Letters from the Larmours » Stories from the travels of the Larmour Family

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Letter from China – part 1

This is a long one – grab a coffee!!!! One of my favourite travels EVER (oh my, what am I saying – I pretty much love all our travels!!!)

(again, coped from our old site so formatting/fonts etc are a bit wonky – but readable all the same I hope!)


After 2 years of life in Guangzhou, and even more years in China, it was time for us to move on. However, before we left we wanted to see just a few of the parts of China we’d not yet managed to get to. But where to go? China is vast, and it’s treasures and sights wide reaching both in variety, and geographically. We’d seen Beijing looking sparkling earlier in the year, and deserts were out as we’ll probably overdose on them over the next few years; wrong time of year for Harbin’s ice festival; Tibet too high for a toddler and pregnant lady to be oxygen starved; most of the silk route was too far west and north for the time we had available…. So we came up with the following… read on for Kirsty’s travelogue of where and what we did, and what we thought about it, and most of all, lots of photos of what an amazing time we had.  Click here to open a map of our journey and modes of transport, and some of the more amusing signs we saw along the way.

Final playgroup


太原 to平遥 Tai Yuan to Ping Yao

>We headed to the station early, determined to get on the first train to Ping Yao, which, we managed, along with approximately 50,000 other people! We had unreserved tickets, which meant no seat, and were playing a precariously balanced game of upright sardines when some helpful girls offered to squash up and 5 of us sat in seats intended for 3! (Having a blonde haired blue eyed baby helps sometimes!) Of course, it didn’t take us away from the smoking, spitting and nosepicking habits of our fellow travellers, but did offer us a little more comfort! 2 hours later we arrived and were able to unfold our limbs again!

Pingyao is a Ming dynasty walled city which is remarkably well preserved (it’s now a UNESCO heritage site) and offers a glimpse into imperial China. It was a merchant town and the centre of China’s banking system during the Ming and Qing dynasties and is full of amazing old financial houses and temples. Strangely, after communism it fell into poverty and now has no bank or cash machine in the whole town!

On our first day there we just wandered around and soaked up the lazy atmosphere and stunning old architecture. We stayed at the Tian Yuan Kui Guesthouse which was gorgeous and set around rambling courtyards and with a kang (or large traditional Chinese bed) in the room. The staff were lovely and helpful and there were a couple of cats for Saffron to chase around!

on the sardine packed train flags for a wedding celebration Good luck messages on doorwaysoverlooking the rooftops

Today we bought passes which allowed us entry to all the main city sights. And we hired bikes so we could get around and see them all. Saffron loved sitting in the seat on the back – and was so comfy she fell asleep in there a couple of times! We climbed the city walls and checked out the jumbled rooftops, visited the financial houses and explored temples. It was an adorable place. And people were so friendly – an excellent way of breaking ourselves into our trip!

the traditional Chinese potty training solution
counting out her pennies    
yes, it says “Keep off the grass”  
kidnapped by monks!  
Saffron on the kang  

In the evening we took the overnight sleeper train to Xi’an. It was FULL of foreign tourists!  Though most of them seemed to be in soft sleeper rather than hard, like us!! Our only slight problem was that we hadn’t actually secured tickets from Pingyao… we only had them from the next station down… so we had to appeal to the better nature of the train attendant! A hug and a photo with the little blonde baby did the trick!!!

We shared our 6 berths with a Canadian lady who seemed freaked out that she might get robbed and didn’t sleep (despite me explaining I always travelled hard sleeper as a lone female traveller as it feels safer not being enclosed by a door), a couple who had drugged their teenage daughter, and for some time a nasty old biddy who insisted on sitting on my feet and shouting to her friends down the corridor, despite my kicking her in the back and telling her to shut up cos the baby was asleep. Our time together ended when I thought I’d told her to “go away, you noisy old woman!” – I later realised in my semi conscious state I’d called her a smelly old woman! Ah well, it did the trick! And this is why we choose to travel hard sleeper – if other passengers don’t care if they disturb us, we’re not going to lose sleep if Saffron decides to have a screaming fit in the night and disturb them!

Sleeping beauty on the train

西安 Xi’an

We woke up early as the train pulled in to Xi’an – the station was crazy busy and T and I couldn’t remember for the life of us what our youth hostel was called – and there are about 10 youth hostels in Xi’an! Eventually we found it, another converted old building – in Europe these places would be boutique hotels, in China, they’re budget accommodation – which was great for us!! (especially as the average family sized room was under 15 pounds a night). After some extra sleep we set off to find the newly exhibited Tomb of Han Jing, which was highly rated on the Lonely Planet Bluelist for 2007. This only opened in 2005 and is still relatively unknown in comparison to the more famous Tomb of Qin Shi Huang with its terracotta warriors. It was fantastic, and I highly recommend a visit. The figurines are much smaller but a far more significant depiction of daily, domestic life rather than military force and you can also walk down into the tombs and see excavations going on! Saffron loved all the animals and impressed everyone with her wide array of animal noises!

  Exhibits on display in the museum
woman who’s been riding a horse a bit too long!
inside the tombs themselves

西安 Xi’an

Our onward travel plans were thrown into disarray when we realised we couldn’t take an overnight train from Xi’an to Yicheng (the town close to the Yangtze 3 gorges dam) as planned, and a 14 hour daytime journey is not really a great option with a toddler! Luckily a lovely lady at the station took us under her wing and went through lots of alternate options until we decided to go to Wuhan instead and then on to Yichang. Once that was all sorted we took the public bus (great way to go, doesn’t stop at all those tourist factories!) to the Qin Shi Huang Tomb. I’ve been there before, but I have to say, the terracotta warriors were just as impressive second time around. And you’re now allowed to take photos there too. However, they were packed out – it was crazy busy there and Saffron wasn’t quite so into them as she had been the previous day, not so many animals, only horses going into battle!!

In the evening we went for a feast of Chinese fast food! Pumpkin croquettes, bean nests, veggie spring rolls and other unknown (but vegetarian) delicacies! All washed down with another variety of Chinese beer – which we are really going to miss when we move!

The whole hall of warriors
  close ups of some of the warriors  
the bronze chariot
Saffron enjoying her Chinese fast food feast!

西安 Xi’an

We had a lazy breakfast in the youth hostel. They had several cats who kept Saffron very amused, plus a large trough of fish which she loved. We then set off to climb the city walls. Xi’an has changed soooo much since I was last there 8 years ago. Glitzy buildings, high rises, designer stores, McDonalds, Starbucks and lots of factories on the outskirts are all new additions. Next we headed to the Little Goose Pagoda, following a slightly hairy moment when a bus took off with Saffron and me on board but no Tommy, and a mass mobbing of me and Saffron by excitable school children!! Saffron and Tommy climbed the pagoda to take in the city sights while I pottered around the temple grounds. Then we headed for the muslim district. On my last trip this was relatively unvisited, quiet, quaint backstreets and a small peaceful mosque. How shocked was I to find it’s now definitely on the tourist trail, with tour busses stopping there and a market street leading to the mosque similar to Temple street market in HK?!

At 4:30 we got on the train to Wu Chang (Wuhan being made up of Han Kou and Wu Chang). We’d splashed out on soft sleeper tickets this time (the only hard tickets available were top bunks (hard sleeper has 3 bunks, soft only 2) – not much good with a baby), and we lucky enough to have the compartment to ourselves, but to be honest we didn’t get to appreciate the relative luxury much as this, of course, was the night that Kirsty had a dodgy tummy and therefore Tommy had to have Saffron in his bunk!

Saffron and Daddy checking out the fish tank view from Xi’an city wall to the bell tower
our youth hostel  
Kirsty and Saffron being mobbed by schoolchildren
Tommy and Saffron at the top of the Little Goose pagoda, and Saffron back at the bottom!
making friends with temple lion dogs! The very Chinese style mosque
making 8 treasure mooji’s on the street which Daddy enjoyed while Saffron slept!  
Street in the muslim district of Xi’an
cricket cages
The drum tower food on skewers Travelling posh class on the train, complete with lace curtains and plastic rose!

武昌 to宜昌 to 三峡大坝 Wu Chang to Yi Chang to the three gorges dam

We arrived in Wu Chang at 6:30am and found a bus to Yi Chang, the starting point for our up river journey.  We suffered a very painful Chinese talent contest on the bus TV the whole way and at 5 hours the bus journey was a bit longer than our comfortable threshold anyway so we were extremely pleased to arrive. Our pleasure was dampened when we realised:

  1. the only nice tourist boat going that day was a mere 3500RMB each for Tommy and me, and 500 for Saffron. Sure, it included food and drink, but still stretched our budget a little!

  2. if we took a Chinese boat instead it would start above the dam, which would mean we wouldn’t see the infamous structure – which would be a huge disappointment for 2 engineers!

  3. We’d missed all the tourist trips to the dam for the day as they went in the morning, meaning, if we wanted to see it, we’d have to overnight in Yichang, then take a boat the following day.

Eventually we bit the bullet, hired a private driver to take us to the dam (one with a special pass as it’s a site of national security!), and then, as it takes 3 hours to see the dam, had him take us straight to the boat (yup, we opted for the Chinese one (at 1000 each and 0 for Saffron wouldn’t you?!!) afterwards. Excellent!

The dam was engineeringly amazing and I’m so glad we managed to see it (despite my obvious environmental reservations about the project). It actually doesn’t look that huge, but that’s because at 2.6km across, the 185m height looks understandably small.  We saw some of the big boats going up and down the locks and were very jealous that we wouldn’t be doing that! Once you’re into the dam site they run busses round stopping at four points of interest. A viewpoint above the dam and the locks, the top of the dam wall, you then drive across and go above it and can see the temporary damn used during construction, and then to the bottom of it where you can see the water crashing through.

So at 7pm we boarded the boat. Hmmm… then I understood why the Chinese boats are so cheap compared to the tourist boats! It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the actual boat per se – it was that it was still filthy from its cruise downriver. We had a first class cabin which hadn’t been cleaned, and Chinese people don’t treat these things with respect – there were the prerequisite sunflower and pumpkin seed husks spat all over the floor – I mean, if you can afford first class, why would you want to use a bin? Surely you’re paying for someone to clean up your muck? Right? Thankfully the bedding was changed and fresh and we were all exhausted so we fell into bed and slept amazingly well as the boat set sail

the cheesy engineer shot!
boats going up through the locks
view across the top of the dam wall
The top of the marker is 175m   hmmmm… rusting already?
  Cheesy engineering family shot! Are those bits of the wall falling off?
Yichang dating agency Close up of some of the adverts!

长江 Yangtze River

We were rudely awoken by our tour guide – a lovely lady in a fetching leopard print top – at 5am for breakfast and views of the gorges. After much grumbling about how the silly cow had told us we weren’t disembarking till 9am and why the hell had she woken us at that time, we actually appreciated that we would have missed some stunning views if she hadn’t! This was the part of the 3 Gorges famous for it’s paintings of clouds between rocky outcrops. Soon after we stopped and got onto smaller boats to go up the “little three gorges” which people say are even more stunning than the main gorge. All the way along you see markers showing how high the water will eventually go and it’s easy to appreciate how in just a couple of years this scenery really won’t look the same. We then got on even smaller boats to venture up the “even littler, little three gorges” which was beautiful. And made very enjoyable by an amusing boatman who serenaded us!!

We were back at our boat in time for lunch where we, and our little blonde child were of as much interest to our fellow diners as the food!

After some lazing on the deck, and lazing in our room (which thankfully had been cleaned to an acceptable standard while we were out!) we headed on an afternoon trip to a small temple which is of significance in some classic Chinese fable. For us, not being familiar with the story, the best part was very unexpectedly, finding a woman who was cooking up roast potatoes – with a sprinkling of chilli and garlic – which were almost as good as a Sunday roast – yummmmmmy!!!

Sunrise as we passed up the 3 gorges mist covered peaks  
some of the bedding on the gorge sides our boat
Some of our Chinese tour group friends
village that’ll be under water this time next year this is where the water will be on the boat to the even littler, little three gorges
  our serenading boatman another of our boatmen
the even littler, little three gorges   family shot, with the Chinese flag
  fellow passenger relaxing on deck, in his pyjamas! man on our boat chilling out with his bong!
water level markers   roast potatoes!

长江 Yangtze River

We spent the morning lazing about again and thwarting attempted kidnappings of Saffron by adoring Chinese Grannies. On our boat there was only one other westerner and he wasn’t vaguely interested in speaking to us – we’d probably stolen his thunder by having more novelty value than him! We spent hours answering the same old questions “where are you from? How old is your baby? What do you do? How long have you lived in China?” etc etc from our curious fellow passengers. All good for mine and Saffron’s Chinese, which was improving immensely over the trip. And then we’d hear the Grannies authoritatively telling their friends “they live in Guangzhou you know; yes, 2 years apparently; both engineers; she can speak some chinese, and so can the baby!” etc etc, which amused us. Saffron turned into a performing monkey repeatedly counting to 10 in Chinese for her adoring fans (most of whom refused to believe she was only 18 months on account of both this mathematical ability, and her height)! The strange thing was we hardly met anyone on the boat trip who spoke any English, which is rare anywhere in China, where there’s always someone who wants to practice, or translate for all their friends!

In the afternoon, after passing through yet more spectacular scenery we visited the Ghost Town of Fengdu. This place was bizarre!!! It was supposed to be the place of devils and all the temples, shrines and statues had some way of warning the evil spirits off. It was gorey in the extreme and certainly felt like it was some kind of Alton Towers-esque haunted house experience. And then it also had a HUGE Buddha head built on the hillside above it. All very weird

skull to ward off evil spirits Man being dunked into a steaming vat of skulls! the devil eating a hand
big dragon boat!
very happy to have just understood a chinese lolly stick joke! my Daddy is so pretty!
yummy, dinner! our luxury first class cabin! Patriotic girl in her Beijing Olympics t-shirt!


Read on to see where we went next…. K xx


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