Saturday 18th March 2017

We left Hong Kong today by taxi to the airport, as the driver’s first pick up he was proud to proclaim, and departed on an Emirates 777 to Dubai. We took off towards the east and before we could see the city we were in cloud. A brief respite in the cloud cover enabled us to see northwest India and then the approach over the desert to Dubai.

Upon arrival we saw the A380 that would form our next leg of the journey home. Dubai International airport is massive and amazing that since we were last there in 1996 it has been transformed into a major international hub. Emirates, for example, at the time of writing, operate 98 A380s.

Upon checking in we were pleasantly surprised to have been upgraded. Having spent more than 8 hours at the back of a 777 we were now about to go upstairs in Business Class.

We departed on time, though upstairs it is like looking through a set of binoculars the wrong way. Presumably business people don’t have the time or inclination to look out the window!! The service and food was brilliant, but without the onboard cameras and maps of the route one wouldn’t know where one was until landing. We flew over Iran and across Turkey before joining the regular route across the Balkans, Austria, Germany and the world’s busiest crossing between Ostend and Dover.

By Derby there were some clear spots, but by Manchester encompassed the plane and not until the arrival at the gate did we recognise anything.

A quick tot up for our amazing journey shows that we travelled 17,270 miles.

Watch this space for more travels.

Friday 17th March 2017

Today we took two open-top bus tours of Hong Kong Island. Both of them started at the Central Star Ferry pier.

On the green route this morning we passed through the man-made canyons of glass and steel from the Two IFC Tower to The Bank of China, the complex at Admiralty Station and those at Central Plaza to enable us to take the elevated highway to the tunnel through the Central Mountains to Repulse Bay, Stanley Beach and the fishing port of Aberdeen.

The origins of Repulsive Bay’s English name have become extremely obscure. There are many stories none resting on any solid evidence that has so far been established. A typical example is that in 1841, the bay was used as a base by pirates and caused serious concern to foreign merchant ships trading with China. The pirates were subsequently repulsed by the Royal Navy, hence the name. Aberdeen is Hong Kong’s busy fishing harbour which is filled with wooden and more modern fishing boats. The wholesale fish market is at the western end of the harbour and this morning it was packed with lorries waiting to distribute the fish.

We returned to the Central Pier through the Hong Kong University complex. All of this took an hour and three-quarters. It was noticeably cooler at the other side of the island as the wind and cloud came off the South China Sea.

Upon our return it was still not possible to see the peaks of the mountains. We immediately hopped on the red bus which took us beyond the skyscrapers to Causeway Bay. This area has many older buildings and street markets in the narrow lanes as well as tall apartment blocks with shops at the ground floor level.

The bus turned inland at Victoria Park which is Hong Kong’s largest urban park. This eastern end of the island was developed first in the 1950s and so seems a little worn at the edges, especially along Lockhart Road. It was interesting as the bus headed west when we climbed the hill to the area known as the Mid-Level near the Man Mo Temple and many smaller shops and nightclubs. We returned to the starting point by passing through the relatively new Central Station area.

By now it was approaching 2:00 p.m. and time for a late lunch of the ubiquitous sweet and sour pork served in half a pineapple with steamed rice and delicious dainty ‘egg pies’ for dessert.

Thursday 16th March 2017

Hong Kong today is a product of the British take over of Hong Kong Island in 1841 during the First Opium War between China and Britain. The 8000 or so local people seemed to work with the British but the two countries fought over the trading rights of other port cities such as Shanghai. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong Island to the British. The population grew to about 86,000 and the British needed to expand their claim. Eventually the Kowloon Peninsula and Stone Cutter’s Island were given to Britain by the Convention of Beijing. During 1898 Britain turned Hong Kong into a fortress to protect the port and trade routes as well as local water supplies. On 1st July 1898 the 99 year lease of The New Territories was signed in Beijing. The Japanese occupied Hong Kong for 3 years from 1941 until recaptured by the British. Hong Kong as a manufacturing and trading centre really took off in the 1950s. The port became an entrepot port where large cargo ships imported and exported raw materials and finished goods which were distributed to and from smaller and relatively dear ports by smaller ships, including sailing ships called sampans. On our previous visits in the late 1990s the harbour was busy with big and small ships. Today we saw one. Have the Chinese moved sea trade to ports closer to their manufacturing areas? Hong Kong was not a port known for silk and spice route activity but southern Chinese ports such as Canton were hubs for traffic from India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and the islands of Southeast Asia. In a way the modern entrepot port continued this ancient way of trading.


We crossed the harbour to Hong Kong Island on one of The Star Ferries that have moved people across the harbour since 1888 and are still used by commuters despite rail and road tunnels beneath the harbour.

The ferry ride gives a good view of the mass of skyscrapers clinging to the shoreline as well as the rain forested hills in the centre of the island. There are 12 diesel powered ferries operating today with each one named after a particular star.

As one crosses to Central Plaza the view to the left is dominated by the Convention Centre built in time for the handover as well as the 373m high tower of Central Plaza.

Further to the right are the Bank of China and HSBC buildings but both of these are dominated by The Two IFC Tower which soars above Victoria Harbour at a height of 412m.

It was Hong Kong’s tallest building until 2010 when the International Commerce Centre at 484m in height opened in Kowloon. This houses the world’s highest hotel, The Ritz-Carlton.

The buildings may be of steel, glass and concrete but traditional bamboo scaffolding is still used to provide protection for pedestrians at ground level.

We caught the ferry back to Kowloon after a pleasant walk to Wan Chai and the Central Plaza and Convention Centre.

Adjacent to the Convention Centre is the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel which in 1996 provided us with a family room overlooking the harbour and the construction of the Convention Centre.

Just north of the Kowloon Terminal is Hong Kong’s cruise ship dock, today occupied by the Arcadia which had arrived here following a 21 day cruise from Australia.

At sunset we went walkabout again to see the lights of the buildings of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The first to display a changing face of lights and adverts is the International Commerce Centre in Kowloon. Turning around one can see the HSBC headquarters, which when opened in 1985 was the priciest building in the world as it apparently sits on the best possible feng shui.

Slightly to the left is the Central Plaza in Wan Chai which is the third tallest building in Hong Kong and changes colour every 15 minutes.

The Two International Finance Centre Tower rises to 412m above Victoria Harbour. The harbour was named after Queen Victoria but in Anglicised Chinese, Hong Kong means Fragrant Harbour.

The HK Convention and Exhibition Centre covers a large area of the shoreline and was designed to resemble a bird in flight.

The Cultural Centre next to the Kowloon-Canton railway clock tower, is the world’s first windowless building. Apparently the designers did not want what happens inside to be dominated by views of the outside world.

 

Wednesday 15th March 2017

We awoke around 7:30 a.m. to sub-tropical rainforest, which is not as dense as that at the Equator, isolated farms, terraced fields and tree covered pyramidal-like mountains. We were about 20 degrees north and the cloud and humid air clung to the mountain tops as well as in places almost at ground level.

Yesterday whilst running parallel to the 107 we saw the entrance to settlements marked by a stone monolith with the settlements name emblazoned upon it. This morning we found the ‘rock centres’ where it is possible to choose the size and rock type for your monolith!

Where there was construction work there were deep pools of mud and near every settlement the ‘tanks’ (man made lakes like those of India and Pakistan) that stored water and acted as fish farms for, especially, the smaller communities.

During the night we had crossed the Yangtze River near the city of Wuhan. This enters the Pacific Ocean near Shanghai. We crossed the Tropic of Cancer just before we reached Guangzhou at 10:00 a.m. The weather improved to a humid 16 C by the time we arrived in another dedicated part of the railway station in Kowloon on mainland Hong Kong.

A quick taxi ride got us to our hotel at the ‘posh end’ of Nathan Road, also known as ‘The Golden Mile’. We may be in part of China but the local currency is the Hong Kong dollar and later this afternoon we will have to get some.

This evening before dinner we walked to see Victoria Harbour being illuminated by the high-rise buildings. We stood close to the ferry terminal that carries people from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and close to the clock tower which is the last remnant of the 1915 railway terminus. This was the last stop on the Orient Express and a wonderful way of ending our railway adventure.

We would like to thank Real Russia in London who took our ideas for this expedition and enabled us to complete this with their outstanding help and organisation of the railway journeys. Other things we did ourselves. Everything has worked like clockwork and their specialist expertise has enabled us to cope with and cut through the red tape of intercontinental travel.

We still have 2 more days to explore Hong Kong before returning on another adventure on an Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aeroplane, to Manchester.

Tuesday 14th March 2017

This morning we commenced the last leg of our Europe-Asia rail adventure. We were booked in coach 8, beds 9 and 10, on train Z97 to Hong Kong. The journey is scheduled to take 25 hours. Upon arrival at the big and new Beijing West railway station we checked in as normal but because of our destination we were escorted by a policeman to the ground floor where there was a dedicated Hong Kong check-in, immigration service and quarantine. Security was tight again and we took our seat in a small, gloomy waiting area with no more than two dozen other people for the 11:10 a.m. opening time. (The train was due to depart at 12:40. Security takes time in China.) It was the usual routine of photocopying and scanning of passport as well as the removal of our Chinese departure cards and an exit stamp in the passport. This is because Hong Kong, although handed over to the Chinese at midnight on 30th June 1997 by the British, is a semi-autonomous region. This means that on the train we will have to complete a Hong Kong arrival and departure card. As this part of the security was taking place the empty stock for our train was brought into the station to a fenced off and dedicated platform. Essentially we were travelling in a sealed train with only the two dozen people able to make contact with each other. We had our own restaurant and before departure we were in there for lunch.

We left Beijing under clear blue skies which lasted until sunset some 6 hours later.

For the first few hours we ran parallel to the 107 National Road which reminded us of the journeys we have made along the Grand Trunk Road across India and Pakistan. Alongside the road were an almost endless line of engineering workshops, steel fabricators, brickworks, small shops and petrol stations all cheek by jowl with endless traffic and dust. The latter was doused in places with liberal amounts of water that from the train made the road look like a black and slick line across the semi-desert region.

Alongside all of this were more of the green fields which we had seen before but the further south we went the greener and bigger were these first shoots.

We crossed the Yellow River which flows into the Pacific Ocean to the southeast of the Beijing region.

As we mentioned earlier the Yellow River gets its name from the alluvium that it carries from the Chinese Loess Plateau in the northwest of the country which is famed for its mineral rich but easily eroded soil. A report in the China Daily newspaper states that Chinese scientists have discovered that the smog can indirectly reduce water contamination. They discovered that a high level of particulates that make smog has weakened the summer monsoon over the plateau. This has led to less rainfall and therefore less soil erosion, which in turn has reduced the amount of nutrients that cause algal blooms which absorb oxygen from the water, block out the sun and contaminate the water. We have seen that this appears to be true in the upper course of rivers such as the Yellow, but in the lower course, as the photographs here show, algal blooms are present. The article does conclude by explaining that the relationships between human and natural systems are complex and fragile and therefore the headline of the story may not be the whole story.

The sun set over the city of Zhengzhou and darkness fell quickly. Tomorrow we should see a different Chinese landscape.

Monday 13th March 2017

Beijing has had a chequered history since its first settling in 1045 BC. The Mongol warrior Ghengis Khan destroyed the city in 1215 but by the 15th century the basic grid of the present day city was established. Modern Beijing came of age when in January 1949 the People’s Liberation Army entered the city and by October the city was declared a People’s Republic in front of an audience of 500,000 citizens at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square. The city of today, certainly in the central area, has undergone schemes of beautification and is spotless.

On our last visit the city was seriously affected by smog but there has been considerable investment in the use of low emission vehicles, dual fuel buses, electric cars and an army of bicycles for rent. Today the sky was blue and for the first time on this adventure we witnessed sunshine at 7:30 a.m.

Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square and is the location of the entrance to The Forbidden City and the Great Hall of the People where the Chinese Congress is sitting at the moment. Again security was tight which meant standing in line for 40 minutes in order to progress through the security checks to enter the square. When the policeman inspected our passports it was a scene of great curiosity by the locals who only have an ID card to show. The man in front of us actually looked at the photograph in the passports and turned around, almost in surprise, that the real person was behind him!

  

This afternoon we convinced a taxi driver to take us on a swift trip across the city to the National Stadium, situated in the Olympic Park in a very remote suburb. The stadium that can house 91,000 people was nicknamed, because of its construction, the ‘Bird’s Nest’. It was used to stage athletics and football as well as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics. The television view and that of guidebooks was not available to us today because of tight security and we were surprised how closely surrounded it is with high-rise commercial buildings. An elevated wide-angle lens on a television camera easily portrays a different scene than that witnessed by a ground level visitor.

Sunday 12th March 2017

We left Xi’an just after 7:00 a.m. in heavy rain that was predicted on Chinese TV as likely to be prolonged and severe. It certainly was. Upon arrival at the new Xi’an North railway station we converted our e-ticket into paper ones. Following two layers of security we were in another massive and spotless departure hall.

Our train, G26, was called for boarding at 08:55 and having found coach 1 we were surprised to see that it was like the front of a wide bodied jet with some seats that could be made into beds and a capacity of five people. We thought we were at the front. Surprise! We left in the opposite direction!! There was plenty of green tea available and a little package of niblets, including dried, salted peas in a mild form of Bombay mix. It took at least 2 hours at up to 297km per hour to escape the gloom and rain of Xi’an. A report in the China Daily newspaper explained that China’s National Observatory has issued a snowstorm alert for the country’s northwest and northeast regions for today and Monday. Blizzards were forecast to drop more than 10cm of snow in the area near Urumqi and the Kazakhstan border but Xi’an would only receiver rain.

When the sky lifted we saw endless kilometres of green shoots of cereals or vegetables as well as poly tunnels. Compared to the regions around Urumqi and Xian, spring was well under way here despite being further north, but closer to the ocean. Again, this illustrated how remote, inhospitable and land-locked the region between Almaty and Urumqi really is.

At an intermediate station the approach had high speed railways on at least 3 levels. The tinted windows were brilliant when looking to the outside from our seats but difficult to see through from the outside.

Our approach to Beijing was overlooked by the Taihang Shan Mountains. Along the watershed of some of this is part of the Great Wall. We arrived at Beijing West Station, in the suburbs, bang on time. After check in at the hotel we visited an English language bookshop and Le Cabernet French restaurant adjacent to our French owned hotel.

Saturday 11th March 2017

This morning we left the old city at the South Gate and upon crossing the moat we entered the very modern high rise section of Xi’an. It was interesting that within a kilometre the shiny granite and glass towers selling Prada and other named clothing brands changed to multi-storey apartments and old single unit shops selling everyday items.

We found in the grounds of the Jianfu Temple, the Little Goose Pagoda. The pagoda is described as a rather delicate building of 15 progressively smaller tiers. It was built at the beginning of the 8th century AD and housed Buddhist scriptures brought from India by a pilgrim called Yi Jing. The top of the pagoda was shaken off by an earthquake in the mid 16th century which left the rest of the 43m high structure intact except for some damage to the corners, presumably caused by the falling debris. Admission was free but at the ticket office upon showing our passports, which is usual at such sights, we were warned that because of our age we were not allowed to climb the pagoda!!
The grounds are very pleasant and peaceful and are used by Saturday morning art classes. We were spotted upon entry who were in a circle being instructed by their teacher and when we were leaving a group of the junior school age pupils and their teacher ran towards us and with good English asked for us to participate in a team photo. This follows one of the party being invited to participate in a photograph for the family album!


We returned to the South Gate and entered through a parkway and across a drawbridge, all in the middle of a giant roundabout. When the South Gate and adjoining walls were renovated it was decided to open three arches either side of the central gate in order to accommodate the traffic and allow it to flow more freely.

Xi’an is one of the few cities in China where the city walls are still standing. They were built in the 14th century, are 12m high, surrounded by a moat and form a rectangle with a perimeter of 14km. It is possible to walk the entirety of the walls, but we chose not to do that today! A model on the wall gives one an idea of how grand and big the old city of Xi’an was at the time of the Silk Road. The walls originally enclosed 83 sq. km which is an area many times larger than today’s city centre. Adjacent to the South Gate was the East Market of the imperial city of the Tang dynasty which was described as a centre of business and handicrafts, dotted with numerous stores and business men. It handles all treasures and rarities from all directions under the sun. From the walls one can see the Hua Pagoda of the Baoqing Temple built in 1451. Close to this pagoda and the walls are the rebuilt houses of artisans that sold their wares nearby.

Friday 10th March 2017

Xi’an was the political heart of China until the 10th century, but long before this it was the beginning/end of the Silk and Spice Routes, meaning that the city became a mix of cultures and religions as well as the home to poets, monks, merchants and warriors. Today’s city walls date from the Ming dynasty (14th century) and enclose trading areas such as the Muslim Quarter. In recent years the city has been campaigning for the Silk Road to be added to the Unesco World Heritage list. Later silk and spice road trade extended overland to Afghanistan, today’s Pakistan and India as well as to ports on India’s and China’s coastline with links to the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. Our mission today was to walk to the start/end of the Silk Road. This meant passing the Bell and Drum Towers and the Temple of the City God to reach the West Gate and exit the old city.

In doing so we left the tourists behind and experienced some elements of daily life such as the watering of plants and the humidifying of streets as well as the ubiquitous motorised delivery rickshaws, some still complete with winter weather gear.

On the road Daqing Lu we found a linear park which was, through tile-like sculptures, a celebration of the Silk Road. An elderly couple sitting next to one of these showed particular interest in our photography and certainly knew about the Silk Road. At the beginning/end the tile was being used as part of a children’s playground, with play being stopped to enable us to photograph the evidence. Again, big smiles and a conversation about the Silk Road. We had found it!! The tiles showed camels and traders; silk manufacturing and trade; music making and entertainment; fruit, vegetables and food along the ancient routes. All of this has been replicated in places along the whole of our journey by train across Central Asia.

Since at least 2000 BC trade had been taking place over land and sea between ancient civilisations in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East which were all connected by a mass of trade routes that were developed by early traders, monks and emperors finding safe and hospitable ways of crossing the highest mountains and the bleakest deserts on Earth. This meant finding river valleys through mountain ranges, low level crossing points of the mountains and natural lines of springs on the northern and southern edges of the deserts where the rocks of the mountains (which held water) dipped beneath the desert sands. This is known as geographical determinism. No one goes straight across a desert or with a machete cut routes through rainforests. These methods are for the movie makers and not reality. The heartland of the trade was Central Asia where cosmopolitan cities such as Xi’an and Samarkand grew fabulously wealthy. All who travelled the Silk Road exchanged technological ideas, science, religion, humanistic thought as well as goods such as silk, spices and fruits. There was never a single Silk or Spice Road. In fact the term is a 19th century invention by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen. Routes would change as the political situation en route changed but the super highway as a concept was maintained. The overnight stopping off points developed into small fortified cities where the caravaners would trade some of their cargo for the services available at the overnight halt. These early exchanges were based on barter with money developing much later. Samarkand became the halfway break where caravans from the Mediterranean coast and Mesopotamia (Iraq) met traders from the Far East. The Silk Road of old received a major blow when China retreated behind its Great Wall but so many links and routes had been established that trade continued. The Silk Road continues to operate as we have witnessed through many long freight trains and long distance articulated lorries. Before we left on this adventure we witnessed on television the arrival in England of the first container train to operate direct from China.

The BBC weather map shows in light colour China and in the northwest in dark colours the area where mountains and deserts collide along the Silk Road.

After all this it was lunch when we ate along the Silk Road!!

A pleasant evening stroll here can take in the Bell and Drum Towers and the Muslim Quarter.

Most of the action takes place in one street in the Quarter but as a whole it is a maze of narrow lanes full of butcher’s shops, sesame oil factories, bakeries and small mosques. Along the street is a wide range of fast food ranging from insects, kebabs, noodles, fruit, nuts and wok cooked spicy food. It is Friday today and the street was filled with people but despite this the place is spotless as a team of street cleaners work hard to keep the place tidy. Smells of food, spices and smoke from the barbecues fill the air.

Away from here the city is really a sophisticated light show as on the main streets all buildings are illuminated. Local people promenade along the main streets.

Thursday 9th March 2017

We awoke just before 8:00 a.m. to see mountains still to our left and still of the old, red sandstone. The railway line, although improved for high speed running was still faced with the same geographical challenges of the old route, namely the Gansu Corridor, which narrows as the mountains come together some 300km south of Mongolia. This is a very challenging part of the world for railway construction as there are a mixture of rocks, narrowing valleys and increased altitude. The view from the window clearly showed us a most inhospitable and the remotest part of our journey. From 8:10 a.m. we travelled for at least 9 1/2 hours, initially climbing and later descending, but always passing through tunnels ranging from 400m in length to 4 or 5 km. At some stages no sooner had our carriage left a tunnel than we were in another one. Progress was slow for the 9 1/2 hours as some of the curves were tight and the flanges of the wheels scraped the rails. When we crossed the watershed we followed the River Wei, which is a tributary of the Yellow River, which we actually crossed later in the day. The mountains here are about 3 – 4000m in height and rise suddenly from the valley floor, so looking out of the window one can see how these peaks dominate the landscape. The River Wei has multiple sources on these mountains which quickly join to form the larger river and in doing so means that the river in the mountains exhibits features that one normally sees on lower terrain closer to the river’s mouth. The River Wei in cutting through the mountain range meanders considerably so out railway line in both following the river and maintaining a high speed route is constantly cutting off the corner and leaving the river valley by tunnelling through a spur of the mountain to regain the River Wei’s valley. In the valley farmers appear to have every last metre of land available. There are terraced fields, irrigation channels and collective farms all above the river on what seemed to be very small patches of land.

The old, red sandstone is also joined by the loess of this region. These are river and glacial sands which are easily eroded. It is this erosion that gives the Yellow River its name and is known as the world’s muddiest.
By 14:57 we had reached Tianshui, a distance of about 300km from Xi’an and entered historic Shaanxi Province. We still clung to the River Wei and continued through even more tunnels and it was not until 17:40 p.m. at Baoji that we left the tunnels behind and started to speed down the wider valley towards Xi’an, arriving at 19:21 p.m. The approach to Xi’an was spectacular with brightly illuminated buildings and single-stay suspension bridge across the river, and the tastefully decorated city walls and gateways with neon crenallations. A short taxi ride took us to the hotel by the Bell Tower, which was now illuminated and made a fabulous sight when viewed through the glass walls of the hotel lobby. We had soon checked in and eating a spicy rack of lamb with steamed rice at the restaurant next door!