Quote Of The Day

"Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake - Chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower (1887-1956)"

Monday, June 30, 2014

Benvenuto Cellini...

Last Friday night Stuart and I went to see Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini at the London Coliseum.

The English National Opera had invited Gilliam back (after the success of The Damnation of Faust) to their stage bring his unique bonkers style of production.  And he did. It was bonkers. And brilliant.

All the classic touches were there. Surreal, funny and dazzling.

Friday, June 27, 2014


For the past two weeks Stuart and I have been on a tour of China. Organised by Voyages Jules Verne is was a Discover China package which ticked all the boxes of that great country.

Brief synopsis of our trip:- Great Wall (tick), warriors (tick), pandas (tick), pointy buildings (tick), Three Gorges (tick)

(Pictures are posted below)

And here is a less brief synopsis of our trip:-

Our fellow travelers were: Roger and Nikki, Jeff and Beth, Lesley and John, Brian and Sue, Sally and Dennis.

Day 1

We took the Heathrow Express to terminal 3. Our Voyages Jules Verne check-in guide helped us with negotiating the Air China terminal - not an easy task. It gave Stu and I seats in separate parts of the plane which we easily corrected at the bag drop desk. The flight was OK but pretty basic by modern airline standards - pretty awful food, random non-consistent enforcement of fasten safety belts and unsmiling cabin staff.  The sleeping pill helped and nine and half hours (and seven hour time zone shift) later we were in humid Beijing. The holiday had started!

Day 2

After clearing Customs and Immigration (a surprisingly quick and easy process) we were met by our tour guide Richard / Rich / Fu was young, good looking and convivial. The rest of the tour group were like us - all couples, mainly retired and seasoned travelers so that was good. It turned out we all liked a drink too so we all had no problems fitting in.

The minibus ride to our hotel - a rather swanky Raisson Blu - was predictably slow as the legendary Beijing traffic ensnared us in it's dragon like claws. However it gave us a chance to people watch, car watch and city watch.  Surprisingly the city looked like any European city - wide dual carriage ways, trees, scruffy apartment blocks, typical modern street furniture. I'm not sure what we were expecting but it all seemed very Western.

Fu offered us a bonus excursion that night if we wanted it (which we all did) - a rickshaw ride around Hutong (the 'slum' area that had been largely cleared away by Mao and also for the Olympics) and a visit to a typical Hutong house. It was an eye opener and perhaps more what we expected from Beijing. Basic ramshackled housing, shared facilities, plastic double glazing, but with wifi!

After the tour we returned to our hotel for a basic Chinese meal - something that we were to be subjected too for every lunchtime and evening meal pretty much. You soon get bored of the same food twice a day I can tell you!

Day 3

Out first full day in Beijing. On the minibus we visited:- 

Temple of Heaven - a masterpiece of Ming architecture it was built by the third emperor. Made entirely of wood with no nails it symbolises heaven and earth being rounded at the north but square at the south. The place was a bit touristy, and typified lots of classic pointy Chinese buildings that we were to see throughout our trip.

Tian An Men Square - a big, Soviet-style, modern creation until the 1970s it was used to hold mass rallies and parades. Covering an area of 98 acres it now hosts the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao, with his embalmed body on display. The square has very tight security, and we got questioned by the police (our Tank Man impersonation didn't go down too well with the local constabulary) 

The Forbidden City - (see Temple of Heaven (only bigger)). The yellow roofs of the FC aka Imperial Museum or Palace Museum dominate the centre of Beijing. Home to the Emperor and the Imperial Family it was the focal point of the empire and the middle of the Middle Kingdom. Entry was strictly forbidden to all but those on imperial business until 1911 when the last emperor was unseated. It occupies 720,000 sq m and there are 9,999 rooms. It surrounded by a ten metre wall and a moat.

After the 'culture' we went for a swim at the hotel which was (unsurprisingly) clean and efficiently run.

Fu offered us another one of his bonus tours. This time to the Olympic Park. It was fab.  The birds nest arena was lit up orange and yellow, the aquatic cube purple and blue and the Olympic tower changed colours every few seconds.

Another drab Chinese meal ended the day sadly.

Day 4

Back on the minibus.

Summer Palace - 7 miles north west of the city is is a rather wonderful albeit expensive dream of notorious Empress Dowager Cixi aka Dragon Lady. With the money that was intended for the building of a naval fleet (a misappropriation that was to prove costly) she constructed the Garden of Cultivated Harmony (Summer Palace). While we were there everyone seemed to want to take our picture! We also got to see the longest painted corridor in the world. Golly! The visit was finished off by a trip on the 12 sq mile lake courtesy of a dragon boat.

Great Wall of China - after an hour or two drive north of the city and a spot of lunch we took the cable car up the hillside to the Great Wall itself. It was amazing. Built 2,500 years ago to keep out the barbaric north nomads we almost empty we had the run of the place. Stu and I decided to hike along eastward and then up the 500 steps to flag station (watch tower) number two. We were almost crawling on our hands and knees for the last part because our legs were giving way and it was a 45 degree incline.  We made it though. And waved a big red flag at the top. Up there Mrs Lady flogged us a 50 wan (£5) beer which we gladly paid.

Back in Beijing we had a dip in the hotel pool before heading out for a Peking Duck meal which was delicious. Maybe we were getting used to the food... Or maybe it was because the beer flowed much more freely. 

Day 5

We checked out and headed for the airport. Next stop Xian. Albeit with a three and a half hour flight delay at the airport.

Once in Xian we were met by Susan / Qin, a very pretty Chinese tour guide, whose English was excellent albeit a little stilted.

On the way to the hotel we stopped off for a City Wall Ceremony (locals doing am-dram dressing up and flag waving to a prerecorded backing track.) All rather embarrassing - still, we got a plastic gold key out of it.

The Days Inn hotel was lovely. Definitely five star. The evening 'Western-style' buffet meal less so however so we had an early night.

Day 6

After breakfast we all bundled into our minibus again and headed off to see the Terracotta Warriors. En route (as was become customary) we stopped off at a factory and outlet. This one made replica Terracotta Warriors by the traditional method along with other traditional crafts.

Then we went on to the warrior site proper. And it was very impressive - especially in Pit 1. Hundreds of statues of soldiers, chariots and horses that had stood there undisturbed for 2,174 years in all their finery. Pits 2 & 3 were less interesting as they were still being excavated. We even got to see Mr Yang who discovered the original warrior. Now 80 years old and signing books, bless him.

We took lunch near the museum before heading back into town to the Shaanxi Provincial Museum. It was fairly predictable to be frank but it did give us the chance to grab a couple of beers to make the afternoon pass.

In the evening we took in a dumpling 'feast' (18 dumplings a la Ping Pong) before watching a fairly tacky Tang Dynasty Song & Dance Show. Bless 'em they tried and the frocks looked great but it missed a bit of pixie dust to make it come alive.

Back to the hotel for a night-cap in the Bacchus Bar (they make pretty hard to pay at these bars I might add) and we were ready for bed. Long day tomorrow...

Day 7

We had a very welcome late check-out prior to a visit the Wild Goose Pagoda. It was so-so interesting although I did get the chance to ring the giant bell with a log on a rope. After lunch we headed to the airport for the first of two flights in two days. Oh joy.

We flew due south to Guilin for an overnight stay at the 4-star Park Hotel. We were met at the airport by seasoned tour guide Simon. The hotel was OK but as we arrived so late we only had time to take a stone-cold spaghetti bog in our room. Guilin was nice enough - tacky LED lighting on all the buildings - but we were there all too briefly and that was a pain.

Day 8

Up at the crack (breakfast was like hand-to-hand combat) we mini-bussed it to our half-day cruise on the Li River. The boat was quite good with front-row upper deck seats. Guilin is famous for, and we saw lots of, the massive limestone hills.

After the voyage we plumped for an extra trip to the countryside where we saw a paddy field, a traditional farmers's house (allegedly still using only old methods but we spotted a wi-fi setup) and were shown some traditional farming techniques by the old crow. Bless 'em they were sweet.

We then took a very (very) bumpy road to the airport where we flew to Chengdu for two nights at the 4-star Hotel Tianfu Sunshine. Again arriving ridiculously late we had to make do with a midnight club sandwich in the bar. Too many flights in too few days in my opinion.

Day 9

Our tour guide in Chengdu was Oliver. He seemed to know his onions and convinced us another early start was necessary to catch the notoriously lazy giant pandas still awake.

So setting off at 8am we visited the Panda Breeding Research Centre. The pandas were great. Brilliant in fact. Playing with their young, hanging out of tress and munching bamboo. Awwww!

After a spicy bamboo lunch ourselves we drove back unto town for a mercifully brief walk along 'ancient' (i.e. recently rebuilt) Jinli Street.

After a nap we headed out for a spicy Sichuan dinner and decidedly unspicy Sichuan Opera (read: variety show). Actually it wasn't that bad. The finger shadows in particular and instrument playing was pretty top form. By the time we were back at the hotel we were dead on our feet.

Day 10

Having checked out early we bussed it to the cavernous Chengdu railway station before taking a bullet train to Chongqingbei. We were hoping for a 'bullet' but sadly we only got a pop-gun - the train only reached 194km/hr as it was a stopping train. Booooo!

Chongqingbei (biggest city in the world) was pretty drab. All concrete and high rises.

After an uninspiring lunch we took in yet another city tour (the usual Peoples' Square followed by a posh shopping area, then the slums and then a rather lovely Guild Hall) before boarding the MV Century Legend for three nights' Yangtse River tour.

It was a bit like our cruise in Miami last autumn with over-enthusiastic servers, an over-enthusiastic crew show, and an over-enthusiastic entertainment's officer (called Gary.) However our cabin was spacious, the shower powerful and towels fluffy. It was bliss.

We set sail at about 9:30pm followed by a silver service Chinese dinner. The usual.

Day 11

Breakfast on board was a buffet - which we skipped for a lie-in.

In the afternoon was an excursion to Shibaozhai to climb the pagoda mounted on the 720-foot high hillside to the temple on the top. Shibaozhai was one of those villages that had been relocated by the dam project.

That evening we enjoyed/endured the crew cabaret show. "And now I bring you.....Your chefs!" It was what it was.

The only one's left in the bar by the end were the Brits. Hurrah for us!

Day 12

We sailed through the first of the gorges that make up 125-mile long Three Gorges of the Yangtse River. The Qutang was short (about 5 miles) but certainly quite beautiful. The second was the 25 mile Wu gorge - less spectacular but impressive nonetheless. 

"On your left you can see a hill that we call 'The Bird' because Chinese legend says 'it looks like a bird'" You get the idea.

In the afternoon we took an excursion up the Shenong Stream - a narrow tributary of the Yangtse which boasted magnificent smaller gorges. At the far end of the trip we were treated to yet another show (albeit a mercifully brief one.) Fu, bless him, bought me a beer. I think he could see I needed one. And then a surprise - some monkeys running along the shore on the way back. 

In the evening we passed through the first part of the final Xiling Gorge. It was to be in marked contrast to the second section of this gorge beneath the dam which we were to see the next day.

About midnight we reach the dam itself and passed through the five Three Gorges shiplocks. Oh my word they were impressive. Massive locks that simply dwarfed our boat. It took two hours to get through them all.

Day 13

Up early on our final day on the boat we disembarked for a visit to the Three Gorges Dam site. The dam consisted of the afore mentioned locks, silt-prevention dikes, silt-clearing sluices, spillways, 32 turbines, a power plant and a feck of a lot of concrete. It was certainly an impressive site. Shame that 1.4 million people needed to be moved to accommodate the reservoir though.

After the dam we continued on down river a bit before transferring by minibus to Yichang airport and flying on to Shanghai. Where we were to spend two nights at the 4-star Riverview Hotel.

After checking in we took a walk along the Bund (a bit like London's South Bank) in the evening. Shanghai was a glittering spectacle of lit up neon by night - and a sea of skyscrapers by day. 15,000 new over-25 story buildings had be erected in the last 10 years. A veritable concrete jungle.

Day 14

A full day of sightseeing started at the Silk Museum, then the Jade Buddha Temple, the beautiful Yu Yuan Gardens, and Nanjing Road for a spot of shopping. After lunch (and a show of course) we visited the Shanghai Museum.

In the evening we went to an acrobatic show. It was 90 mins long and pretty impressive - especially the unicyling girls.

Then we were back home for an early night and to pack.

Day 15

Up at 4:30am we checked out and got the minibus to the airport for our 7:55am flight to Beijing.  We then had a 4 hour stopover which was sadly extended by a further 90 mins as we sat on the runway waiting for someone's bags to be unloaded. Pah!

The flight was rather bumpy - Air China's seats are primal and probably the most uncomfortable long-haul I have had the misfortune to experience. The cabin was roasting hot and the announcements came all too frequently to allow us to get any sleep. Still, we eventually made it home having been up for 24 hours.

Phew! What a trip!