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All Smoke, No Lava: Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山公园

Ever since the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii and saw volcanoes I’ve wanted to see a real volcano too, glowing with lava and occasionally letting off spurts of sulphurous steam. Like Indianna Jones faced with the Temple of Doom, the thought of a sacrificial pit filled with bubbling lava was very thrilling to my fourteen year-old self, although I wasn’t as keen on the human sacrifice component involved. 

Suffice to say I have a highly romantic and somewhat idealised mental vision of volcanoes, dented somewhat when Mount St Helens erupted, completely lava free, killing fifty seven, and rekindled after recently re-reading Mark Twain’s American travel odyssey Roughing It, with a description of a night-time walk across the three-mile wide crater of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii:
“Under us, and stretching away before us, was a heaving sea of molten fire of seemingly limitless extent. The glare from it was so blinding that it was some time before we could bear to look upon it steadily.
It was like gazing at the sun at noon-day, except that the glare was not quite so white. At unequal distances all around the shores of the lake were nearly white-hot chimneys or hollow drums of lava, four or five feet high, and up through them were bursting gorgeous sprays of lava-gouts and gem spangles, some white, some red and some golden—a ceaseless bombardment, and one that fascinated the eye with its unapproachable splendor.”
Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872
“在下面,我们面前是一条绵延至远方的道路,一片起伏的火海看起来没有尽头。耀眼的光芒使人目眩,带我们平稳的看清下面还需要一定的时间。就像是在正午时分直视着太阳一样,除了刺眼的光不是那么白以外。沿着湖岸边不规则的距离都是白热化的烟囱或是中空的鼓形熔岩,四五英尺高,在它们之上是一团团熔岩华丽爆炸的喷雾还有像闪烁发光的珠宝一般,一些是白的,一些是红的,还有一些是金色的一连串的爆炸,发出的无与伦比的光彩吸引着你的眼球。” 马克吐温艰难岁月1872

So after hearing that western Yunnan is home to China’s own volcano cluster, we took an almighty detour towards the Myanmar border to the centre of the action at the Tengchong Volcano Park, or more properly and Chinglish-ly named the National Geo Park Of Tengchong Volcanic And Geothermal. I guess that covers everything.
My expectations of volcanic satisfaction were high, given that in China everything is big. This was going to be major, and we could also say it was educational and therefore justify the four days’ round trip out of our way to see it.  
The whole Tengchong region is a hotbed of seismic activity with volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and reasonably frequent earthquakes. We thought it might be an exciting place to take the kids to maybe see some science in action, but just in case we saw a bit too much science in action we made a family pact not to tell anyone back home until after we were safely somewhere else. Which we now are.
I’d built up quite an exciting level of risk in my mind, imagining walking Twain-style across a just-cooled crater of lava, but my first niggling doubts that the experience might be just slightly underwhelming came when we arrived at the Volcano Park and purchased tickets.
“Would you like tickets to Big Empty Mountain, Small Empty Mountain, Black Empty Mountain or all three?” the ticket seller asked. 
Empty? I thought. Empty? Surely not. 
We opted for Big Empty Mountain, being the biggest, but first took a turn through the Volcano Museum where they displayed an out-of-work geiger counter and a battery-operated volcano replica at least as tall as a person, rivers of red cellophane lava flowing endlessly down its sides. This was going to be GOOD.
Outside beyond the impressive five flagpoles Big Empty Mountain looked decidedly small up close, so I checked the map just in case we had detoured to Small Empty Mountain by mistake. We hadn’t, because the flat tree-covered hillock off to our right was, in fact, Small Empty Mountain, and Big Empty Mountain was dead ahead.

“你想要去大空山小空山, 黑空山或者包含三种的门票吗?” 卖票人询问.
空的? 我想了一下. 空的? 当然不要了.
Big Empty Mountain. Be very afraid.

The climb up Big Empty Mountain’s 648 stairs was just the thing for building anticipation of what a real volcano crater would look like. Never mind that the volcano itself was small. The crater would be black. Crusted with ancient lava. Perhaps occasional little puffs of high-pressure steam. Maybe.

Huffing and puffing, we arrived at the top to find this:


Possibly the boring-est photo of a volcano ever taken. Ever.

At least the view from the top was lovely, and for a very brief minute we were able to convince the kids that the far off hill was smoking, until the cloud moved and destroyed that illusion.

I asked the girls how they thought it might have been better.

The older one favoured a scorched earth approach to volcano improvement:

“They should have taken away all the trees and grass so it looked more like a real volcano” (volcanoes in her mind being blackened cones of rock glowing red from within).

The younger one felt some lava inside the crater would have been better than “a bunch of trees” or failing that “at least a lake you could swim in”.

In summary, they named it a “spectacular disappointment” and didn’t even stop to look at the lava souvenirs carved into fish shapes, something they may one day regret.


The Sea of Heat 热海
Which is how we ended up later that day at the fabled Tengchong Sea of Heat, acres of boiling waters, geysers, bubbling mud and noxious gases. At least, that’s what we all thought it should have. We did know there was an outdoor swimming pool heated with therapeutic underground spring waters, and if there’s one thing that makes up for pretty much any disappointment when you’re a child, it’s the thought of splashing around in a swimming pool for a few hours.

We spent an hour searching through the campervan’s dozen or more cupboards for everyone’s swimming costumes, unworn since the beach on Lian Island, packed them into a bag along with changes of clothes and hairbrushes, and fought our way to the ticket office through a hundred tour buses and a hundred ladies selling eggs wrapped in raffia in the carpark. Why eggs? We had no idea.

The smiling ladies behind the vast ticket counter asked whether we wanted to see everything in the Sea of Heat, or just a select few things like the Boiling Cauldron and the Sea of Pearls.

“We just want to go swimming actually” we said.

“OK, so altogether that’s one thousand and seventy two yuan” she told me.

I handed her a one hundred yuan note, thinking she’d said seventy two yuan.

“No, no, a thousand and seventy two yuan. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan each person” she replied. That’s close to a hundred and eighty dollars. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan is the same price you would pay for dinner for ten in a local restaurant, or a room in a 4 star Chinese hotel.

At this point, expensive disappointing volcano behind us and promise of swimming rapidly evaporating before us, I became one of those tourists. The one who can’t believe how expensive everything is. The one who has to make her point known to the poor dummy manning the ticket desk, the same dummy with no say over the obscene prices charged by private enterprises who have bribed their way into running a business inside a national park.

“268 yuan? Why is it so expensive?”

“It’s very, very good.”

“Can you sleep there overnight?”


“Do you get breakfast, lunch and dinner for free?”

“No, of course..”

“So HOW can you justify charging 268 yuan to go swimming??”

“It’s very good. The waters are very steamy.”

My husband gently pulled my elbow. “Let’s just pay to see the hot springs, how about that?”

事实上我们只是 “来游泳的” 我们说.

我给了她一张一百的, 想她还会说还有七十二元




So we paid the relatively paltry sum of forty dollars to see the Boiling Cauldron, an impressively scalding pool of sulfur-bubbling water where suddenly eggs wrapped in raffia made perfect sense. Why just look at a pool of boiling volcanic water when you could cook stuff in it? Genius.

The cheapskates who had brought eggs in from the carpark were relegated to a simmering puddle in a far corner, away from those who could afford to pay the premium price charged by yet another private enterprise for the privilege of having their eggs (and peanuts and potatoes) cooked in the actual Boiling Cauldron.

At that point I could feel the familiar buzz of a bee in my bonnet but thankfully kept it to myself. We had all paid the same entry price, and yet we couldn’t all cook our eggs in the Boiling Cauldron, and we couldn’t all enjoy the view from the outdoor seats because those things were all extras run by private companies.

As we walked through the park VIP Beauty Spas and Very Expensive Tea Shops popped up at every turn. I don’t mind paying an entry ticket to see an attraction, far from it, but when most of my path is roped off to permit access only to people who’ve paid VIP prices? It’s just….just….JUST NOT VERY COMMUNIST now is it??


Unfortunately, the best view of this waterfall of boiling water and frog-mouthed geysers was roped off, obstructed by a large tent selling photos of tourists taken in a VIP position with the best view.


And the previously impressive boiling river had been diverted with a very attractive rock wall and pipe to feed the VIP Spa nearby.
之前印象深刻的沸腾河已经被改变了, 变成一个吸引众人的石墙和供养附近水疗的一个管道.
The pavilion and bridge were, unbelievably, Included in The Entry Price. I kept waiting for someone to spring out and charge me for walking on it.
We rounded a corner and there it was, the Unbelievably Expensive Swimming Pool in the midst of a Costly Private Resort, smack bang in the middle of a national park we had all paid to get into. The path through the valley was no longer passable because the resort had requisitioned all the land.
The girls made little conciliatory remarks to make us feel better, like “I bet they wouldn’t even let you play Marco Polo in there” and “people probably spit in the water”. 
We stood on one side of the fence and watched the only two occupants of the pool, men with white towels wrapped around their waists, walk past smoking. 
“You’ve been ripped off!” I wanted to yell at them, and at all the tourists around us. But they were too busy lining up to pay for a laminated copy of their geyser photos. Oh China.

Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山地热国家地质公园
Approximately 25km north of Tengchong just outside Mazhanxiang village.
Admission 60 yuan per person

Sea of Heat 热海
Approximately 10km south of Tengchong
Admission 60 yuan per person for limited access to attractions

The Horse’s Hoof Temple: Mati Si 马蹄寺

After three days of trekking in the desert on the back of a camel and sleeping on sand dunes (not as soft, warm or comfortable as it sounds, but more on that adventure in the next post) I can barely move, such are the depths of my camel-riding agonies, so forgive me, today’s post is light on words but instead lush with pictures of one of the best places we’ve yet visited in our first 10,000km around China. 

Intriguing, extraordinary and quite magical, the Horse’s Hoof Temple is a place that should be a massively popular attraction, but thankfully isn’t. This is the sort of place you want to enjoy all by yourself.
Mati Si (literally Horse’s Hoof Temple, named for the imprint left by the hoof of a Chinese pegasus) is an ancient Buddhist temple complex dating back some 1500 years. A series of temples spread over several miles on a long, undulating sandstone cliff face, the temples face the stunning snow-peaked Qilian mountain range and look out over a fertile, lush alpine meadow filled with wildflowers. 


In contrast to the impressively and precariously cantilevered Hanging Temple in northern Shanxi, reached by rickety outer wooden stairs and walkways, Mati Si is hollowed directly into the cliff itself. The labyrinthine collection of some several hundred temple shaped caves and caverns are all reached by a spellbinding and dizzying series of vertical, horizontal and diagonal tunnels and stairs carved directly into the rock. 

More than a little decrepit compared with the World Heritage-listed caves of Yaodong and Dunhuang, Mati Si is refreshingly free of crowds, free of guides, and free of souvenir sellers. I just enjoyed exploring the site, unrushed and unhindered, each dark tunnel leading to a Buddha niche filled with a riot of colour and pattern.

Sometimes the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, seeing the immense beauty of nature and the ingenuity of man, is a much more powerful experience than a hundred famous temples.


Mati Si – the main temple, set into a cliff

The outdoor stairs, for the truly devoted. I took the tunnel instead.
Horse’s Hoof Temple: Mati Si 马蹄寺
Gansu Province 
About 65km south-south-west of Zhangye township at the foot of the Qilian mountain range
Co-ordinates:  Lat: 38.486396° Long: 100.417540°
Admission: 35 yuan per person to the lower (Thousand Buddha) temple and nature reserve, additional 35 yuan per person for entrance to the main temple. Students half-price, under 1.3m free.
Open 7 days
For information on getting there from Zhangye this website has useful information

Chinese Funeral Traditions at the Shanghai Funeral Museum

Do you know anyone who doesn’t have a slightly morbid fascination with the rituals surrounding death in other cultures?
My interest in death customs in other cultures and religions was first piqued when, as a medical student working in the remote Thai town of Khon Kaen, I was invited to the funeral of the town’s only and very elderly foreigner. I had never met him while he was living, and knew nothing of him other than that he had lived in that remote and beautiful place for many years.  The funeral was so different from the oppressively sombre church funerals I had attended in the past, with mourners dressed in black.
The funeral prayers were conducted by Buddhist monks in an open air pavilion within a luch tropical garden. The body was laid under a heavy white sheet in the very centre of the pavilion, not visible, but the tips of his fingers rested gently in a bowl filled with water lilies and lotus blossoms at his side as though he had just placed it there himself. Friends and family walked by, one by one, and taking a small brass cup, poured water over his hand and into the bowl. It was an act of such gentle elegance and respect and there was a pervasive feeling of lightness.
Then, two years ago, I witnessed a Chinese funeral near Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces. It was completely different again and at first I thought I had come across a wedding procession – there were firecrackers, loud music, and raucous singing, but in the centre of the procession were white-clad coffin bearers carrying a brightly painted wooden coffin on poles to the burial ground. Afterwards a massive feast took place in the village with the slaughter of a pig, and much drinking of the local firebrand rice wine. The firecrackers and music continued all through the night.
Witnessing that Chinese funeral raised so many questions about Chinese death customs, so a chance arose to visit the impossible-to-get-into Shanghai Funeral Museum this week, I cancelled everything else to get there. Call me morbid, but it was absolutely fascinating!
A pair of lions, their eyes closed, guard the entrance to the underworld
Chinese people believe that when you die, your spirit is transported across a river to the underworld by underworld spirits (is any of this sounding familiar?). These spirits are terrified of the color red (explaining why, in your Chinese zodiac birth year, you’ll be needing to wear red underwear for protection from said spirits) which means you should be dressed for your funeral in blue or yellow. If you wear red, the spirits will be unable to bear you across the river and you’ll remain on earth, forever unable to rest.
Funeral robes, Imperial yellow, 10,380 yuan ($1750)
The only exceptions to the burial in red rules are these. Firstly, if you die beyond the age of eighty and have lived a good life, you are considered exempt from first visiting the underworld, and have a celestial ‘free pass’ straight to heaven. The second exception is rather more macabre – if you die a violent death and your family, mad with grief, wish to seek revenge, they will bury you in red deliberately, so that your spirit will never be able to enter the underworld and you will haunt the earth as a ghost for all eternity, searching for those who harmed you. Gives me goosebumps.
The Funeral Museum is housed in Shanghai’s largest and state-run funeral home – pragmatically named Shanghai Funeral Industries. Nowadays, every Shanghai resident is cremated, by law, and the funeral process is very similar to our own. Once a death occurs, you can call the SFI hotline and they will send a pair of mobile funeral consultants to your home to arrange the funeral service. Funeral services can be Taoist, Buddhist or non-religious, and the funeral home provides reception rooms which can be rented by the hour (four hours average) for prices from 50 to 1900 yuan/hr for the VIP room ($8 to $315/hr).
The funeral reception is not a standard service, as we have, but rather a period of time during which guests can visit the family to pay their respects. Sometimes the body is laid out, sometimes not. During the reception monks may offer prayers and chants, and music is usually played (kū chànggē 哭唱歌 - crying songs). We visited a traditionally decorated funeral reception room at the museum.

Vases decorate either side of the table because the word for vase (ping) has the same sound as the word for peace. An offering of fruit, candles and incense is made to the deceased and there are arrangements of white and yellow chrysanthemums. The oldest son will sit on the right side of the room to receive guests, and on the left side of the room musicians will be seated and play traditional instruments.
Once the funeral reception is over, the body is taken away to a secret off-site location to be cremated. I asked why it was secret, thinking that it may have been for spiritual purposes, but the answer was that it would be considered bad luck to live nearby, so the location is kept hidden to protect property prices.
Most people are now cremated in a simple coffin made from bamboo or lacquered compressed paper. Both versions look remarkably like lacquered wood but are more environmentally friendly and apparently preferred. Of course it wasn’t always so streamlined. In the past, coffins were elaborate and expensive, according to one’s status and wealth, and were often chosen long before old age. I’ve visited homes in tiny villages where a highly decorative coffin has already been bought sits up on the rafters, waiting for the time it will be needed.
Coffins beraers were known as ‘hóng bái gàng’ 红白杠 and these ‘red white pole-bearers’ were skilled at playing musical instruments and carrying palanquins for ‘red’ occasions like weddings, as well as ‘white’ occasions like funerals. According to custom the number of coffin-bearers ranged from four to sixteen depending on the social status of the deceased.
Dragon coffin with sixteen bearers
Traditionally the mourning period was long – forty-nine  days – and during the first seven days the family stayed at home and tried not to move anything in the house so when the spirit returned briefly on the seventh day it would recognize the house. 
Mao considered these old customs outdated and China was faced with the increasing problem of a lack of available space for tombs, so under the auspices of the ‘Destroy the Four Olds’ campaign he just made it law that everyone had to be cremated, and the traditional mourning period was abolished.
It seems it may not have been quite so easy to change entrenched traditions like these, because propoganda posters promoting the benefits of cremation still exist in the museum.
 “The Benefits of Cremation” (huǒzàng de hăochu)
If you choose burial, it will cost this much money – two large bundles of notes.

If, on the other hand, you choose cremation it will cost only this much – three notes. 
The poster goes on to promote the additional communal benefits of cremation – more farmland, and more communal money to purchase tractors and food.
The law was eventually passed in 1964, and since then burial is permitted only for those belonging to ethnic minorities (like that of the funeral I observed in the rice terrace village) and foreigners.  
After cremation, the ashes of the deceased are placed in a decorative wooden box, often decorated with carving, jade, or inlays, and with a small frame where the photograph of the deceased is placed. This box is never brought into the home but remains in thebcare of the funeral home (for a small fee) until the tomb can be purchased.
Now comes the difficult part for most families – in Shanghai and Beijing, the price of tomb sites (tiny plots of ground where the deceased’s ashes are interred) has risen so astronomically they are now three times more expensive per square metre than apartments in the Shanghai or Beijing city centre. A Shanghai man created a storm of controversy last year when he decided to inter his parents’ ashes in the courtyard of his apartment building – much to the dismay of his neighbours – because he simply couldn’t afford a plot.
As a compromise, many people choose a burial site where land is cheaper, like in Hunan Province, or increasingly opt for a scattering of ashes at sea. You can’t just take off in any old boat to do this, as we would, but have to book a berth on a Shanghai Funeral Industries Cruise. The waiting time is several months and the cost is high, but cheaper than a tomb site (you’re beginning to see why it’s called Shanghai Funeral Industries, aren’t you? They even have their own magazine.)  
The museum has loads of other fascinating trivia, including the history of the funeral industry for foreigners living in Shanghai, and maps of all the orignal cemeteries in the city, as well as the solid brass coffin chosen by Song Qing Ling (one of the fables Song sisters) then rejected in favour of cremation in the weeks before her death.

Of course, it wouldn’t be China, the land of pragmatic commerce, if there wasn’t also a museum shop where Funeral Merchandise can be purchased – clothes for the deceased, good wishes cards, white envelopes (for giving a cash gift to the deceased’s family). My favourite item has to be the one below, a modern interpretation of a very old funeral custom in the way of a funeral souvenir box, to be handed out to funeral guests.

It contains a bowl and spoon, to commemorate the deceased when family meals are taken together. A towel, to dry your tears. And a Snickers or Dove chocolate bar, to sweeten your grief.

The Shanghai Funeral Museum
Shanghai Bìnzàng Bówùguăn 

210 Caoxi Lu, Xuhui District

Entrance to the museum is by appointment only.

Diving For Pearls in Three Feet of Water

These shining bright pearls were birthed by me – yes! delivered into the world! – by plunging my hands into the wet and dripping muscular pseudopod insides of a giant pearl-filled mussel, oozing mud and brackish pond water, by the side of a lake in Suzhou, and forcing them one at a time from their slimy mollusc nest. If that little description doesn’t make you feel squeamish, read on.
I spent last weekend in Suzhou, exactly 23 minutes by very fast train from Shanghai and once a green and enticing canal town, paired forever in history with the delights of Hangzhou by the oft-repeated and now completely untrue phrase “Above there is paradise in heaven, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou”.
What was once a gorgeous old trading town, canals lined with willows, streets full of intellectuals and silk merchants (the silk industry originated in Suzhou), is now a smoggy metropolis of over 11 million people. So, yeah, small by Chinese standards. 
Suzhou now makes components for nearly all the world’s digital cameras, and is also famous for its pearls. As you can guess by the title of this post, I didn’t drive an hour out of town to find cheap digital camera bits. But I would go to the same lengths for pearls.
Suzhou has a huge pearl industry, and thanks to my intrepid friend RS (she and I battled the Jeweled Hornet together in Guangxi Province) she discovered an enormous lake where you could pick your own oysters and have them opened to look for pearls. There would even be a boat trip involved! 
An hour-long taxi ride from downtown Suzhou brings you to this gleaming, modern building, the China Pearls and Gems City. RS reassured me that there was a lake here, hidden completely by the green biosphere of Pearls and Gems City, and sure enough, she was right. 
Behind the building is a large shallow pond bordered with low-rise apartment blocks, and lined with olympic pool-style rows  and rows of coloued floats on strings, most of which turned out to be empty Sprite bottles.

We made our way to the tiny boats, and rustled up a boatman from among the six security guards on duty. Another guard acted as guide, while the remaining four helped us into enormously bulky bright orange fluorescent life-jackets. Now, at this point I didn’t suspect we were in any real danger of drowning, the whole body of water being no more than three or four feet deep at most, but I appreciate that many Chinese people can’t swim and that public health and safety is really big in China. Ahem.
Then I saw the boats up close, which explained why the life jackets were necessary.
The boatman, once we were all safely aboard, pushed out about twenty metres from shore into the murky water, the smog-filled air hanging low and heavy around us. Our guide, up front on the rickety craft, began to pull up string nets full of mussels from below the plastic bottle floats. If he thought a mussel was large and mature enough enough he would extract it from the net and place it carefully in our bucket, until we had one shell for everyone. The world’s shortest boat trip was over soon after, and we floated between the rows of softdrink bottles all twenty metres back to shore.
Now for the good part. Our guide took a sharp knife and expertly split each huge slime-covered mussel shell in half. As the halves split open, we all released an involuntary ‘aah!’ for inside each shell were about twenty pearls, nestled inside the meat. And here was I thinking each oyster only ever contained a single pearl! Only in the good old days, apparently, or if you’re a saltwater oyster (oysters grow cultured sea pearls one a a time), but the freshwater pearl mussel (seen here) grows freshwater pearls in multitudes.

Now for the messy part. The pearls are embedded within the mussel and have to be ‘extracted’ by milking them out – birthing them – one by one. 

Initially a little reluctant, we eventually all got our hands dirty once we saw the beautiful shining pearls in our hands. 

In shades of dark cream through rose pink to an occasional mauve or purple pearl, our pearls were all sizes and shapes. Six shells yielded over a hundred pearls. Six shells also yielded quite a lot of mussel meat, which was kept in a separate dish and handed over to a local man, no doubt to take it away and stirfry it.

The pearls were packed into a ziplock bag with the help of yet another security guard, and then it was time to take the pearls to a vendor inside the market to have some jewelery made. From six shells you won’t get enough pearls for a string of perfectly matched 12mm shinies, but you will have plenty for numerous bracelets, a necklace or two and a few pairs of earrings.
The inside of the market is filled with rows of jewelery-making stalls and shops selling ready-made pearl jewelery. You simply choose a spot, and show them what you’d like made, with cost depending on the quality of the clasps and fixtures. Earrings start at 10 yuan a pair ($1.50) and bracelets at 15 yuan ($2) each. It’s not an expensive process, and there is no extra charge for bringing your own pearls.

Inside, we laid out our cleaned pearls and selected the best ones for each piece. Holes were drilled on the spot, to ready the pearls for stringing. Twenty minutes later and the jewelery making was complete. Holes drilled, pearls strung, clasps attached. Unbelievable. Next time you go to Suzhou, consider a side-trip to pick your own pearls. It’s quite wonderful.
Suzhou ‘China Pearls and Gems City’
288 Zhenzhuhu Lu, near Chenyang Lu
江苏省苏州市珍珠湖路288号+86 512 6540 1281 
Mussels 50 yuan each ($8) each, including boat ride and life jackets,all pearls are yours to keep.
Taxi fare: you will need to settle on a fare before you leave downtown Suzhou. We paid 100 yuan ($16) per hour per taxi, including waiting time at the pearl market (where there are no taxis). The total round trip, plus time collecting mussels and jewelery making, took 3.5 hours. 

A Very Chinese Day Out…On The Lake

Sunshine! Blue skies! Sparkling blue water! Time for a day out on the lake, the whopping big one I can see from my hotel window. There seem to be boats of all sizes shooting all over it, so boat trips must be the thing to do at Qian Dao Hu. We make our way to the wharf to check it out, imagining hiring a little private boat for the day to tootle around a few islands, take a swim in the lake’s clear waters, have a bit of a nature walk, and be home in time for tea. 
Down at the wharf there is a buzzing, noisy carnival atmosphere, with people swarming everywhere and the whole place covered in coloured bunting and Chinese flags. Surprisingly there are no touts and no private operators hedging for business – the entire lake is run by the government, and is open to tourism in a very precribed and rigid fashion. You may take one of two boat trips. Each trip will visit three different isands. You may purchase lunch on the boat.  Full stop.
So we buy tickets to something. A boat trip hopefully. We buy drinks and snacks in case we misunderstood the bit about buying lunch on the boat, and set off down to the jetty. There are hundreds of identical boats in two sizes, and thousands of people in every direction. It’s at this point that it hits us. We are the only foreigners in Qian Dao Hu for as far as the eye can see. It’s a place surprisingly invisible to most non-Chinese tourists, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t make it into Lonely Planet China, Frommer’s, Eyewitness, or any other guide. Tripadvisor – nothing. But clearly every person in China has heard of it, because it looks like most of them are here.

Dozens of people look at our tickets, and helpfully point us to the right boat, which we board in a rush along with about 160 Chinese tourists. Now in Shanghai, foreigners are nothing special. We’re everywhere. But go off the beaten track and you are suddenly a person of intense interest. After about, oh, ten seconds of shyness, there is an all-out bunfight for the seats next to us. The questions begin before we’ve even pulled away from the wharf. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How old are your children?’ ‘Do they study Chinese?’ ‘What kind of school do they go to?’ ‘Isn’t it expensive?’ ‘How do you like life in China?’
The boat guide stands up and the boat is suddenly filled with her voice amplified to maximum. It’s almost painful. There are lots of lake facts to get through, square metreage, number of islands, that kind of thing, then there is a long discussion about the really important part of the tour – lunch. The menu runs to twenty different hot dishes. I can’t imagine where or how they will make all of this food, because the whole boat seems to be taken up with seating space. Then, as another boat passes close by us, I spy the open-air kitchen on the aft deck of the boat. Nothing more than a few pots, and a gas-fired wok burner. Genius. We order fish, soup, and two vegetable dishes.

Before we eat though, we make our first island stop – San Tan Island. There are already twenty-three boats parked, but we just sound the fog-horn and ram in between two others. No problem! As we leave across the tiny gangplank the guide brands us all with a sticker bearing the boat’s number, just in case. But there is no chance of making off on our own because we stand out too much. Everywhere we step we hear ‘Weiguoren! Weiguoren!’ (Foreigners! Foreigners!) We get herded along with everyone else into electric golf carts to what we assume will be a hill-top view over the water. It’s not. It’s a snake park. (Actually, apparently it’s a Sanke Park, but we get the drift). A sadder Sanke Park I have never seen, and the highlight is a snake oil seller, giving away a free cigarette lighter with every bottle. Then off again to a peacock farm. And then a moth and butterfly house. And a fish museum with eight specimens. All of this inside fifty minutes, then back on the boat. The guide looks very relieved that she hasn’t lost the foreigners along the way.

Now it’s lunchtime! When we re-board the boat our lunch is already laid out. A whole lake-fish cooked with chili and scallions, a seaweed soup, a surprisingly delicious dish of black fungus, and a stir-fried cabbage dish. With rice, it comes to 80 yuan ($13). I’ve just eaten the last mouthful when we pull up at our second stop – Monkey Island. 

There are just a thousand or so people on the tiny island, and all of them are desperate to feed the few hundred monkeys with popcorn or mandarins. The monkeys are sensibly mucking around up in the trees, to avoid being loved to death by the hordes below. We’re allowed 15 minutes before we have to be back on the boat,  just long enough to shuffle along the path and shuffle back again. 
I’m feeling a bit like the monkeys at this stage, because we’re attracting just as much attention amongst the tourists from other boats. Information spreads ahead of us between them, and I can hear they already know where we come from and how much our school fees are. At least they’re not trying to feed us popcorn, but instead continually offer up their children to practice some of that English they’ve been learning at school. The kids, of course, hide behind their parents and say nothing until we’ve walked past, then shout ‘Hello!!’ to our backs.
Our last stop is Meifeng Island, and at last, a view. We take a chairlift to the top of Meifing Peak where the view is absolutely spectacular, and for a few short minutes we escape the crowds and find a quiet path along the peak. The islands spread out below us as the sun starts to dip in the sky. 
Now, for reasons not yet clear to me, whenever there is a tourist spot high on a hill in China, there is always a fast way to get back down. Like The Great Wall, for example – climb up to the majestic wall, consider Chinese history in all its glory, then take a luge back down the hill. Meifing Peak was no exception – they offered China’s Longest Fake Grass Slide. Now there’s a light you shouldn’t hide under a bushel. It was terrifying hurtling down the hill on a plastic bucket, but there you go. We survived.

And then back on the boat for the final leg home. Our fellow passengers look highly pleased with the amount they’ve accomplished in six short hours. Snakes! Peacocks! Moths! Monkeys! Chairlifts and grass slides! It’s been an exhausting and ever-so-Chinese all day adventure. 

Can we have a rest day tomorrow? Please?

Please Do Not Sit on Our Dinosaur

Welcome to Ballandean, in the heart of the Granite Belt – country that is both beautiful and rugged, but perfect for growing apples and grapes. Fresh from visiting the Big Apple at Applethorpe, fifteen minutes down the highway I found a bright green triceratops, as you do.

According to the website of the Granite Belt Tourism Association, the Fruitisforus first made an appearance as a float for the 1989 Apple and Grape Festival ‘when the local shopkeeper’s daughter was a queen entrant. After the festival the community didn’t know what to do with it so they put it by the roadside in front of the Ballandean railway station to stop passing traffic in a bid to sell fruit as a fundraiser for the local football club. 

It soon became a major attraction but as it was not originally to withstand harsh Granite Belt winters and children clambering all over it, repairs became necessary. In 2009 Fruitisforus went to the neighbouring dinosaur hospital to be covered in fibreglass, reinforced and painted. It was lovingly returned to the original railway precinct and attracts thousands of passers by from all over the world.’ 

Wow. This raises so many more questions than it answers. Did she win Apple & Grape Queen by riding on the back of a triceratops? Did the local football club raise enough money? Why have I bothered slaving in an Emergency Department all these years when I could have been doing good work at the Dinosaur Hospital??? 

No time to answer these though. I have to get going to the see the Wine Barrel Totem Pole at Quart Pot Creek.