Sunday, September 30, 2007


If you have been reading the blog carefully (and if not, why not?) you will probably be gaining the impression that I was finding China a bit of a challenge and, you would be absolutely right.

Matters were not improved as we trudged aboard our boat, after our train journey, for a three night cruise up the Yangtze river and through the Three Gorges and saw our “deluxe” rooms which featured black stained carpets and a slimy wet room with a funky smell which combined diesel and urine to beguiling effect.

The Chinese government allocate different tour groups to different boats and it is, apparently, a lucky dip to decide if you get a boat which is considered good, medium or bad. Ours, by all accounts was Medium which makes me shudder to think what the bad boats may have been like. Ours was, to all intents and purposes, a floating sewer.

Added to which, I had not read my trip notes carefully enough (my fault, no one else’s) and had not remembered to purchase a towel which were not provided by the boat and so had to buy a fetching yellow one from the small shop in the lobby which was about the size of a small postage stamp.

We were the only westerners on board and we barely had time to settle in and wash some of the grime of the journey from our bodies before we were told that it was our turn to head to the small dining room.

Well, here is when things picked up remarkably.

China may well have been a challenge, but the food anywhere and everywhere, was phenomenal. Often simple and plain but, just about always, delicious. Here, on this floating prison, it was no different. The kitchen was tiny and the choice limited, but every dish that came out was fresh, fresh tasting and delicious and we devoured every mouthful almost as soon as it hit the table. Cabbage cooked quickly and doused in a savoury gravy, pork cooked until crispy and covered with sauce thick with Sichuan chilli, crunchy beans with Chinese sausage and enough rice ( at the end of the meal, of course) to make sure that we all rolled away from the table a good deal happier than when we arrived.

As I have mentioned before, the Chinese can make very interesting travelling companions, particularly the men. The spitting is one thing and here, the early evening peace and quiet was shattered at regular intervals by the impassioned hocking up of our fellow travellers. On top of which, Chinese men seem to have developed a unique way to keep their often hefty bodies cool in the blazing heat. It involves rolling up their shirts or t-shirts until they are at the level of their man boobs revealing their ample bellies to the world. They do this everywhere, on the streets, in restaurants, in shops and here on the boat, the deck looked like a colony of plump seals flopped out on the plastic chairs provided while they snorted up their guts at regular intervals.

Added to which, some of them were already using the deck as an impromptu laundromat and had fashioned rudimentary drying lines on which they were already drying a procession of greying, baggy smalls. Just imagine that on The Cunard line.

Still, with a good meal inside me and a couple of beers to follow, I began to mellow out a bit and enjoy the slow, constant movement of the boat, the chugging of the engine and the cloudless sky which was rapidly filling with stars.

Tourism for the Chinese is still a relatively new thing both for visitors from The West and particularly for visitors from within the Chinese mainland. And, watching them in action is a fascinating part of the journey in itself. The next morning we took the opportunity to join the majority of travellers on our boat as they were ferried off to experience the traditions of the local Tujia minority who make their living fishing in the shallows of the river.

For the Chinese, tourism means groups and it means being told what to do, where to go. This is taken to degrees that would make people in the West, more used to independent travel, rebel and string a tour leader up from the mast. But, for the Chinese, it is taken with an acceptance that comes, I guess from nearly a century of being told what to do and think.

So, the larger groups were split into sub groups to which were allocated a guide with a megaphone. The guide would provide a constant commentary which would also include instructions on what to photograph and when. So much of Chinese culture involves face, and the idea of unilaterally taking a picture of something or other without the instruction from a guide seems to be out of the question, just in case the picture you take was not considered worthy of the shutter click.

When I commented on the fact that every picture the locals seemed to be taking included one of their number flashing a V for victory sign against what ever the back ground was, she explained that it was more important for the Chinese to be able to show their relatives that they were happy and enjoying themselves rather than just show a picture of scenery. It makes a great deal of sense, I guess, but the constant stream of people jostling to get into prime position to flash the fingers is another challenge that you face when travelling through the country.

After a fun morning of watching local fishermen tug heavy boats over weirs and reefs, we headed back on a ferry to our boat. The Chinese travellers had been told that there was nothing of interest to photograph on the way back so all sat obediently inside as we took the opportunity to catch up on all the photographs we had not been able to take on the way out.

A free afternoon followed in which many of my companions decided to head to the games room to play Ma jong. I decided just to have some R&R and sat for three happy hours on the deck reading the book until the early evening where our boat pulled into the small town of Famjie for an extended stay.

Famjie is a remarkable place. Not that it is in anyway attractive. It is not being a monstrous concoction of concrete and iron. It is remarkable primarily for the fact that it has been entirely constructed in the last two years to replace the original town which was drowned by the raising waters caused by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

The fact that we were deep into Sichuan province by now was in evidence thanks to the mounds of red chillies drying in the evening sun and the use of the same in just about every meal.

After a walk around a local market, I met up with my friends for supper at a small local restaurant which again, as on the boat, managed to provide an extra ordinary feast from a tiny kitchen which included a dish of candied aubergine which was one of the highlights of my trip. Deeply savoury with a sweet note and that lip numbing after taste which typifies so much Sichuan cooking.

An early night on the boat saw us all in a much fresher state and ready for the next stage of the journey which would see us take in Chungching, the third biggest city in the world (and probably the most polluted) and Chengdu, the home of the hot pot and the Sichuan Tea House.

But first, just in case we were being lulled into any false sense of complacency, another glorious piece of Chinglish to remind us that, just when you think you are getting to grips with China, it will always surprise you.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Please do me a favour

If anyone ever tells you that taking the train is a romantic thing to do, please knock them to the ground and then jump up and down on them an awful lot. Perhaps even until they stop breathing and then, call me so I can come around and give them an extra kick just for good measure.

It is not romantic, it is not even fun. It is a hateful, horrible, dirty, unpleasant way to travel and that is in the West. In China, multiply that horror factor by about ten fold to take into the account the habits of the Chinese and you may just be able to imagine the misery I felt on my first over night train journey in China.

First of all, just to make sure we were extra ripe before we got on the train, a journey in a small bus which rattled unpleasantly on the scabby roads for four hours before depositing us at the station at which we would board the train to take us to Wuzho at the beginning of the Three Gorges section of The Yangstze River.

The “pleasures” of what was about to come were first experienced when I went to visit the bathroom in the waiting room. Now, I expected squat toilets, I was even clued up enough to expect that the smell could kill a charging tofu at a hundred paces. What I did not expect was that the squat toilets were all open so that everyone did their, er business in full view and about a foot from their neighbour.

Obviously, I am of the delicate sort because this tightened my sphincter muscles like a virgin nun’s legs in a room full of drunk navvy’s and I suddenly lost all urge to do a No2, well perhaps ever again in my whole life. It did not, however seem to disturb the locals one jot and they were happily squatting down while the sounds of plentiful evacuation filled the air.

One resourceful chap seemed to think that this was also the chance to complete the circle of life. So, as he emptied, he also filled up at the other end by chowing down on one of the pot noodles readily available from the station counter. I would be hard pushed to argue which end made the most slurping noises.

It got worse, of course it did

Then we got on the train to find our “hard sleeper” carriage. No simple matter because the notion of queuing is as alien to the Chinese as environmental campaigning. The polite Englishman in me soon lost out to the righteously indignant traveller using Big Red ( remember, I call him that because he is big and he is red) to knock people out of my way with no care if they were elderly, infirm or in the nascent stages of life.

Chinese trains have a number of classes of travel ranging from a hard seat, through hard sleeper to soft sleeper. We had chosen the middle option which we were told was “comfortable” for an eighteen hour journey. They lied the dogs, oh how they lied.

Our tour leader, Jackie, stood opened mouthed when we boarded the train. It looked like this was rolling stock from WWII. Each grimy compartment was open to the carriage and held six bunks, three on each side with the top bunk being about a foot from the top. In lieu of air conditioning was a small spluttering fan which provided about as much movement in the air as waving a small postage stamp.

Well, as you can imagine, prissy little moi was on the point of a huge hissy fit and was about to kick off on one until I remembered some of the therapy I had spent so much money on over the years (I knew it would come in useful one day) and went to my “happy place” My happy place for the record is The Library Bar at The Lanesborough Hotel in London where I can be found sitting in front of the fireplace sipping on my second pre-dinner cocktail. It is not and never will be on a train.

In a calmer state I took my place on the middle birth just as the lights went out and the train grumbled its way out of the station. The heat was unbearable and an attempt to cool things down by opening the window let in a huge slug of diesel fumes covering all of us in a thin slimy black film of goo.

I finally managed to doze off helped by the clickety-clack of the wheels against the tracks but was awakened what seemed only minutes later by what entered my dreams as the sound of a lawnmower but in reality turned out to be the elderly man on the bunk below me voiding his rheum on the floor.

Now, I shall return to the subject of spitting ever such a lot in the next few posts, don’t you worry your pretty little heads. But, for now, it is enough to say that spitting is probably the number one Chinese past time. Not any spitting mind you. Not a polite removal of spittle from the mouth in a discreet fashion. No, lordy no. This is spitting summoned up from the soles of their boots and snorted wherever they damn well please. In the case of my compartment mate, right on the floor next to my sandals.

The sound of spitting is the soundtrack to my travels in China, but as I said, I shall come back to this topic on a regular basis, so never you mind.

It was getting light by now and the locals were getting ready for their morning ablutions. Each carriage has two small sinks and two toilets that are to all intents and purposes holes leading to the track. I had wondered why just about every man, woman and child seemed to be carrying a cigarette when they headed in the direction of the facilities imagining that the marketing of Camel Joe must have been extra successful. I soon realised what was afoot when I went to the bathroom myself. They were holding them in a vain attempt to disguise the smell.

Within about twenty feet of it, you become aware that they are approaching, within ten feet, your eyes begin to water and by the time you are five feet away, your skin feels like it is peeling off. The smell is inhuman and locals and tourists alike were coming out of the cubicles a strange and frightening shade of green.

One of our party even wretched as she approached.

My bladder informed me, however that I had no other option and I opened the door. At the suggestion of one of my fellow travellers, I sent in an advanced party in the form of a spray of deodorant before stepping inside.

In the name of all that is holy, I pray that none of you ever have to go through what I went through.

We will speak of this no more. It is time to keep silence on this matter. Well, until the next toilet story.

It is no great shock to learn that such a journey does quell one’s appetite and I had little stomach for my own pot noodles, purchased the night before. The thought of that toilet, the constant background noise of people snorting and spitting and the thought of our friend squatting with toilet paper in one had and pot noodle in the other took my desire to ingest food right away.

Jackie seemed unbothered by all of this and bought a bowl of rice and vegetables at a short halt in the journey.

She offered me some and I wish I could say that it was delicious and made the journey all seem worthwhile. But, I did not touch a bite. I was far from certain that I would keep it in my stomach although, by the state of the carriage by this time, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if I had redecorated in bile covered pebble dash

We were all a bit miserable by the time the train pulled into Luzhuo in Sichuan province from which our journey up the Yangtze would begin. It was three in the afternoon, we all looked like we were about to audition for a minstrel show and we had not eaten properly for hours.

Just the time to take us on a tour of the Three Gorges Dam then, eh?

Like prisoners waiting for the journey up to the Big House, we all climbed wearily aboard our local bus to be greeted by our local guide, James who informed us that we would be ‘enjoying” a tour of the damn project.

It is impressive enough with over…………. Oh, to hell with it. If you really want to know how large and catastrophic it is, go and use Google.

We were prodded out for some slightly less than energetic strolls around the park by our guide and around the information centre which held less allure than a shower and a decent meal. But our spirits were raised enormously by the sight of more fabulous “chinglish” which raised a smile even from me who was very much in the slough of despond.

To the amusement of the group I also informed them at this point that my next trip after China was on The Trans Siberian Railway. Oh, how they did laugh.

Finally, thank The Lord, we were summoned back and taken the short journey to our boat from where we would begin a three day journey up the Yangtze.

More of that later, however, for now, just remember what I said at the beginning. If anyone ever tells you that they enjoy travelling by train. Well, you get the picture by now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

After my first day in Yangshuo, I was ready to get down to some pretty serious eating. That was, after all, the whole reason for the trip.

I had a few days to kill before joining up with my next group for the trek North to Beijing and had decided to take advantage of that break to spend a few days learning more about the local food at The Yangshuo Cookery School run by the estimable Pam Dimmond who, with the help of a number of locals has been running classes here for over nine years.

Before the first class, the chance for a guided tour around the market and the opportunity to try a local morning speciality of sweetened jelly served with vinegar which I have to admit being very firmly in the " did it once wont do it again" category and I had to take the taste away with a stuffed steaming dumpling

The classes were enjoyable, with mornings spent in the serene environment of the school some miles away from the hustle and bustle of the town centre.

Local girl, Amy took me in hand and, over the next few days, I learned to cook over a dozen dishes from the local speciality of Beer Fish to some of the more pan Chinese favourites using chicken and the abundant peanut.

A particular favourite, however, was what Amy called “Egg Rope Dumplings” to all intents and purposes, small omelettes made in the wok, then stuffed with a mixture of minced pork and spring onions before being cooked in a little water. Definitely something I shall be trying at home.

Also a dish of vegetables and tofu balls stuffed with minced chicken and steamed

The mornings were spent cooking and, by 1pm each day, those of us attending the cookery sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labours in the small courtyard of the cookery school. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful environment to enjoy a meal.

The afternoons were free which is just as well as Yangshuo offers a vast array of activities for the visitor. From kayaking and rock climbing to the more leisurely option of being punted down The Li River by wiry looking men on rickety bamboo rafts.

The Chinese, not being the most physically active of sorts, unsurprisingly like the latter option the most and I spent a very agreeable afternoon being taxied down the river from the cookery school back to the town on my own little raft while watching tourists from other parts of China enjoying one of the highlights of any trip to the region.

On my last day at the school, I met up with a local guide, Christina who took me on a cycling tour of the surrounding countryside. Those of you who know me will understand that me and a bike is as unlikely as a mouse trying to balance an elephant on its chin, but, I am ever game and, about 8.30am one rainy morning, I could be seen wobbling unsteadily down Yangshuo’s main street much to the amusement of any number of locals.

Added to which, the saddle of said bike seemed to have been sharpened just particularly for the torture of my buttocks and, after a few minutes, I was already in agony still with a few hours in the saddle to go.

It did rather hamper my enjoyment of the scenery, which is stunning. I winced my way around the villages, through the paddy field and past hard working farmers harvesting crops of peanuts for about two hours before we stopped, thank The Lord, and Christina asked me if I was hungry.

Even if I had not been, the opportunity to get off that damn bike was too good to resist and I nodded enthusiastically that I was famished. We were, as it happened, right next to the small farm owned by Christina’s family and she invited me in for lunch with her, her husband and her mother in law which turned out to be a simple but delicious affair featuring steamed local vegetables, pork with beans, home made pickled garlic and, most enjoyable of all, taro cut into strips and deep fried until crunchy.

After lunch, it was back in the saddle again for another bum numbing two hours of cycling through the fields and along narrow paths until Christina deposited me back at the hotel where I limped gratefully up to my room for a bit of a lie down.

If the mornings were filled with cooking and the afternoons with touristy activities, the evenings were filled with eating. The local hawkers market looked interesting with its offers of snake, pig penis and cane rat, along side more recognisable dishes of chicken and the ubiquitous beer fish.

However, I was more taken with local storefront restaurants offering hand pulled noodles and dumplings to be eaten while perched a little precariously on beer crates serving as seating.

For about 15 Kuai (about £1) it was easy to buy enough food to make me forget about the horrors of cycling and to wash away any residual misery with bottles of the local Liquan beer.

Boiled noodles with beef sauce, fried noodles with lotus root, dumplings filled with chicken and dried local sausage all served to return me to better fooling.

After a couple of days, it was time to meet up with my new group who would accompany me on the journey from Yangshuo to Beijing. The leader of the group was another local girl, Jackie Tang who had met up with the rest of the group in Hong Kong.

Slightly worringly, her first announcement to me was that we would spend the first morning together going cycling. My buttocks screamed a pre-emptive protest but, I felt that I should really join in if just to get to know the people with whom I would be sharing train space for the next three weeks.

What can I tell you, it was just as much hell. In fact more so, because I now knew just how long the afternoon lasted and what horrors were in store. Well, I thought I did until someone uttered the words “ anyone fancy going caving?”

Caving, it would appear is another popular pastime round Yangshuo way. But, this is not like any caving you would ever have experienced anywhere else. This is caving Chinese style. Where as, in the West, caving might involve a modicum of training, a plethora of safety equipment and maybe, just maybe a rope or three, in China, it involved a child’s plastic toy helmet and, here is the good bit, a pair of flip flops.

Oh joy. I spent the next three hours underground walking around in ill fitting sandals while heading ever deeper into the depths of the earth. And, do you know what, I had a ball. After a brief tour of the caves where the guide pointed at two rock formations, on that apparently looked like Buddha and another that looked like a pair of breasts. I couldn’t see it in either case although I obviously, in the name of research, looked long and hard at the booby rock.

After that, we were left to our own devices which involved climbing down some rickety stairs ever deeper until we hit the “famous” Golden Cave mud pools. Now, as a child, I loved, as every boy does, playing around in the mud and this latest development brought out the inner child in me and I soon found myself along side the others up to my neck in God’s good mud. We wallowed, threw mud at each other, tried to swim and dunked the girlies until we were told our time was up and were forced to slip slide our way back to the surface looking for all the world like we had been to some sort of young person’s music festival.

And that was about it for Yangshuo. An easy access entry into China and a great introduction to both the food and the people I was to meet over the next month both for better and for worse.

But more of that later

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Folks, what can I say?

It has been over two weeks since I Posted about my first days in China and that was about a month ago.

I do have an excuse though. I have been travelling through Mongolia and Siberia on the trans mongolian/siberian railways and let us just say that internet connection has been sporadic

I am in Moscow now and head to St Petersburg tongight before I spend a few days in Helsinki

Hopefully I will catch up soon as there is a lot to tell

Thanks for your patience

BTW - for those of you who may be interested, the EAT MY GLOBE book has been sold in the USA for publication in 2009. Watch this space for details

Monday, September 03, 2007


My introduction to China was, shall we say, a challenge?

Oh, the trip to Hong Kong airport was harmless enough and the relatively new airport itself was a thing of beauty with its high ceilings, many dining options and comfortable lounges.

The flight too was fine. Just over an hour with only the fact that the stewards came through the cabin collecting all “Western Media” shortly before we landed giving us a clue that we were about to enter a country where restrictions on such matters are still very firmly upheld.

It was once I landed that things began to go, well, a bit weird.

First of all, customs.

Now, I am a magnet for customs men everywhere. I suspect it is because, with my almost permanent covering of stubble and heavy lidded eyes, I look like a poster boy for every nefarious organisation on the planet. Add to this my British passport with an Indian name and I am usually whipped aside for extra checks before you can say the words “racial profiling”

Even 4,000 miles away from home, I still found myself pulled to one side and my bags opened while half a dozen armed and obscenely young looking Chinese customs officials had a bit of a poke and a prod. I had, as I had been advised to do, declared my laptop which seemed to cause particular consternation and I sat patiently for half an hour while the guards opened up my computer, turned it on and had a look at my holiday snaps for a while.

After about half an hour of loud debate, they turned to me, gestured that I should pack my bags and said something that I took to mean “stop wasting our time and bugger off”

Next stop, my ride from Guilin to Yansghuo.

I had booked myself into attend a well regarded cookery school and, as part of the deal, they had arranged a transfer for me from the airport to my hotel. As I came out of customs, my large backpack (which I had by now christened “ Big Red”

because it was big and, er, red) was swiped from my back as if it was a child’s lunchbox by a man who came up to my shoulders in height. He had a cigarette drooping from his mouth and a sign in the other hand that said “Majuba” That’ll be me then.

Without a word, he took off at lightning pace across the arrivals hall and, before I could say “excuse me my good fellow, do I have time to use the washing facilities?” he was out of the door and scurrying across the car park.

I had horrible visions of losing my luggage (which, let us not forget, contained some exotic and interesting changes of underwear) so started to hot foot it after him with little success as he began to move further ahead with each stride, my 25kgs bag barely seeming to trouble him at all.

Finally, I saw him stop by a small car in the distance and, when I finally caught up to him ,wheezing and out of breath, he was sitting comfortably on top of Big Red with another cigarette in his mouth and a gappy grin showing his few remaining teeth.

If my greeting was a shock to the system, the journey to Yangshuo was even more hazardous to my health. The road was shocking and Mr Few Teeth, seemed to have a sense of keen determination to hit every last pothole and crevice in an attempt to shake my glorious pearly whites loose so I had as few teeth as him.

The road markings, also, seemed to be optional. My chauffeur had decided that the best option was to take a route right down the middle and to give way to no man be they aged farmer on a cycle or two tonnes of trucky metal goodness. Near miss after near miss seemed to be avoided by him leaning on a horn that gave out nothing but an apologetic ‘parp” by way of warning. After two particularly close calls, I decided the best option was to follow the lesson of the ostrich “if I can’t see it, it can’t hurt me” So, I closed my eyes and buried my head into the comforting folds of Big Red.

No sooner had I retreated into my little haven of security than I was dragged back from it by the sounds of singing. I use the term song very loosely here. What came out of the driver’s mouth was like the unutterable scream from a character in Dante’s Divine Comedy and, as the driving got more dangerous, the caterwauling got louder. I am not sure if it was my own delirium by this point, but the wailing began to take on familiar sounds and, I am pretty sure that, by the time we arrived in Yangshuo, Mr Few Teeth had gone through much of Mr Gilbert & Mr Sullivan’s oeuvre and also performed a rather strained repetition of “The Candy Man” from “ Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” A song which, much to the annoyance of my fellow travellers, has been in my head ever since.

Gap Grin had one more surprise for me before we arrived at our final destination though, he needed to pee.

Did he pull over to a safe spot and find a bush or, even better, a bathroom? Did he heckers like. He stopped in the middle of the road. When I say stopped, I mean he slammed on the brakes so only the welcome presence of Big Red stopped me plunging through the windscreen. He then got out of the stationary car, parked in the middle of the road with trucks whizzing by either side, and proceeded to pee against the front wheel. As he stood there, hands on hips and trousers open to the world, he gave me yet another gappy grin and a big thumbs up. Oh joy, we had bonded.

A few minutes later we were in Yangshuo. He couldn’t have hung on for an other five minutes? Obviously not. He dumped my bag by reception and headed out of the hotel without a second glance at me or Big Red as he lit another cheroot and mumbled a refrain from what I am pretty sure was the second act of La Traviata as he left.

My hotel, The Magnolia was rather nice and, within about twenty minutes of arriving, I was fast asleep in an air conditioned room having dreams about airports, customs officials and little gummy men in cars.

Welcome to China………………….

My cookery lessons were not starting for another day, so, after a rather nasty western style breakfast that came included with my stay, I took the opportunity to explore Yangshuo.

To be honest, it didn’t take long as it is only a town of some 40,000 people. But, I began to like it immediately. Lonely Planet describe it as more of a “backpacking colony” than a Chinese village and they are right. It provides a stopping off point for those who have headed South through China, who are at the end of a cruise down The Li River or, like me, looking for an easy passage into things Chinese.

Over the years, Yangshuo has transformed itself from a tiny town into a bustling centre for hiking, caving, rafting and innumerable other sporting activities for tourists. Initially, it was primarily Western tourists who made the town a hot spot. First from America, then from the UK and France and now, primarily from Holland. More recently, however, Yangshuo has become a focal point for the burgeoning Chinese tourist industry and you are just as likely to see a camera wielding Chinese man, inevitably wearing sandals with socks up to his knees, as you are a Western traveller, inevitably white and sporting dreadlocks. I am unsure which breaks more rules of fashion.

The main st of Yangshuo, Xi-Jie has been renamed “ Western St” by the locals and is filled with cafes selling a strange fusion of local dishes and western food alongside everything a backpacker could possibly need, souvenirs and general tat. There is a lot of hustling going on and everyone has something to sell or a service to offer. But, unlike many places, it is done with a great deal of amiability, very little hassle and a few surprises. My favourite incident was when an old woman approached me as I was enjoying a cold local LiQuan (local beer). “ah” I thought, “a wizened old crone” thinking she would offer me some local handicraft or iced water. Instead, she came right up to me and shoved a vacuum packed item under my nose with the words “ Memory Card. 2GB” That, I guess, is progress. As indeed is their "unique" style of english translation from Chinese or "Chinglish" as it has become known. The picture below is but one example of many to follow.

At night, Western St becomes Sodom and Gomorrah as the cafes turn into raucous bars and music blares from every building. But, by day, it is relatively quiet, or as quiet as things ever get in China as I was to learn, and I spent a happy hour or so wandering around.

Precious few travellers stray away from Western St with its vaguely recognisable food, its bars and bands of fellow tourists. That’s a shame as a few streets either side see you in a different world as the streets become filled with hawkers, local stores and clusters of people going about their normal existence.

A short walk from my hotel saw me at the local market which, as all good markets should be, was an assault on all the senses. The smell was of meat which came in the shape of pork, chicken and (squeamish be warned) roast dog. The sights were of animals in cages, vegetables piled into mounds and local carp swimming around in buckets of water to clean the mud from the river out of their system before they were killed to order.

Markets in developing countries are not to everyone’s tastes I know. Cleanliness is optional and there is enough grime to give any self respecting Health & Safety officer the screaming ab dabs. The sight of animals, particularly those we in the West consider pets, in cages waiting forlornly for their inevitable fate is challenging and the smell, well the smell can knock you over at about 50 yards. But, this is real life for the great majority of the world’s population, so ascribing Western values to it is neither correct nor helpful.

Me? I loved it. I even tried a bit of dog which, inevitably, tasted like chicken. I wont be doing it again, mainly because I found out that, in China, they believe that Adrenalin improves the taste of dog meat and so put the poor creatures in a sack and poke them with spikes to get it flowing before killing them. Some things in life, whatever your cultural differences, are just objectively wrong and this is one of them.

Despite the bit of dog action, I was still hungry and set off in search of my first proper meal in China which came in the form of some perfect steamed chicken dumplings and a local mutton hot pot washed down with the local brew. This was when I realised just how cheap things were going to be in China as my first feast came to about Y30 which equates to just under £2.

By the time I had enjoyed another beer, I was ready for a stroll through some of the astonishing countryside that has made Yangshuo so popular as a destination. On the backs of the Li and Yulong rivers, the scenery is astonishing with dozens of Karst mountains sprouting out of the ground like pimples on a teenager. The river itself is clean, a rare thing in China, and away from the traffic of the town the only sound is the flowing of water and the occasional “putt-putt” of a tiny outboard motor helping a farmer take his laden raft upstream.

There are busy bits of course where bamboo rafters tout for tourist business, but for the most part, it is possible to find seclusion and peace for a few happy moments.

After my walk, the day’s heat began to take its toll on me and I retired to my air conditioned haven to have a nice kip before my evening’s activities.

One of the biggest attractions for Chinese visitors to Yangshuo, indeed, increasingly for all visitors is ‘ Impressions of Lui Sanjie” a music and light show which is performed on The River Li by over 600 artists and singers and which uses over a dozen Karst mountains as its backdrop. I have to admit, it sounded like my idea of Hell, but I was told by at least half a dozen people I encountered on my first day that I should go, so I caved and booked a ticket from the hotel lobby.

Well, I was wrong. It does happen. Far from being a tatty little spectacle for tourists, it turned out to be a stunning spectacle with extraordinary effects lighting up the scenery in different ways over several vignettes. Directed by famous film maker Zhang Yimou, it is both haunting and lyrical and I can see why it has now become one of the most popular activities in China for tourists.

Downside, well there always is, isn’t there. In this case, an hour by the river meant that the bugs had taken the opportunity to feast on my, oh so sweet flesh and I was covered in bites from head to foot. I counted about fifty before giving up and, doused in anticeptic cream, I headed to bed feeling a bit sorry for myself.

It was, to say the least, an interesting first twenty four hours in China. I had little idea how much more interesting it would become. But, that’s for next time