There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Sunday, 24 September 2017

Wuyishan (2) Bamboo Rafts and Tianyou Peak: Part 9 of South East China

This a new post though it describes the events of the 20th  of  November 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.

Wonder Wang, the imaginatively named young man in Chengdu who had planned this trip for us had warned that ‘there would only be Chinese breakfasts’. No problem, we thought, a good Chinese breakfast is infinitely preferable to a bad ‘western breakfast.’ Today, though, we were not offered a ‘good’ Chinese breakfast. With several busloads of tourists to deal with the staff had put the food out early, the noodles had congealed into a single inseparable lump and the rice… well, best not.

M (our guide) turned up for her free breakfast – well no one can ruin a boiled egg – and afterwards we set out for the Wuyi Mountains UNESCO World Heritage site.

Location of Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountains) in south east China

The day was dull and grey, though not cold, and the entrance huge and forbidding. The Chinese authorities like to open up these sites, invite tourists by the hundred thousand and then strictly regiment everything they do; their desire to control transforming a wilderness area into a facsimile of a Disney Adventureland. My resulting grumpiness prompted Lynne to remind me that I travel to experience other cultures, and this was the Chinese way. She was right, which made me even grumpier, but the Chinese revel in it, marching in battalions behind the leader’s flag as he or she barks out instructions through a hand-held loudspeaker.
Standing in front of the entrance to the Wuyishan scenic area

Once inside, we strolled through the trees to an area where shuttle buses and road-trains waited to whisk the masses to their approved recreation zones. M found the right bus (we would have had no chance without her) and we travelled several miles down an ordinary road to what seemed an ordinary village.

We were there to board a bamboo raft for a trip down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River). The Chinese need to enumerate everything (the Five Sacred Mountains, the Four  Great Gardens...) springs from the same source as their desire to regiment and be regimented but I love the futility of trying to define the number of bends on a river.

The Chinese, of course, turn up mob-handed for their river trips. The rafts hold six and we had to wait while M found a spare foursome we could tag along with. Her ability to speak Chinese was invaluable but she struggled to communicate with us. Although local tourist flock to the Wuyi mountains, foreigners are a rarity and if we insist on coming to such places we should not be overly surprised when our ‘English speaking’ guide doesn’t.

Eventually we settled into a boat and pushed off.
Setting off down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River)

The six passengers had a crew of two, a man at the back with a pole…
Action man helps us down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

…and a woman at the front with a pole and the gift of the gab. She kept the four other punters entertained and informed, but it rather washed over us. Her hat was covered with tin foil, perhaps for a protection against Wuyi’s semi-permanent drizzle, but if she worried about aliens stealing her brainwaves it would help with that too.
While the talking came from the front, Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

The river enjoyed occasional outbreaks of ebullience, calling them ‘rapids’ would be over-dramatizing,….
Approaching an outbreak of 'ebullience', Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

…and bamboo floats very low in the water, so when encountering an ‘ebullience’ it was wise to raise one’s feet.
Lift your feet, Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

Wet feet or not, the Wuyishan Scenic Area is appropriately named and we floated past sheer cliffs,…..


Cliffs beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan
….peered into the misty depths of the mountains…

The misty Wuyishan Mountains

….and marvelled at unusual rock formations.
Rock formations beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

Occasionally the rafts formed themselves into a queue….
A queue of rafts on the Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

….with some overtaking,….
Overtaking our rivals, Jiuqu Xi,Wuyishan
But for two hours we generally drifted quietly on, under the only bridge…
Bridge over the Jiuqu Xi, (Nine-Bend River) Wuyishan
….and, near the end, past Yunnu Hill, the symbol of the Wuyi mountains.

I am uncertain which word best describes Yunnu Hill, but I am sure it is not ‘hill’. I have been unable to discover the Chinese word used, but official translations can be misleadingly rigid. The Chinese for ‘river’ is (pronounced with a rising tone, roughly ‘huh?’), we were rafting on a , unfailingly translated in official guides as ‘brook’ while liú is ‘stream’, but the Chinese words hé, and liú only roughly correspond to river, brook and stream (and what about gyhll, burn and beck?). Being a requires a lot of water, whereas a 'river' can be more modest; I have referred to Jiuqu Xi as Nine-Bend River, because to me it looks like a river not a brook.

Yunnu Hill, Wuyishan

M met us at the disembarkation point. ‘How do the boats get back to the start?’ I asked, having seen none travelling upstream. I rephrased the question several times using simpler and simpler words and in the end received an answer, of sorts, ‘by car’ she said.

Several minutes walking brought us to a pedestrian street lined with smart wooden cabins selling snacks, drinks and tourist tat. M seemed to be telling us this was a 10th century Song dynasty village though every structure we could see was clearly 21st century; perhaps she was just saying that the retail outlet was called Song Street. Her next statement was less ambiguous: ‘you have lunch.’ It was barely 11 o’clock and despite our early start we were not ready for food, so we politely declined. This threw her into confusion; she arranged to meet us again in half an hour and wandered off.


We had a look round thinking we might buy something for our grandson, but having dismissed the crossbows with their hard, sharp bolts as inappropriate there was nothing to do but drink coffee. We re-read Wonder Wang’s itinerary, after the rafting ‘you will climb up Tianyou Peak, the sheer rock peak that just rise skywards, to have a bird’s eye view of the magnificent mountain.
My rock climbing career started and (I hope) finished on one fear filled afternoon in July 1972, so if pitons and carabiners were out of the question the only way up a sheer peak was by cable car. These are difficult to hide so presumably it was not nearby.

We were killing time, and as it was limited that felt wrong. The drive would use time profitably and might even reveal a place for lunch, and if not, well, so be it.


Armed with this misapprehension we rendezvoused with M and announced we were ready for Tianyou (Heavenly Tour) Peak. She led us on a lengthy walk along concrete paths and across the bridge over the Jiuqu Xi. We kept expecting to encounter a car park, but in the end we encountered Tianyou Peak.
Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

Mt Huangguang (2,158m, 7,080ft) is the highest peak in the Wuyishan range, Tianyou, at 808m (2,650ft) is relatively insignificant and from where we stood the peak was little more than 100m above us - but it looked forbiddingly sheer.

M led us up a some steps.

Up the steps to the side of Tianyou Peak
We had been climbing for a while before it dawned on us that somebody sometime had part constructed, part hacked steps all the way up the side of the rock face. The route was obvious, so M informed us that we could walk to the observation point, she pointed to a pavilion high above, and return the same way, or continue to the top (828 steep steps) and descend the other side (2000 shallower steps). M, though roughly half our age, would wait at the bottom.


Starting up Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

We settled down to some upward plodding and reached the pavilion surprisingly quickly. We took a breather and enjoyed spectacular views down to the Jiuqu Xi….
Looking down to the Jiuqu Xi from the pavilion on Tianyou, Wuyishan
…further up the rock face….

Looking up the Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
….and across to the adjacent peaks. 
The nearby peaks, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

Eastern Wuyishan is an example of the ‘Danxia landform’ common throughout south eastern and southern China. Cretaceous red sandstone, lifted and cracked by shifting tectonic plates, has undergone millions of years of erosion to produce distinctive ‘hills’ with steep sides and flat wooded tops.

We got our heads down and continued plodding so we could soon look down on the nearby peaks, the river and the pavilion – half way according to M – and…
Looking down on the adjacent peaks, the pavilion and Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan
…up to the next part of our climb
The next part of our climb
I have mentioned (more than once) the Chinese preference for making visits en masse. Our path up Tianyou was pleasantly uncrowded, but here is a photograph borrowed from travel agent Access China Travel taken in roughly the same place during a holiday.

Access China Travel's picture of the same part of Tianyou, Wuyishan
Near the top the more exposed route was cordoned off and the last part of ascent was on a pleasant path behind the peak.
Nearing the top of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
A boy came running down to us. ‘Hello, where do you come from?’ he started before going through the complete school book conversation with confidence and unusual accuracy. ‘Thank you,’ he said at the end before running off up the steps.


At what appeared to be the top was a small temple and a kiosk where my pointing and smiling was rewarded with two much needed soft drinks. Communicating the price is normally straightforward, the young lady could have used pencil and paper, a calculator or her fingers, but her strategy was to say a number and keep repeating it until I understood. It failed, and then failed again and again and.. After so many visits to China I am ashamed to admit I still do not know any numbers above ten and  after multiple fruitless repetitions, a waiting customer interrupted. ‘Fifty,’ she said. I had expected to pay a premium, the merchandise has to be carried up on foot, but not £6+ for two small drinks. I shook my head, put the cartons back on the counter and made to walk off. ‘Why?’ the customer asked. ‘Too much,’ I replied. ‘Not too much,’ she said ‘only fifty, one five, fifty.’ ‘One five, fifteen?’ I ventured. ‘Yes, one five, fiftee.’ I thanked her and handed 15 yuan to the bemused girl in the kiosk. Chinese English speakers almost invariable omit final consonants but this confusion has somehow never arisen before. The English words ought to be more distinct.
Thirst quenched, we found yet more steps to climb. Behind the temple we passed some (possibly ancient) calligraphy….
(Ancient?) Caligraphy, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

….and some Jinjunmei tea bushes (spelling varies). Wuyishan is the home of Lapsang Souchong, and Jinjunmei is its superior version. 100g of top Jinjunmei allegedly sells for US$1,600; these bushes growing in marginal conditions might produce ‘top’ jinjunmei – or may just be a curiosity.

Jinjunmei, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
We soon reached a sign pointing to the summit. The path hardly rose as we crossed the peak’s flat top but there was no feeling of exposure, it was so well wooded we could see only the surrounding trees. A little pavilion marked the high point. We were all alone so we put the camera on a wall and took a selfie.
The summit, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan 
This anti-climax was followed by many, many downward steps, and no sooner had we started than the rain, which had threatened all day, began to fall. South winds bring clouds rolling in from the South China Sea and the first high ground they hit is Wuyishan, so although the climate is warm it is notoriously wet.
We were passed, at a run, by the boy we had spoken to earlier and then, at a more measured pace by his older brother. He thanked us for our patience and hoped we had not been bothered. We said it had been a pleasure to meet such a polite and enthusiastic youngster but did not tell him his little brother’s English was almost as good as our guide’s - it would have been only a slight exaggeration.
The descent round the back of the mountain offered no views so it was a long plod through an unrelenting downpour.
A long downward plod through unrelenting rain, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
M was waiting in the dry, but she too was uncomfortably wet (pardon my schadenfreude) by the time we reached the car park, where a road-train took us out of the Scenic Area. M found our driver and we headed back to town, proving en route the truth of her earlier statement; the bamboo rafts do indeed return to the start 'by car'.

The bamboo rafts go home by, well not quite 'car', Wuyishan
In the evening, dried, rested, and by now hungry, we ventured to a nearby restaurant - continued rain discouraged walking further abroad. We may not know our spoken numbers but we were pleased that we were able to peruse the Chinese menu and select a beef dish and a vegetable dish, though how they would be cooked remained a mystery. We also ordered a cheap unknown side dish out of bravado.

The beef and Chinese cabbage were excellent. The mystery dish - strips of some pickled vegetable - was a bit dull and we had no more clue what it was when we finished than we had when we ordered it. Including rice and beer a good diner came to less than £10 - and we had duly entertained the little audience that gathered to watch the weird foreigners eat.


South East China


Part 10: Xiamen
coming Oct 2017

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Lichfield: City of Philosophers

When a sunny September Saturday follows the worst August I can remember, why not visit somewhere? And where better to go on my sunny September birthday than Lichfield? As the city’s favourite son, Samuel Johnson said: ‘I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield.’

Leaving the car in the Friary Car Park we walked passed the site of the former Friary. ‘That’s a big entrance to a small park,’ Lynne remarked as we failed to notice the slabs in the grass marking the locations of the cloister and nave. Founded by the Franciscans in 1237, ruined by Henry VIII in 1538 and razed for the sake of the motor car in 1928, the minimal remains were ignored by us in 2017.
Reaching the centre of the old city we continued down Bore Street, where Georgian buildings are considered ‘recent’, and paused for a cappuccino and a slice of Bakewell tart.

Bore Street, Lichfield
We turned left to the Market Place, where the market was in full swing.
Lichfield Market
Samuel Johnson called Lichfield a city of philosophers, but its 1,300-year history has inevitably involved darker moments. In this square in 1612, Edward Wightman had the dubious distinction of being the last person in England to be burnt at the stake for heresy. Johnson, born 100 years later in the Age of Enlightenment, overlooks the market with an air of serious concentration – or perhaps depression.
Samuel Johnson looks down on Lichfield Market
Samuel Johnson was born on 18th of September 1709 in the five-storey house opposite the market. The house, now owned by Lichfield City Council, is the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum.

Samuel Johnson's house, Lichfield
Despite their large house (though the rooms are small) the Johnson’s were what Theresa May might call ‘just about managing.’ Family life was centred on the basement kitchen, though whether there was always a zombie by the fire contemplating an apple is open to conjecture.

The Johnson's kitchen
Michael Johnson, Samuel’s father, was a bookseller and his office was on the ground floor.

Michael Johnson's office

Samuel was born in a room on the first floor.

The room where Samuel Johnson was born, Lichfield

Like many of our PM’s ‘just about managing,’ the Johnson’s weren’t and the birth of a second child plunged them into debt. Samuel, however, managed to attend Lichfield Grammar School and proved an exceptionally able student. After school he worked for his father until in 1728 his aunt died and left enough money to send him to university. He spent just over a year at Oxford, again proving himself able, but the money would not cover his expenses and he had to leave.

He tried teaching, but getting a job without a degree was tricky, and when he succeeded his strange tics and gesticulations (posthumously diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome) did not help.
Johnson's London
Johnson and Garrick exhibition, Johnson's House, Lichfield

In September 1734, his friend Harry Porter (so nearly a wizard!) died. In July 1735 he married Porter’s widow Elizabeth. He was 25, she was 46 and had three children, but fortunately she also had money. Johnson set himself upon in his own school, but it only attracted three students and quickly failed. One of those students was the 18 year-old David Garrick.
David Garrick by Johan Zoffany
(Zoffany seems to follow us around from India to Hemmingford Grey in Cambridgeshire)
Johnson and Garrick became friends and in 1737 they set off for London together to make their fortune. They survived many difficulties, Johnson narrowly avoiding debtor’s prison more than once, but eventually Johnson became the leading literary figure of his generation and Garrick the leading actor.
Dr Johnson's Dictionary
Samuel Johnson's House, Lichfield
The top two floors contain an exhibition on the life and times of Johnson and Garrick.
We left Johnson’s house and the Market Square passing the statue of Johnson’s biographer James Boswell who has stood here since 1908. Johnson’s dictionary is only of historical interest, his writings, though once popular, are now rarely read, his plays little performed, and he seems best remembered by Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791). I read the first 80 or 90 pages of Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786) and gave, up partly because of Boswell’s convoluted prose, and partly because I could no longer stomach his hero worship; Johnson, it seemed, could not break wind without it being an act of wit and wisdom. ‘Get a life,’ we might say to Boswell today, but of course he did - Johnson’s.

James Boswell, Lichfield Market Square
We headed for Conduit Street and turned left into Dam Street, both reminders that Lichfield has enjoyed piped water since medieval times. Dam Street is pleasantly quaint, although some side streets resemble museum reconstructions - but they are real.
Off Dam Street, Lichfield
The Dam itself forms Minster Pool. The end of the Dam is known as a ‘speakers corner’ but we only saw a couple of buskers, a young violinist and cellist competing stoically against the ringing if the cathedral bells.


The Dam, Minster Pool, Lichfield
The best aspect of Minster Pool is the view across it to the Cathedral.


Lichfield Cathedral across Minster Pool
Across the road from Minster Pool is Beacon Park. Sports pitches and a golf course cover most of its 70 acres, but the Museum Gardens area has flowerbeds, seats and statues. Lichfield Parks department should feel pleased with their floral display, but their 19th century predecessors could have had a rethink about the ugly little satyr in the central fountain.
Beacon Park, Lichfield
Beyond the flowers is a statue of Edward Smith, Captain of the Titanic. It was well known that Smith was a native of Hanley (the commercial centre of Stoke-on-Trent) and Hanley council commissioned the statue but changed its mind when the Titanic sank; Lichfield had a park in need of a statue and seized the chance to acquire one at a knock-down price. It is a good story, but unfortunately untrue; the work of Lady Kathleen Scott (widow of Scott of the Antarctic), the statue was commissioned by Lichfield City Council in May 1912 as a memorial to Captain Smith and all those who died.
Captain Smith by Kathleen Scott (plus young wedding guest)
The park is adjacent to the registry office and the obvious place for wedding parties to take photographs. The former Probate Court next-door occupies the site of David Garrick’s childhood home which was demolished in 1858.


Lichfield's former Probate Court and the site of David Garrick's boyhood home
Almost opposite is the house of Erasmus Darwin. Difficult to photograph, close behind a high wall and higher trees, it is an independent museum dedicated to the remarkable career and progeny of its former owner.
Erasmus Darwin's House, Lichfield

Born 1731 in Nottinghamshire (so a generation younger than Samuel Johnson) Erasmus Darwin established a medical practice in this house in 1757, remaining here until his second marriage in 1781.

Not only an outstanding doctor – Darwin turned down an invitation from George III to become the king’s physician – he was a remarkable polymath, an inventor, scientist, social reformer and poet. The displays explore all aspects of his life with plenty of hands-on exhibits for younger visitors.
Lynne gives Erasmus Darwin some wise advice

The popularity of his poetry has not proved lasting, but his most important work, Zoönomia, a two-volume medical work dealing with pathology, anatomy and psychology contains ideas which his grandson Charles Darwin would develop more fully… ‘Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, …that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality…’

Darwin was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal dining club and learned society which met regularly, sometimes in his house in Lichfield, from 1765 to 1813. Being informal, there is no definitive membership list but the inner circle included Darwin, James Watt and Matthew Bolton, Joseph Priestley (the discoverer of Oxygen) and Josiah Wedgwood, while associates included the engineer James Brindley, the botanist Joseph Banks, American polymath Benjamin Franklin, astronomer William Herschel, printer and designer James Baskerville and artist Joseph Wright of Derby.
Lunar Society members and some of Erasmus' inventions
Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield

Erasmus Darwin was also an enthusiastic procreator, fathering 5 children by his first wife, two more by the governess he employed after his wife died and a further seven by his second wife - plus alleged unacknowledged offspring.
The Darwins intermarried with the Wedgwoods for several generations. Charles Darwin, was the offspring of Erasmus’ son Robert and Josiah Wedgwood’s daughter Susannah. Charles Darwin married a cousin, so both his wife and mother were Wedgwoods.
Erasmus Darwin's consulting room
and an exhibition covering his interests in geology and plant biology
Erasmus Darwin was also the grandfather, via Frances, a daughter from his second marriage, of Francis Galton. Galton was a great scientist and mathematician, inventor of the statistical concepts of correlation and regression to the mean, the founder of meteorology and the inventor of a method of classifying fingerprints. His reputation was posthumously ruined by his interest in eugenics (a word he coined), though he would have been appalled at what was done in the name of eugenics several decades after his death.
We left Erasmus Darwin’s house via his herb garden and emerged outside the cathedral, an ancient, if rather grubby, building with three spires, a distinction it shares only with Truro among British cathedrals.
Lichfield Cathedral
The Kingdom of Mercia ruled central England (though with varying borders) from the 6th century until being absorbed by Wessex in the late 9th century. At first a pagan kingdom, King Peada accepted Christianity in 653 and in 669 Saint Chad established the episcopal see at Lichfield, some 8 miles from the Royal Capital of Tamworth. The first, wooden, church was built in 700 to house the relics of St Chad and replaced by a stone Norman Cathedral after 1085. The present structure was begun in 1195 and completed in 1330 (it was a long job).
I was impressed by the 113 statues on the façade (and no, I didn’t count them) and delighted to see one of them holding a model of the church, a sight common in orthodox churches but rare in western Europe. I was disappointed to discover that a) all but five original medieval statues were replaced in the 19th century and b) the figure below is King Henry III holding a model not of Lichfield but of Westminster Abbey.
Henry III with Westminster Abbey, Lichfield Cathedral façade
The nave was being prepared for a charity performance in the evening…
Nave, Lichfield Cathedral
…but the quire looked less purple.
Quire, Lichfield Cathedral
The Chapter House, completed in 1249, is an impressive circular building…
Chapter House, Lichfield Cathedral
…with one of Lichfield’s few remaining medieval frescoes.
Medieval fresco, Chapter House, Lichfield Cathedral
Outside the Chapter House St Chad gospels are not on display. Dating from around 730, like the similar Lindisfarne gospels, the book has 236 pages, four of them illuminated. It also has some interesting marginalia – agreements and contracts had special force if written in a Holy Book – including the earliest known (8th century) writing in old Welsh. Periodically the book is closed to give it a rest from the muted light of the cathedral, so all I have is a photo of the binding which dates from 1962!
St Chad  Gospels, Lichfield Cathedral
The shrine of St Chad is at the east end. Whether the saint’s bones are still there after 1,300 years and the destruction of the shrine by Henry VIII is a moot point.
St Chad's Shrine, Lichfield Cathedral
On the southern wall is a plaque commemorating Erasmus Darwin, though he is buried elsewhere. ‘His speculations,’ it says, ‘were mainly directed to problems which were afterwards more successfully solved by his grandson Charles Darwin, an inheritor of many of his characteristics.’ Which I think is faint praise; he was worth more than that, but at least it shows the C of E has no problem reconciling religion and evolution.
Erasmus Darwin's memorial, Lichfield Cathedral
And that ends our trip to Lichfield. From a handful of people in the seventh century to 4,000 by the time of Samuel Johnson, Lichfield now has around 30,000 inhabitants making it one of England’s smallest and least spoilt cities. Though it hides in a region which sees few tourists, it is well worth a look.