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China, 2011

by Harry R. Matthews

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Lorraine and I made our first overseas trip in August, to Ayers Rock in Australia for a few days, but our first major trip together was to China, 14 September to 7 October 2011. I had booked it as a single after Iris died but before Lorraine and I met. After Lorraine and I started living together in Napier, we changed the booking to a double. The other tourists were a congenial group of Australians, mostly from New South Wales. The tour was managed by Helen Van Den Berg.

I went to China in 2004; Lorraine had not visited China before. The first thing I noticed, in Beijing, was the drastic reduction in the number of pedal bicycles and a corresponding increase in the number of cars. Cycles are now sequestered into cycle lanes that are shared with electric motor-bikes. Traffic is just as chaotic but I felt the traffic was probably the most dangerous I have seen, partly because of the number of serious accidents we came across and partly because of a grim, almost desperate, determination to dominate on the faces of the otherwise placid Chinese drivers. Egypt was equally chaotic but drivers were reasonably considerate of other road users, in their own way. Otherwise, China was not too different: mediocre tourist food; wonderful historical and natural sights; compulsory government craft/factory stores; and, of course, crowds.

We had a different local guide at each of the places we visited. They varied greatly in ability and attitude. One gave us a "party political broadcast" in Tiananmen Square about how the people in Taiwan, Tibet, Korea, for example, are all Chinese and should be part of China; he "reassured" us that China would absorb these and other countries using economic power rather than military muscle. A different guide told us about censorship and secret suppression of individuals; she said that there is an underground movement working to by-pass the worst of the censorship. Access to the Internet is completely government-controlled; Twitter is completely blocked and Google searches are heavily censored. There are alternative programs, produced by the Chinese government, with some very strange anti-West/pro-Chinese rumours circulating. The power of the communist dictatorship could be seen in the success of the one-child program (relaxed a bit these days) and the vast blocks of featureless mini-flats housing farmers displaced from their farms by the Yangtse Dam. These programs may be good for China overall, at least economically and politically, but the associated suppression of what we regard as human rights is worrying. Does the end justify the means?

China made us think a lot about systems of government during the trip, partly because I was still coming to terms with my experiences in Egypt at the start of the uprising and partly because we are somewhat disillusioned about the increasing failure of democracy to govern satisfactorily. We seem to have lost the notion of a "loyal opposition" that works with the government on programs of widespread value; opposition to other programs does not go to the extreme lengths we have been seeing, especially in California and, more recently, in federal government in Washington, where the Opposition pushes its agenda with procedural and other methods that may harm the state or country. We haven't seen this so dramatically in New Zealand but during the last term, the Opposition appeared to oppose everything the government wanted to do, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction. Of course, this is partly the media preferring conflict to cooperation. New Zealand has its own problems with a voting system that gives well-organised minorities undue influence in government. Nevertheless, we remain deeply grateful to be living in a country where there is a routine peaceful method of changing the government.

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The tour started with several days in Beijing where the Great Wall was "great" as usual. We enjoyed the garden of the Temple of Heaven where many local people went for relaxation from just sitting and chatting to ballroom dancing and traditional music. Then, we flew to Xi'an and, of course, saw the terrcotta warriors. Here and in other places, we often saw young professional people engaging in Buddhist rituals, which seemed quite incongruous. Karl Marz apparently said "Religion is the opium of the people" and wanted to ban it, to strengthen the power of the people; but, I wondered, maybe the Chinese rulers don't see religion as such a bad thing if it provides an outlet/rationalization for discontent.

After Xi'an we were on completely new ground for me, flying to Guilin. From there we visited the Longshen region with dramatic hills of terraced rice fields. We walked up the 1000+ steps, with a lunch break halfway, to a lookout point on Longji. Then, we took a boat along the Li river from Guilin to Yangshuo. It was overcast and very misty; reminiscent of Chinese paintings with layers of misty mountains. Some were disappointed not to have a blue-sky view but I relished the photographic challenge. The sharp pointed mountains along the river and around the town are indeed dramatic.

From Guilin, we flew to Shangri-la by way of Kunming. From Kunming we drove into the countryside, in pouring rain, and visited a monastery high up at Dragon Gate, followed by a tour of the "Stone Forest" region where the weather improved and we appreciated the natural beauty. The location of the mythical Shangri-la is unknown but the Chinese government has decreed that it is at Zhongdian near the Tibetan border. Zhongdian is an unexceptional small town in a boring plain with an unexeptional monastery in need of repair, unlike nearby Lijiang which is a beautiful ancient town nestled in the mountains just as Shangri-la was described. Lijiang is already a saturated tourist centre. The Chinese government is sponsoring the rapid development of "Shangri-la" at Zhongdian as a tourist "trap" with restoration of the monastery and a grand programme of hotel development. Maybe it will work. After all, most visitors to Las Vegas couldn't care less about its desert environment. We drove from "Shangri-la" to Lijiang through dramatic mountain scenery, stopping to walk down into Tiger Leaping Gorge and a brief stop at the "First Bend" of the Yangtse River. Lijiang is an outstanding ancient town with no roads, just pedestrian alleyways, and ancient buildings converted to tourist hotels, shops, cafe's and food and souvenir stalls. Nearby is the lovely Black Dragon Pool Park and the dramatic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain National Park. The Black Dragon Pool Park was a lovely, peaceful, place enjoyed by tourists and locals and not too crowded. The Snow Mountain area had partial cloud cover that made for dramatic landscapes. From Lijiang we flew to Chongqing and boarded our Yangtze River cruise boat. The first two days were spent cruising down river, above the dam. The scenery was not exceptional but the modern new cities of high-rise apartments in the middle of nowhere testified to the prescence of the dam ahead. The dam is indeed huge. We navigated the locks, at night so there was little to see, and spent the last day cruising below the dam, where the scenery was more dramatic.

Finally, we flew to Shanghai, with a side-trip to Suzhou which, like Shanghai tself, was very crowded indeed because it was a week-long Chinese public holiday. My claustrophobia flared up in the "Humble Administrator's Garden" in Suzhou but not before I had enjoyed a lot of people-watching, some of whom I caught on camera.

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