resilience Project came into being through a fusion of Transition’s Energy Descent Action Plan and local emergency planning, with decades of experience in living off-grid thrown in. Jason Hawkes covered ecological footprints and housing; Kate Handley talked on local food.
We packed up in time for the music; a selection of bands often seen at off-grid festivals, compèred by Tracey West, publisher extraordinaire. Simon West manned their Word Forest Organisation stall on the top floor, where the poetry slam was going on.
It was a very entertaining evening, networking and enjoying quality performances. We didn’t turn off the lights in the venue for Earth Hour – a health and safety issue – but at least the people attending had turned theirs off!
Although Chard is poorly served by public transport, it’s worth a visit. I found some charming hotels with reasonable prices, though in the event I stayed with one of the organisers. Check for parking, as this may be a local issue.
Sadly, the nearby Wildlife park at Cricket St Thomas has closed and is now on the Heritage at Risk register.
Our last day began with a trip to the Temple of Heaven, a large pagoda. The bus dropped us as near as possible – parking is very difficult in Beijing – and we walked through an adult exercise park.
Retired people could get cheap season tickets; it was quite a community gathering. Further in, groups of elders played cards and board games with great excitement, and a small choir practised in the park. The ‘maybe later’ marketeers added ping pong bats and feathered shuttlecocks to their repertoire here.
This Temple has been used since Neolithic times, to hold sacrifices for a good harvest. Bamboo scrolls and brass compasses on sale here may hint at record keeping and feng shui functions too, but we couldn’t understand much of the information. The artwork was marvellous though.
We scrambled back on to the bus before its parking time expired and stopped off at the Chinese Medicine Academy for a foot massage. This was partly to give their students practise and partly in the hope we’d buy something. If you want to take Chinese medicines out of the country, you need a certificate from the prescribing doctor.
Finally we arrived at Tiananmen Square. It was smaller than Linda had expected, and less crowded than I’d thought. There were red flags, neat soldiers and police, impressive buildings all around.
From there, we entered the Forbidden City at last. It’s vast; the guides warned us to keep up with the flag, as we had a lot of ground to cover, and the bus was meeting us at the far end.
The courtyards were huge. I could imagine the officials waiting in throngs for their instructions, standing in the cold dry wind. I hoped they let them go inside if it snowed!
Our guide lectured us on the various structures, their purpose and history. The roof decorations on the pavillions represented the Emperor riding on a rooster followed by nine dragons; this was considered to be a fortunate emblem.
There were a number of large metal cauldrons throughout the city. These were for firefighting; charcoal could be lit under them so they didn’t freeze in winter. Their stone stands, and most other surfaces, banisters and doorways were all intricately carved, often with a dragon motif.
We crossed the second large courtyard, Harmony Square, and climbed the steps to the Palace of the Supreme Harmony, where the Dragon Throne sits. The prospect of actually setting eyes on this legendary artefact had excited me more than anything else about the trip!
Tourists weren’t allowed to enter this palace, but you could join the small crowd around the doorways to view the Throne inside, and take a picture obstructed by a pillar. Already used to the rules about not photographing the Buddha statues, I didn’t see this as an imposition. Given the effort required only a few decades ago to get this close, I felt a short glimpse was enough of a privilege!
There were many Chinese tourists patiently waiting for their turn, so we didn’t linger. We had a better view of the metal ball hanging over the throne, which falls on any would-be usurper. It’s said that some Emperors shifted their seat a little to the side!
We turned off to the side through the next courtyard, to view the charming Western Palaces. These used to accommodate the second wives and concubines of the Emperor, including the Empress Cixi. A long alleyway linked a number of little courtyards surrounded by wooden houses, which now hosted various exhibitions.
Time was pressing, the light was failing. There were many more exhibits. Some, like the clocks and jewellery were extra; however the ticket office was closed by the time we got there. To really see a place this vast and historical, you’d need a full day and a guide book.
Dusk was falling on our last day in China. As we reached the Imperial Gardens, we had to hurry. Loud music began to sound, like a scene from ‘Inception’. Barriers were coming down around us, our group had to look sharp not to be separated.
We walked quite a distance to the bus, past the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, past the ‘maybe laters’ with their fake Rolex, past street vendors selling red sticky things on sticks, to a street corner where the bus driver hastened us aboard.
As we climbed on, we were serenaded by an old couple busking with a traditional stringed instrument, almost like a farewell to China.
You certainly cover a lot of ground on an RSD trip, and face some interesting challenges! As an independent traveller, I find them invaluable for getting to know somewhere I’d struggle to make my own arrangements to visit. Linda and I had already been on their tour of Turkey, and we may yet follow through on our independent plans to spend a week visiting Troy and the hot spas in more detail, if the political situation improves there.
In China, almost everywhere we went could do with another, longer visit. Our favourites would be a week in Shanghai, another river cruise, and a whole day in the Forbidden City. A Great Wall hike sounds lovely, as long as it’s warmer, and we’d like to spend some time in the South too.
We felt a bit nervous about this adventure, and most of the time were probably well out of our depth. Our tour guide, Kevin, shepherded us around diligently though, despite the British tendency to irrational overconfidence in a totally strange country. We always feel that being polite gets you a long way, and this does appear to be true in China.
It ‘d be quite hard to make any but the simplest travel arrangements yourself. You have to give the addresses you plan to stay at on your visa application form, and may have to make bookings on the phone with someone who doesn’t understand English very well.
However, the resilient traveller loves a challenge!
It was a cold morning in Beijing, below zero before dawn. We packed our lunch and were off on the coach at 8 o’clock for the Great Wall, some 45 km away. The Wall originally stretched for over 6000 miles, from the sea in the east to the Gobi desert in the west. The best preserved section is at Badaling.
The Great Wall isn’t one continuous structure, nor was it all built at once. Many Chinese empires and states constructed such fortifications along their northern borders, to protect themselves from the fierce nomads who lived on the wild steppes. As these depended on horses to make their raids, a wall was a useful deterrent.
The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who we have already met – it was his terracotta army – unified many of these state walls, so is often credited with building the Great Wall. Very little of his actual work survives though; the upgrades carried out by the Ming dynasty (1368 -1664) are what we see today.
We disembarked on a plaza surrounded by little shops and found ourselves barely prepared for the bitter cold, worsened by the thin, icy wind. This bit deeper as we ventured out along the Wall itself, which is naturally on the highest ground.
The first part of the ascent was steps, then rather steep ridged cobbles. These could have been difficult in wet weather. Although you could walk quite a long way along this section, we only made it to the third guard tower before the cold got the better of us. At least there weren’t the crowds we’d been warned about.
We could see that it would be a splendid place for a hike in the spring, following the dragon-like curves away into the hills. There are hotels in Badaling, as well as day tours from Beijing, but it may not be either safe or permitted to take off on your own for any length of time. A number of guided walking holidays are available. It’s a good policy to check reviews before booking.
The surfaces of the walls are covered in graffiti marks scratched into the stone, possibly by the hundreds of soldiers standing guard in this cold and lonely outpost over the centuries. This custom explains the baffling ‘No Scratching’ notices we’d seen around other important monuments!
Most of us returned to the Hotel Cafe quite soon. The staff gave us bottles of hot water to hold as we ordered coffee!
Tired and cold, Linda and I rebelled against the walk in the park and the Ming tombs. We stayed on our tour bus and enjoyed the peace of the country. The bus driver chatted to the persimmon seller at her roadside stall; it was nice to just be there, in an ordinary place.
By the time we arrived at the tea garden, we were fairly awake again, and a few sips of refreshing samples were welcome. I bought some Puer tea, which improves with age unlike the other herb teas languishing on my shelf. More elaborate brews unfolded into flowers in your cup!
We were offered some optional extra tours – a rickshaw ride, viewing the night lights – but none of these involved going back to the hotel for a rest first. ‘Maybe later’ we all said and grumbled so much we got taken back in time for dinner. Nobody wanted to miss the final day by being too tired!
Written Chinese is 1900 years old. There are 8 – 10 thousand characters to remember. About 2.5 thousand are learned in primary school. 3,000 to 4,000 are enough for everyday life; 5,000 for a writer. Over that, you are counted as an expert.
Over the centuries, the complicated characters became very difficult to understand, such that literacy was only possible for the leisured classes. After the formation of the People’s Republic, written Chinese was simplified in various important ways, and now nearly everyone can read.
Next week – The Forbidden City and the Dragon Throne
We spent our last day on the boat relaxing. I made it to the early morning Tai Chi, then drank coffee on deck and sketched the Shi Bao Zhai pagoda while the others visited it. Sailing on to the Ghost City, we avoided another tour and watched one of the Bavarian group flying his drone.
This made the ship’s security officer quite nervous, especially when it disappeared over the hill.
“Made in China,” commented the owner, as he packed it away.
After a peaceful journey through pitch dark empty valleys, we awoke the next morning to the New York style skyline of Chongqing. It was all high rise blocks and suspension bridges here!
We had to be ready with our luggage at 7 am, flasks full and lunch foraged. There was the chance to buy more food, if you could decipher the labels in the supermarket where we paused to provision ourselves for a day’s sightseeing. The dried beans flavoured with star anise were interesting, but the spicy snake wasn’t so popular!
Chongqing is a steep mountain city, so cycles are rare. Bus and land rails supplement private car use. A few large houseboats were moored in the river; this megacity is at a key confluence.
As we drove, we learned about housing and the cost of living. The high rise flats are sold by floor space in square metres, rather than the number of rooms. There’s no fittings when you buy a new build flat. It’s only a concrete shell with one tap, one electrical point and the standard underfloor heating. You add everything yourself. Ikea is big in China.
The Dazu carvings were right at the end of a huge modern complex comprising various courtyards and steps; it was quite a walk. Luckily the weather was still dry and warm. We crossed the Bridge of Separation, festooned with padlocks and ribbons. Red was for fortune and yellow for health. The path wound on through a pleasant forest until we came out at the central cliff face.
These huge, intricate murals were cut between 1170 and 1252 CE, at which point a Mongol invasion scattered the community. The carvings were gradually concealed in the jungle, and only recently rediscovered.
The murals show various aspects of Buddhism. Heaven and Hell are pictured, with a disturbing emphasis on demonic torture. Rather extreme examples of filial piety and parental love are also depicted. The figures aren’t statues dragged into place, but a three-dimensional mural cut into the rock face itself. It’s quite a feat of engineering for the time!
Our flight to Xi’an was delayed the next day, so we had time to look around Chongqing. They’re fond of sculptures here; we saw some very evocative bronzes.
The time teller, portrayed above, walked the midnight streets of old China, and always knew the best ghost stories!
There was an opera house, fronted by a collaged mural. Informal mosaics of broken pottery were a feature in this area; they were said to bring good luck.
The banyan tree is the emblem of Chongqing; we have no idea why this one was being drip fed. It was one of the many mysteries we encountered.
The guide rounded us up and we were off to Chongqing airport, where we lost our water and lighters again in the security check. A couple of sinners in the party had accidentally left lithium batteries in their hold luggage, which had gone on ahead of us; our group was called over to the naughty desk!
A couple of hours flying, and we were in Xi’an, the ancient capital city.
We occupied ourselves during the flight by reading the sign on the back of the seat. We’d finally worked out how to use the Chinese-English dictionary to look up words, and were very pleased with ourselves! It only took us a couple of hours to read six characters!
If I’m visiting a country where I don’t understand the alphabet, a small dictionary can be helpful, like a paper version of Google Translate. It covers the areas that phrase books don’t reach, such as ‘orthopaedic surgeon’, though it only works in countries where most people can read their own language.
It seems to me that reading Chinese is more like understanding a picture than reading a sentence. The meaning of each character is influenced by the ones surrounding it, which is why translation programmes struggle.
We’d turned down the morning call, so we slept in till 7 am, missing the 6.30 Tai Chi class again. After a hasty breakfast, we were in the lobby by 7.45 ready for the inclusive trip up the Shen Nong Stream.
We sailed up this tributary in a smaller ship, passing through amazing wooded gorges with caves and the strange hanging coffins. These were usually carved from a single log and placed in caves or crevices in the cliff faces. They date back to the Stone Age and no-one knows why or how the people did this; it would have been a very difficult task.
Other cultural artefacts and lifestyles are submerged now the Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level here by 90 metres. Our tributary was once a fast mountain stream, hurtling over rocky rapids. Now it’s much deeper and slower, but the banks are still teeming with invisible wild life. Panda (cotton) bamboo grows there, but the panda range is now further south. Huge swallow nests hung from cave roofs; when the boat engine quietened, we could hear other birds singing. Once we saw a small flock in the treetops, but mainly they kept out of sight.
We pulled in at a jetty and transferred to small wooden boats. A man on the bank demonstrated how these boats used to be towed upstream when the river level was lower. The boatman sang us a traditional song from his drowned culture. Then we encouraged them to race the other boats, singing them sea shanties till we came in first!
Back on the ship I had to fix my camera – it turned out that the White Elephant batteries we’d bought locally could run out rather abruptly with no warning – so I was late down for lunch. I had to take dessert up to the coffee lounge to admire the Wu and Qutang Gorges as we passed through them. There was a standing stone sacred to the Goddess at the entrance, and dragons in the hills.
After this, we moored for the White Emperor City tour (optional extra, well worth it). We teamed up with the Bavarians (also here on an RSD tour) to make up numbers, and had a very knowledgeable and well educated young Chinese lady as our guide.
Running the gauntlet of the ‘maybe later’ market, we discovered that each stop had a different speciality, probably for the internal tourist trade. We were swiftly guided past the water gate, a Post Office kiosk and statues of famous poets.
We cut through a large indoor market full of exotic foodstuffs. I longed to try some of the huge range of dried mushrooms or take some of the exotic nuts home to identify them, but of course it was impossible. There are severe restrictions on casually transporting vegetable matter across continents, in case they harbour insect pests which can devastate crops. Finally, we crossed a long bridge, chilled by a stiff breeze, and into the White Emperor City.
Researching these tours had warned me of over 700 steps to climb; the information was out of date, as the inundation had reduced these to 346. The sedans, bamboo chair litters, were still available to hire for the climb; they now cost 100 yuan rather than 10 yuan. We didn’t use them.
‘You don’t mind a walk,’ suggested our guide firmly.
The first sixty stairs brought us to Loyalty Square, celebrating Zhuge Liang, a prime minister of old renowned for his honesty and wise counsel. There was a stupendous view of the ‘Entrance to the Three Gorges’, a very strategic site in ancient times. A huge rock there, an ancient landmark, had to be blown up after the first of the three inundation stages; submerged, it would have been a shipping hazard.
We climbed many more steps to the summit, passing an archery range. Visitors shot arrows at straw men to celebrate ‘Taking arrows from the enemy using straw men’. This was a famous strategy of Zhuge Liang, as featured in the film ‘Red Cliff’.
On the far side of the ornate painted gate at the top of the stairs was a huge dragon statue. The founder of the city, Gongsun Shu (or someone else), saw a white dragon rising from a well (or in the form of a cloud). The white dragon was considered a good omen for founding a city there anyway, and it remained untouched during the warlike period which followed.
Inside the buildings was a large tableau, with very expressive figures, depicting the story of ‘Handing over the Orphans’ where Liu Bei (a hero of ‘Red Cliff’) calls Zhuge Liang out of retirement to look after his two young sons.
This ancient city is also famous for poetry, though the displays were being packed away for the evening. Our guide managed to show us how bamboo, pomegranate and plum were often used to decorate scrolls. Their survival over winter made these plants symbols of endurance.
We also learned that the purpose of the high thresholds – which we’d assumed were some sort of flood control – was to keep zombies out! The walking dead in China can’t bend their knees.
In addition, you had to bow your head as you entered a room, to watch your step, so automatically kowtowed. It was important to step right over and not set foot on the lip of the threshold.
Returning down a different set of steps as the light began to fade, we passed through the closing market, and the evening street food vendors just setting up, to the ship.
The whole point of an adventure is that you don’t know what will happen. However, you rather hope it will be enjoyable, so it’s worth doing some research before you go.
Use the Resources section of the Resilience Wheel as the framework for a check list of things you really ought to know. It’d look something like this:-
Energy – do I need an adapter to use the local electricity?
Food – what food hygiene advice is there? Is there anything I shouldn’t eat? Will I encounter problems with my food allergies?
Water – can I drink the tap water? If not, why not? Does it just taste salty, as in Malta, or should I avoid getting any in my mouth while showering, as in China?
Housing – look at reviews for the places you plan to stay
Transport – use Google maps to check out your route, check Trip Advisor for reviews
Waste – do I need to be prepared for squat toilets? (yes, in China! Although there were one or two pedestal toilets available at all our stops, there was a longer queue for these)
Communication – can I make or receive calls from home? Use the internet? (download WeChat to your phone before you leave; you can then message people outside China who also have this app. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all unavailable there at the time of writing)
Environment – what hazards might I encounter? Should I get vaccinations, bring special equipment?
Clothing – what sort of weather can I expect? (If you need heavy clothes, bring your second best, then you can sacrifice then at the end of the trip to make flight space for souvenirs)
No matter how much I prepare for an adventure, there’s always more to learn about the places I’ve been. I enjoy reading up about them back at home; my colleague and I have developed a taste for Chinese films and dramas, especially historical ones unfolding against the landscapes we just travelled through!
Exhausted by the long train journey from Shanghai to Yichang, we barely registered our late arrival on board the river cruiser ‘President Number Six’, except to note with relief that we had our promised balcony. We awoke to the 6.30am cheery morning call, swiftly learning the volume function of the mysterious dials under the mirror!
Another ship was moored parallel to ours – you could practically step across to their balconies, so it’s a good idea to close the outside doors if you’re on a shore excursion – but it glided off before we’d made our first coffees, revealing a stunning vista of white cliffs and dark forest. After the hectic pace of the city tour, the peaceful riverbank scenery was delightful.
Far from being pestered to join in the optional excursions (priced at around 290 yuan, about £30 at the exchange rate then), we weren’t even allowed on the first one, there being no English speaking guide available. We’d already planned to try and avoid this trip, hoping that it wasn’t part of a compulsory package. Although a visit to the home town of Qu Yuan, a famous poet from the Warring States period, was tempting, we knew we’d need some rest before tackling the Three Gorges Dam inclusive excursion later.
We were content to explore the ship and admire the view. The weather was still mild enough to enjoy sitting out on the deck, or sketching on the balcony; we began to move upriver. Our ship glided smoothly through the calm waters past ever changing views, through everyone’s stories, towards the Dam.
We discovered the ships always moored in parallel. Landing parties had to walk along internal gang planks through other cruise ships and over the bare decks of commercial barges before finally reaching shore.
Our group was promptly assailed by husslers, politely but insistently offering us T-shirts and maps of China. This, we learned from our guides, was the ‘maybe later’ market. The prospective vendors seemed to have some invisible boundary, and they were never a real pest. Their goods weren’t too bad either; I actually bought one of the maps, though I probably paid too much for it. Apparently you have to watch out for counterfeit money in change though.
A tour bus took us up the winding road to the Visitor Centre, thronged with Chinese tourists. We were introduced to the 3D model of the dam complex, touched briefly on souvenir shops, then ascended to the summit up four long outdoor escalators. We were lucky with weather ourselves, but an umbrella could be a handy item to bring.
The summit plaza itself was decorated with significant statues, murals depicting drowned cultures, and information boards. Stairs led to the viewpoint at the very top – for, of course, the view was the main attraction.
Building this steel/concrete gravity dam, long planned, was finally started in 1994 and completed in 2012. The ship locks and lift were finished later; our vessel was too large to go up in the incredible ship lift itself. The dam is 1.2 kilometres across and creates a reservoir 600 kilometres long, reaching all the way to Chongqing. Its output is 22.5 megawatts; half the average UK power demand.
The landscape of the entire river was altered by this project, and over a million people had to be relocated. Many scenic features were covered by the 90 metre rise in water levels. Silt builds up in the reservoir instead of being washed downstream to fertilise the soils. Some endangered species, such as the Siberian crane and Yangtze sturgeon, may not survive the changes.
However, having experienced the pollution caused by the coal fired power stations elsewhere, the clean air of the Three Gorges, where white mists replaced brown smogs, was a powerful argument in favour of hydropower. With the deeper channels, goods can be carried by ship instead of fleets of diesel lorries. Floods no longer threaten the densely populated Yangtze basin and the coastal towns.
These could be devastating. In 1998, over three thousand were killed and 15 million homes destroyed. In 1954, the floodwaters covered the entire city of Wuhan for three months; over thirty thousand people died and 18 million were displaced. The catastrophic flooding of Nanjing in 1931 claimed at least two million lives.
The way back down was a gentler stroll down flights of stairs and through parkland, bringing us out into a charming market full of affordable souvenir trinkets. We hastened through this, back on the bus, ran the gauntlet of the map sellers and were welcomed back on board the ship with hot flannels and tea.
The ship moved off soon after we returned; there was an indefinable air of tense excitement among the crew. By the end of dinner, we were in a holding position in front of the huge lock gates; the rain considerately stopped while we waited on the deck.
I thought we’d just move to the front of the queue but, in an amazing feat of pilotage, all three large ships entered the lock together. The great doors clanged shut, and the water began to run in.
We rose surprisingly fast – ‘up’ is not a direction usually associated with ships! In less than twenty minutes, we’d emerged from our concrete chasm and could gaze out over the landscaped working areas.
The second lock swung open and we moved through in a tight group. It took about two hours before we emerged from the fifth lock onto a broad, placid lake. The sharp line of the dam, crested by illuminated machines, retreated into the night, and we were on our way to the Interior!
RSD don’t do relaxing normally, but here they were in the hands of the cruise ship agenda. So there wasn’t much advance information about the shore excursions available, some of which are included in the price, but a little research shows these are usually much the same for all the cruises, differing slightly whether you are going upriver – as we were – or down.
It was a relief to find that our cabin – like most places we stayed – had a kettle. Remember to use bottled water for hot drinks. There is often more tea supplied than coffee, so if you prefer the latter, bring some extra sachets with you.
You can visit the Dam from Yichang; it’s about a 90 minute drive. It may be possible to book an excursion which takes you up the ship lift.