Trip to China October 2014 for the Dass’ and Chakrabortys
19th October to 1st November 2014
It is a pleasure to share this trip report and the planning that went behind it especially because I have never done anything like this before! On an impulse in October 2013 I offered to organise a big family trip which would include my husband, daughter, I, my parents and my parents-in-law, bringing us to a total party of 7 ranging from ages of 13 to 73 years. What followed was a year of planning with a lot of reading, Tripadvisor searches, and decisions on which sites, organized tour or DIY etc etc.
Starting with the basics:
Hotels: expedia and booking.com
Domestic flight in China: travelzen
Train tickets in China: Beijing to Datong- Travelguide China (online payment in US dollars, tickets delivered to Beijing hotel for a reasonable fee), Datong to Pingyao and Pingyao to Beijing- Nancy our guide in Datong who did it without a deposit just on faith. We paid her in cash when we met.
Guide in Yangshuo: Chloe (arranged through correspondence with Lilly Lu)
Guide in Beijing: Qing
Guide in Datong: Nancy
Yangshuo: Li river, Xing Ping, Fuli, Moon Hill, Lijiong, Dazhai rice terraces.
Beijing: Great wall, summer palace, Forbidden City, temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square
Datong: Hanging monastery, Mt Heng, Wooden Pagoda, Yungang Caves
So here we go!
Husband, daughter and I leave UK, flying from Birmingham at 8:40 am. Reach Beijing via Zurich.
Reach Beijing at 5:15 am. Very timely arrival which is good considering we have to catch a domestic flight with not too much of a gap in between. After all formalities, gathering luggage and transferring from Terminal 3 to 1 was complete by 7 am. Checked into our domestic flight (Grand China Air) which left at 8:50 am for Guilin. Reached Guilin airport at 11:50 am.
We were picked up by Chloe, a very petite and very friendly young woman who put us at ease straightaway. At this point I realised that we had practically had two consecutive sleep deprived nights (early flight and on flight) but the adrenaline was rushing. This was the holiday starting at last and it was my daughter’s 13th B’day!
The first thing Chloe pointed out to us even before we had left the airport was the osmanthus tree near the car park. She explained that Guilin was the translation of a phrase which meant ‘Forest of Osmanthus’. The trees are known for their fragrant, tiny yellow flowers which are dried for a delicate tea.
The day was warm and sunny. We started with the obvious main attraction, the lovely Li river.
The Kaarst formations start gracing the horizon even as you land in Guilin. As we drove to Yangti, the scenery became more and more striking.
Chloe explained to us that the ‘bamboo boats’ are really made of plastic. The bigger bamboos that would be needed for boats in this part of the river would not have been sustainable if boats were made of the real thing. The boats take a maximum of 4-6 people are and still a very personal and close experience compared to some of the bigger ferries which cruised past us sending us into a bit of a wobble, but nothing really scary. A motorized bamboo boat from Yangti to Xingping takes around an hour and a half to two hours. The Yangti to Xingping section is considered to have the more dramatic kaarst scenery. The sharp peaks rose around us in various hues of yellow, white, brown and pink. Years of imagination have identified a myriad of shapes in the stone and the colours which etch their surface as Chloe pointed out ‘7 horses’, ‘eagles’ and human forms. There were local tourist groups posing in colourful costumes (something that the Chinese are very fond of). In the midst of it all we saw a fisherman balancing his two cormorants on a bamboo perched on his shoulders.
Landing in Xingping you are welcomed by cheerful riverside stalls of local food, dried fish and trinkets. We then strolled along the old street soaking in the atmosphere: ornate roofs, doors with heavy handles and the ubiquitous red decorations, the fierce ‘door guards’ daring any evil to pass the threshold. The front living room is usually open to the road showing the relaxed attitude of the people in this sleepy town. Scenes of daily life- people watching television, feeding babies, playing board games, peeked out of barely closed doors.
Finally we were driven to our hotel at Yangshuo Village inn in Moon Hill Village. I discovered to my delight that I had chosen a quaint village with lovely scenery. The moon hill has a beautiful view a stone’s throw from the hotel.
We were shown into a room with very traditional décor, heavy furniture and a great view. After a freshening up we decided to make use of the remaining daylight hours and walked up to the area with a view of the Moon Hill, a kaarst arch in the shape of a half-moon atop a kaarst mountain.
Back at the hotel we decided to eat in-house. A dinner of Li river shrimps on a bed of local fresh vegetables and we were more than ready for bed.
Chloe picked us up at 8:30 am and directed us to a local noodle shop. She helped us order three bowls of soupy noodles served with chicken and beans, to be topped by choice with an available array of pickles, chilli, shallot and spring beans. Hot and steaming, we had had our first local Chinese breakfast.
We drove from our hotel to the Yulong river near Golden Dragon Bridge. Here we started a bamboo raft ride to Jiuxian village. It was here that we experienced our only rainy day of the entire tour. At one point it was pouring down like it would never stop but never mind!
The bamboo rafts here are fragile things made of real bamboo. They are not motorized but drawn along by poles. The Yulong river is narrower and shallower with none of the big boats we had seen the day before which makes the rafts practicable. There can be only two people to a boat along with the ferryman. Water can seep through the bamboo poles and soak your shoes, so more waterproof gear needed on this day. The kaarst scenery appears closer and the river is more peaceful but the scenery is definitely less dramatic than that of the Li river. Given the choice between the two, if I had to do one again it would definitely be the Li river. However the Yulong has more of its own experience to offer, not to forget the 8 or 9 dams we passed downstream. The raft comes over the edge of the dam, you raise your feet and then whoosh down goes the end of the raft into the next level of the river. The rafts have to be transported at the end of the trip by a van to the starting point, no sailing up river here. There was a woman selling fried fish right on the river as we sailed down, unusual place to hold a fish stall.
One and half hours of rafting and we reached Jiuxian village. Before we got off, some local tourists wanted pictures with us which was very friendly. The rain had thankfully stopped and we continued on to the next part of our plan to bike for the rest of the day.
We chose our bikes (very simple, no gears) from a stall near the river and started off on a busy road but were soon within the countryside cycling past farms, animals, cottages and kaarst mountains which looked like you could touch them if you reached out. Some mountains were dotted with shrines of ancestors which formed the basis of the local religion. Chloe carefully chose our route judging our expertise and navigated through wide concrete roads which nonetheless passed by villages and farms. By lunch time we had reached the base of Moon Hill.
It had started raining again, so we decided to have lunch before we climbed Moon Hill. There is a lovely café, predictably named Moon Hill Café near the entrance. We sat down to a lunch of braised duck, lemon chicken, pineapple chicken and tofu with steamed rice. Chloe explained to us that the way to make out ‘touristic outlets’ versus ‘local outlets’ was to look at the way they prepared the chicken. Skinless and boneless was ‘touristic’, chicken chopped into pieces along with the skin and bones was ‘local’. Moon Café was touristic but the food was delicious and Chloe assured us that the flavours were indeed local. Washed down lunch with freshly pressed orange juice and we were ready to climb the 800 steps to Moon Hill.
The stairs were treacherously slippery after the rain but we made it with no major mishaps. The view from the top is breathtaking as it shows Yangshuo and the nearby Moon Village surrounded by kaarst mountains. Taking care not to slip we tread cautiously downhill and started on our bikes again.
We biked around the Moon Hill area once more and then on to the Big Banyan Tree an age old tree with thick prop roots and a multitude of red ribbons which stood for peoples’ wishes. Chloe pointed out the nearby stage for folk songs along with the legend of Liu Sanjie which accompanies it. Liu Sanjie is a legendary Zhuang girl with the ability to sing a reply that no-one could match. She was, as the story goes, the third-born daughter of a man surnamed Liu, from the Tang dynasty, who lived centuries ago in Guangxi Province. She became known for her singing. The legend goes that she was wooed by a boy named A Niu. Their love story begins at Big Banyan Tree. As is the Zhuang custom, Liu Sanjie gave A Niu an embroidered ball to signify she liked him and he could pursue her. A Niu promptly tossed the ball across the river and high onto a rock the other side, where nobody could reach it and it would stay as an everlasting reminder of their love.
We then biked back to our hotel through the main roads, which was exciting in its own way. The cycles would be transported back by van to the starting point.
For dinner we decided to try the Farmer’s hotel, a stone’s throw from our hotel. Not a word of English did they understand and not a word of Mandarin did we, but the people at the hotel were endearingly overwhelmed by our presence. We were whisked off to the top floor away from the crowd of locals. The cutlery was changed and a kettle of fresh hot water placed for us. A menu with English translations were brought out for us and we ordered local spicy chicken, fried pork with potatoes and rice. The portions were generous and the food steaming hot. A meal enjoyed in the light Guangxi evening breeze surrounded by Kaarst Mountains which glowed in starlight.
We had asked Chloe to come at 9 am and went out ourselves at 8:30 to the noodle shop we now knew well. Pointing at the signs we were able to place the order we wanted, soupy rice noodles again. By the time Chloe collected us, we were fed and watered, ready to go.
We reached Yangshuo town by car and went straight to collect our bicycles. After making a choice, the car dropped us off at a point away from the congested traffic. We waited a little while for a van to drop off our cycles and it was off again!
More farm, more clucking chickens, more kaarst mountains. It was a bright and sunny day. We cycled up to the banks of the Li river right up to the opposite bank of Fuli town which was probably an hour. Here we left our cycles and crossed by local ferry into Fuli town. Fuli town like many others in the area appears to be stuck in a time warp. Local artisans paint fans, pictures and ply local handicrafts. Sadly it was evident that most artisan families are losing their youngest generations to other occupations and ways of life. The ‘factories’ are actually homes, where the front/living room has been converted to space to carry out the art work. They did not mind tourists stopping by, taking pictures whilst they were at work, the TV playing Chinese soap in the background. We bought a picture (presently hanging on my wall, right behind me as I write this review). We strolled for longer we had intended before we took the ferry back.
Back on our cycles we biked straight to LiuGong village. An ancient village, the ornate roofs, cobbled streets and wooden frameworks take you back a few centuries. We climbed up a small hill to a tiny temple with colourful images and a view of the Li river from atop. Lunch was at a local café by the river banks. This time we ordered egg and tomatoes, eggplant and beef.
We then got on another motorised ‘bamboo’ boat for an hour and a half ride back to Yangshuo. The cycles were taken aboard with us. The river at this point is beautiful as ever but still less dramatic than Yangdi to Xingping. It was a peaceful ride marked by storks and buffaloes in the water, up to Yangshuo.
Once in Yangshuo, we now cycled through fairly busy roads back to the place where we had taken our cycles. We now had 2 hours to ourselves to walk around Yangshuo downtown before our driver met us again to drive us back to the hotel. Chloe pointed out a few landmarks to make sure that we would not get lost. The streets were a bustle of colourful wares and hot food. We tried pork buns and had a try at bargaining prices.
It was soon time to get back for our last night at Yangshuo village inn.
We walked to the noodle shop at our usual time for a local breakfast. By this time the lady knows what we want before we have explicitly ordered. She makes a surprising conversation with hitherto hidden English skills asking me how old my daughter was and telling us in return that it was her daughter’s birthday that evening and she was turning 23! We thanked her for her fantastic breakfasts and said goodbye, we were leaving that morning.
Yangshuo village inn gave us a little embroidered purse as a gift on check out. We left the area with pleasant memories.
We set out on the 3 hour drive to Dazhai village to spend a night at the Longsheng rice terraces. On the way we stopped at Liu Sanjie teashop to stretch our legs and have a taste of various teas. The lady in the shop courteously entertained us to various flavours in tiny bowls which we were taught to hold with little fingers sticking out and smelling the teas to assess the aromas before we sipped them delicately. We bought two china pigs with sieves from the display and off we went again.
We arrived at the ticket office around 11:30. The road thereafter branches to Ping’An or Dazhai. Even before you reach Dazhai, occasional terraces start making their appearances within the lush evergreen growth that carpets the mountains.
I had done a lot of reading to choose between Ping’An and Dazhai before we travelled. Ping’An is obviously more popular and better known to the guides. However Chloe was honest in telling us at the end that though she was a little nervous and unaccustomed to Dazhai, she admitted that it was prettier than Ping’An and as of yet less untouched and touristy. So we had no reasons to regret our choice.
The youth hostel we had chosen was near point 2 and a half an hour walk from the car park. We had packed the night before in such a way so that we were carrying only backpacks with the essentials for the night. So no porters needed.
We reached Dazhai and started hiking to point 3 around 12, deciding to lunch late. An hour and fifteen minutes brought us to the vistas of point 3. You can do it by cable car but a hike has its satisfaction and there are numerous views along the way to stop and savour. The routes are not the best signposted and we might have been lost midway without Chloe. There were places where we hiked along narrow edges and thanked our stars that it was not raining on this day! Chloe had kindly bought a pomelo for us, a citrus fruit which looked like a giant grapefruit but is much sweeter and does not have the bitter aftertaste. She kept dishing it out to us at intervals to keep up our energy.
We had gone to the rice terraces knowing it would be just after harvest and the terraces are at their least impressive. However, even at their least they are still striking and I was glad that I had not missed it out of the itinerary.
We spent some time relaxing and having lunch at point 3. This turned out to be the point with the widest range of shops and food to choose from, so a good choice for lunch. We ordered chilli chicken. The next we knew, there was a fresh chicken being plucked and washed right before our eyes. Me and my daughter walked to the toilets and took time to walk back thinking it would be at least another 45 minutes to lunch. It was 20 minutes and my husband and Chloe had started on the steaming platters! We also had fragrant bamboo rice, flavoured with local fungus, washed down with ubiquitous diet coke!
After lunch we took a direct route to point 1 which is almost at the same altitude as point 3 and less strenuous than the morning hike. Chloe took directions from the lady in our restaurant who told her about the ‘local route’. We walked most part through bamboo forests and truly met not another single tourist on the way. Four local people, one of them a Yao minority woman, her hair elaborately piled above her forehead, confirmed that we were on the right path. A little over an hour and we were at a hotel near point 1. We then crossed a wobbly rope bridge and a few stairs down to point 1. The sky was already turning the deep gold of late afternoon. We could still see point 3 marked by the route of the cable car and could not believe how far we had walked over the mountains. It was time to make our way to the hostel.
It was all downhill from here and with a few enquiries; we located our hotel amongst the traditional wooden houses on stilts. We were shown to our room, very basic but nice enough for the price. Chloe bid us good bye for the evening with a plan to start off at 6 am the following morning.
With daylight hours still remaining we decided to walk around towards point 2. We made it up to the viewpoint named the moon and seven stars. With daylight fading we decided to head back to the hotel.
In the darkness a few lights had started dotting the mountainsides. Our hotel was graced by red lanterns. A dinner of chicken with peanuts and beef with vegetables and we were ready for bed.
A last comment on this day: if you time it right and can start just a little earlier than we did, you can hike points 1, 2 and 3 on the same day. You do however need a good guide.
An early start to the day as we checked out and started hiking towards point 2. The skies gradually turned rosy as we reached point 2. Less striking than points 1 and 3, but offers a different perspective. While 1 and 3 are at higher altitude looking down on the rice terraces, 2 is situated lower, looking up towards the rows.
It was now time to get to the car park. En route we bought breakfast of steamed cobs.
After breakfast, we settled in to drive to the airport which was 2 hours away. On the way Chloe pointed out more farming scenes- harvesting with a harvesting machine in various places, people tending to animals. On a way our driver helped us to buy a pomelo from one of the numerous stalls that lined the roads. He tasted several pieces before deciding on a choice one.
Soon it was time to say good bye to our charming guide Chloe. Lilly spoke to me over phone to make sure everything had been ok. We could not have asked for better.
Flight check in and the travel to Beijing was uneventful. We landed far from the fresh greenery of Guilin into a smog filled Beijing afternoon.
We took a taxi from the airport to Emperor Beijing Hotel near the Forbidden city. As various trip reports suggest, we were prepared with a printout in Chinese with the hotel name and address which we handed over to the taxi driver in the queue. Absolutely hassle free transport to the hotel. Paid by the taxi metre. Again no verbal communication at all, but no problems encountered.
We settled into the hotel, refreshed ourselves and then decided to go for a walk. We walked down to the Northern Gate of the Forbidden City. People were fishing in the moat and some even put down a rather large net. The towers near the moat were lit up throwing golden reflections into the still water of the moat.
We walked past the gates of Jingshan and Beihai parks to gauge the distance and the area. We then turned left towards Tiananmen square which was lit up brightly by the time we reached it. Passed by Mao’s memorial and then turned towards our hotel completing a full circuit. We had dinner on the way at a small local shop with the ubiquitous red tables and circular stools.
Really tired and ready for bed after all the walking.
We start with a late breakfast at 9 am. My daughter and husband go for hotel fare while I decide to try jianbing. We find a local stall with a small queue of locals, always a good sign. Delicious fare!
Our plan is to take the airport express from Dongzhmen station. We simply follow the map and walk. On the way we stroll into the ‘China show good museum’ which looked interesting. Basically a place selling some very expensive but quite intricate art pieces. Beijing life passes us by. There are small islands of green with benches to relax on the roads. The haze is still heavy but at least it is not raining.
We reach Dongzhmen station and after a few queries and wanderings realize that the airport express station is separate from the underground station. Tickets for 25 RMB each. We reach the airport with a fair bit of time to spare.
Really excited to see our parents arriving. This trip has been planned for so long and there have been a few health scares on the way. So relieved that they have finally arrived and the real ‘big family holiday’ is beginning.
We take two taxis from the taxi rank and reach Emperor Beijing- no problems.
After a home cooked lunch, carried all the way lovingly from India, our parents decide to rest for the evening before we embark on our rather packed tours from the day after. Our daughter decides to keep the grandparents company. My husband and I decide to visit Beihai and Jingshan parks.
We do Beihai Park first. It was a lively place that evening, not only teeming with local families but there was some kind of communal dancing with some ladies in colourful traditional costumes. Many visitors joined in. It was our first introduction to the azure, jade, red and gold woodwork which would mark the most of our architectural views of China. We also noted the intricate figurines which graced the upturned corners of roofs (children of the dragon, the more the number, the more royal the building, we were later to learn from Qing, our Beijing guide.) We walked the bridge across the lake that occupies the most of Beihai park and entered the island which holds most of the notable buildings and pavilions, climbing gradually to the white dagoba, the emblem of Beihai park. After we climbed down, we walked the length of the wooden corridor that leads up to Fangshan restaurant. It looked newly renovated and has panels of a variety of pictures, each different from the other, in every section. We then waited near the lakeside for daylight to fade and the lights come up. The dagoba sparkles ethereally but the bridge was not as well lighted as we had expected. We next walked to Jingshan Park.
The climb up to the top of Jingshan Park takes around 15-20 minutes. We were expecting the forbidden city to spread out below with a myriad of lighted buildings. Instead it was only the North Gate and the corner towers, with a vast vacuum of darkness within. However, the city of Beijing with its night lights was worth the climb.
We then walked back to the hotel and the entire family decided to go out to a nearby hotel. We found a clean one within yard of the Emperor Beijing which provided great ‘local style’ chicken, beef and fried rice. We could not finish off the portions and they were kind enough to pack up the rest which we could put into the fridges in our rooms.
8:30 am start. The day we see the Great wall of China! Qing was absolutely on time. The other pleasant surprise was the sparkling blue skies. I was beginning to think that the pollution was permanent feature of Beijing. Apparently a combination of factories closed over Saturday and a strong breeze on Sunday had cleared up the surroundings giving us the best day we could have chosen to see the Mutianyu Great wall. Qing told us that we were extremely lucky. Such days were unusual in Beijing.
She told us the history along the way to the Wall. An hour and a half and we had reached the spot. With such a day, crowds were to be expected (I wonder how it would be at Badaling!). Tickets, shuttle bus and a bit of a trek- we were near the cable car which took us the rest of the way and dropped us just outside the wall. Qing suggested that we take the advantage of the great day and do some trekking whilst she would remain with our parents. Again my daughter decided to give the grandparents company and my husband and I set out from near point 14 towards point 23, after deciding the meeting time down at the entrance.
The trek was invigorating and the scenery of autumn foliage on the mountains around striking. What we did not realize though was that there are points along the wall where the crowds can get so bad that you have to queue to get going in your direction. There are no official staff at any of these points which make it slightly chaotic and unregulated. Point 19 going uphill had a bottle neck. You then go on a steep section until you reach point 20, where climbing up was fine. We queued for 20 minutes to get down again. By then we were running out of time, so decided to get on our way down.
We met the rest of our family and Qing down near the entrance. Our parents seemed to have enjoyed themselves with a spot of shopping made more colourful with the bargaining. And then we were off towards the Summer Palace.
We had packed sandwiches on the way. We reached Summer Palace around 3:45 pm. Qing had told us the history of the palace on the way where the main character appeared to be the ‘Evil lady’- Empress Orchid. The palace has been burned down several times and rebuilt over and over.
Due to the last boat ride across the lake being at 5 pm, we were on a tight time schedule. Qing masterfully navigated us through the maze of courtyards with bronze statues and windows which looked into the imperial rooms decorated with intricate woodwork, porcelain and articles of daily use. We then raced through the corridor which took us to the place we would take the boat across the lake. We sailed across with the sun setting in the horizon, lighting up the lake in golden hues (‘something like what the evil lady would have done’ according to Qing).
Back in the car, we spoke to Qing about our plans for the next day and were helpfully informed that the Forbidden City is closed on Monday! (not even open up to 12:30 as my outdated guide book had informed me.) So change of plan, it would be Temple of Heaven tomorrow and Forbidden City on our last day in Beijing. Qing helpfully gave us bus numbers and routes and also suggested we ring her if there were any problems. On the way back we saw the ‘water cube’ and ‘the bird’s nest’ from a distance.
We topped off our packed food from the day before with a few more steaming dishes from the hotel down the road. It was time to pack as we would be checking out the next day.
We checked out straight after breakfast, completed all formalities, put our luggage in the storage room of the hotel and ordered 2 taxis to the Temple of Heaven which dropped us off at the North Gate.
We had reached Temple of Heaven early. I got the tickets without a problem or much of a queue. There was even a discount for my daughter when I showed her international student card. A map of the site for 10 RMB was well spent.
Early morning in the Temple of Heaven is a real delight. There were large groups doing martial arts, exercising, playing a Chinese version of badminton/tennis. Leading up the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a wooden corridor was packed with crowds which from a distance appeared to be a queue to get into the place. It was only when we got closer that we realized that it was a place for communal get together. There were groups of musicians, people playing board games and card games, and women knitting. It was a vibrant place difficult to tear away oneself from.
Ultimately we got on our way to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the main temple building on the site, the face of the Temple of Heaven complex, a striking wooden structure within a huge courtyard. The interior is decorated with dazzling colours with a dragon motif on the ceiling. The crowd presses in an unruly crowd around the circular wooden building to catch a glimpse of the hall inside.
We exited the courtyard and walked through the gardens towards the Echo wall and Imperial vault of Heaven. The last stop was the Altar of the Heaven, a marble structure in three tiers and blocks of multiples of nine. We exited through the South gate.
It was difficult getting a taxi to agree to take us to the hotel (the distance being too small), so we took a bus part of the way. Two private taxis approached us quoting 50 RMB each to take us to the hotel. With the train time to Datong coming near, we were happy enough haggling it down to 40 RMB each. (I suppose when you think in dollars or pounds, it does not seem like the end of the earth). We picked up our luggage and the hotel managed to get us taxis to the Beijing Railway station after negotiating an extra 10 RMB over and above the metred cost.
Then started one of the most exciting parts of our journey! Our two taxis dropped us off just opposite the station with no pedestrian crossing in sight. The only way to get to the station was through an overbridge (no lifts. China is not the most disabled friendly country in terms of facilities.) For a start the taxis had stopped a little distance from each other dropping us off at right angles to the same pavement with an island of vegetation in between which hid us from each other’s view though we were only yards apart. My husband and I set off to look for each other in the station area and managed after half an hour of panic. There was no way our parents could lug their luggage over the bridge, so we asked them to set off and wait for us at the end of the overbridge whilst we sorted the luggage. A cycle van driver offered to transport it all for 30 RMB. After piling it all high, the driver placed two pieces of cardboard on either side of him and signed that we should perch on them. So we did, my husband clinging on to the driver and me to him for dear life, as he navigated expertly through the busy traffic.
We had booked hard sleepers on K615 which reached Datong late at night. We had a MacDonald’s lunch as we waited at the waiting room and then queued with others when the time for boarding was announced. We were directed to our coaches and seats smoothly. An hour into the train journey and the scenery had changed to mountains and gorges until daylight faded away. We had a very friendly journey with some very curious co-passengers. One of them spoke good English and acted as interpreter.
Our next guide Nancy was waiting for us. Transported to the Holiday inn Datong city centre.
Nancy met us at 8:30 am and took us for breakfast to a nearby restaurant wehre we were treated to steaming pancakes, noodles and fried eggs.
We then headed out to the Hanging Monastery. The delicate wooden structure perches precariously on a cliff. It holds shrines to Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. It is not as difficult to climb as it looks on picture. The three sections take around an hour and a half to navigate and that is with plenty of time for photographs. There is a well-stocked shop on the lowest section selling local bronze art. Beautiful pieces, but be sure to bargain!
5 minutes drive away is Mt Heng one of China’s five main Taoist mountains. Hengzong temple is a half an hour trek up a series of stairs. The cable car was not working due to it being low season which was a shame. It was again my husband and I on the trek. Our parents and daughter decided to explore a new temple complex built on a lower level.
We did not go up to the highest point but concentrated on the complex maze of temples which dot this mountain. Colourful statues and detailed woodwork are abundant.
Next stop was the Wooden Pagoda in the old town of Yingxian, a beautiful wooden structure. The courtyard is also filled with some very interesting ‘antique shops’ which are worth browsing.
We returned to the Holiday Inn tired and satisfied. Dinner was at ‘Mr Li’ a Chinese version of KFC across the road. We ordered pointing at pictures, at a menu written entirely in Chinese! On the way and back we found some very energetic dancing classes on the streets. Considering how late it was the enthusiasm was admirable.
We are picked up by Nancy and taken for breakfast to Fenlinge Shaomai, a place which claims to have been on site for more than 500 years. The beautiful woodwork and posh ambience make it look costlier than it actually is. We ordered ‘flower dumplings’ and fried bread. The place was very busy even that early in the morning and we found a large table to seat us all downstairs. All tables have tea and bowls set on them already.
We set off for theYungang grottoes. On the way Nancy showed us an old coal mine settlement. The entrance is some distance away from the grottoes and was revamped in 2012 in preparation for the Olympics. So you have a row of Indian Elephant statues welcoming you towards the ticket office. Tickets bought, we headed towards electric cars which would drop us off at the entrance. From a distance Nancy pointed out to us an ancient section of the Great Wall which sits atop the grottoes. It was definitely less sophisticated, but a glimpse of a very different kind of Great Wall all the same.
There are 51 caves numbered from east to west in three clusters. Caves 1-5, 6-15 and 16-51. Caves 9-12 were closed for renovation.
Nancy started the tour with cave 5. She could not have chosen better for effect. We walk into the cave to be dwarfed by a 17m golden Buddha who looks down at you with tranquil benevolence. A few seconds to catch our breath and we looked around to grasp the detailed sculpture and colours. Cave 6 is another beauty. The walls depict the life of Buddha. Sadly photography is not allowed in these two spectacular caves. We then proceeded towards the open area which gives you a view of caves 16 to 20. These hold a number of huge Buddha statues, the most striking one being the 14 m high one in cave 20. Honeycombed patterns on the walls of a few of them, had small Buddhas carved into them so that the entire walls were covered with Buddhas.
Our parents then decided to have a rest and my daughter wanted an ice-cream. So my husband and I proceeded to the western caves numbered 21 onwards. These are smaller and less spectacular. One of them had a central pillar which was shaped like a pagoda and covered with Buddha figurines. We decided to give the museum a miss because of time and spend more on photographing the caves.
Nancy then took the three of us up to a complex of caves slightly higher than the others which have to be approached by stairs. The caves are plain but the view can be nice from above. The smaller caves were possibly monk dwellings which give a closer and personal feeling compared to the huge ones below.
We finished with caves 1-4. Cave 4 if I remember correctly, has another large Buddha. The others have traces of colour left on them.
The caves are built out of limestone which erodes easily and though it might have given the artisans more flexibility to detail, much of the work has been lost to the elements of nature. However, what remains is still awe inspiring. Efforts at conservation are on and though it might mean visitors missing a few caves every time they come, it also preserves this masterpiece for the future generations.
We finished around 12 and proceeded for lunch near the railway station. We opted for a KFC and also packed some food for the train since we would be reaching Pingyao late at night. Nancy escorted us right up to the waiting room and explained the complex boarding process again, though we were more comfortable with it second time round.
A few more things about Nancy:
She told us about people above 60 years and students getting discounts on entry tickets even though it was not evident on boards, advice which was useful for the journey ahead of us. She got us the best deal on tickets on all touristic sites.
She rang the Pingyao Yide hotel for us and arranged for the hotel to send an electric car to pick us up at midnight when we reached there.
She made us feel welcome with some small but well-chosen gifts- a book of red paper cut art and a red hanging decoration for good luck.
We boarded with no problems. I had booked a hard sleeper to Pingyao. We had dinner and slept a while. Reached Pingyao at midnight where the electric car was waiting for us as promised.
The lady at the hotel was waiting for us. She settled us into our rooms and made us comfortable. The passports and deposit could wait till the morning she told us. It was late and we must be tired, so she told us not to worry about formalities and bid us good night.
Our rooms were charmingly old fashioned with high beds and heavy wooden furniture. The doors opened into stone paved courtyards that would be familiar sight by the end of the day. I completed the paperwork at the desk and we had breakfast at the hotel restaurant in absolutely charming surroundings. We decided to place our order and fix a time for dinner before we left with a road map and advice from the very helpful lady at the desk.
First stop was the Ancient government building where there is a ticket office. My husband, daughter and I needed tickets. Our parents got a sticker on their passports for free. A number of buildings are covered by the tickets but after a while it can get a bit monotonous. We covered Ri Sheng Chang (old bank), wei tai Hou draft bank, Tian Ji Xiang Museum, the ancient city building and the Cheng Huang Temple. The roads of Pingyao with a line of colourful shops can be just as arresting as the temples. This is a place to stroll and absorb the atmosphere.
We returned for a rest and dinner around 5 pm. The hotel was ok for us to just sit in the restaurant and have coffee until dinner time. We had chicken with peanuts and lamb with spinach and boiled rice.
The hotel ordered another electric car to take us to the railway station. We crossed the city walls and bid the charming old city good bye.
Boarding in Pingyao was a little different. The gates opened only 15 minutes before the train was due, but we were guided by officials and queued up exactly where the coaches would stand. It was soft sleeper this time. Back to Beijing.
Reached Beijing at 6:22 am. This time taking a taxi from the taxi rank is not so smooth. The taxis show clear dissatisfaction at having to go to a place within close distance. (Springs Valley hotel on Xingfu Street). The men regulating the taxi ranks put their foot down and insist they take us, so off we set in two taxis. The taxi I was in with my father-in-law and daughter stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere and indicated that he had reached the spot and waved in aimlessly towards an indefinite point suggesting our hotel was there. I made in clear that we were not getting down and pointed to a signboard right ahead with said ‘Xingfu street’ in English. It was another 10 minute drive straight ahead before we reached the hotel and I paid him by the metre which was around 20 RMB. My husband had reached before us with rest of the family and said that though their taxi had come straight to the hotel with no confusion, the driver had not put on the metre and insisted on 30 RMB.
The Springs Valley booking page clearly said check in at 6 AM. Though unusual it had been a point in hotel selection since we were reaching Beijing that early. I lost my temper with the girl at the desk until she reminded me that she did not write the webpage and they were told check in at 2 PM. Not the most professional start.
However, they managed to get us into one room in half an hour where we could at least relax and have some beverages. My husband and I went breakfast shopping and came across a stall in front of a fairly large restaurant which looked like it was run by the hotel staff. (This would turn out to be Bian-Yi-Fang, where we went for dinner). Again with no verbal communication, pointing at dishes and showing the numbers with fingers we bought pork buns. From a nearby general store we bought some cakes and fruity buns. After breakfast the next two rooms came within the hour.
It was around 9 AM that we were able to leave freshly showered, fed and watered, for Forbidden City. The hotel was helpful in getting taxis and directed them to go to the East Gate of the Forbidden City. We got electric cars for 2 RMB per person which drop you off at the Southern Gate (Wumen), the only entrance, though you can exit through any gate.
Whilst waiting to get our bearings, we saw some soldiers marching past which caused a rush and diversion with everyone furiously clicking cameras. Then off I went to get tickets. Though the crowds are huge, there are numerous ticket counters. So I was at one within 2 minutes of queuing. Taking Nancy’s direction, I checked for discounts for elderly people and students. My husband and I were the only ones who paid the full price of 60 RMB each; with the passports of our parents in hand- their tickets came up to 30 RMB each; my daughter’s student card got her a ticket for 20 RMB. The pricelists put up at the counters are mostly mandarin and give no indication of these discounts. They only state the adult price and the child price is for children less than a certain height (which my daughter is not, she’s taller than me). I would have paid a lot more for the tickets if I had not asked with the passports and student card. So thanks a million Nancy.
Armed with a ‘Rough Guide to China’, we made our way through this amazing architectural maze. Most of the main structures are in a straight line running North-South between the Northern and Southern gates. You navigate your way through the eastern and western complex of palaces at your own choice. Though we spent around 5 hours within the complex, with plenty of stops and at a slow pace, you could easily spend the same and much more even with a faster pace.
We first came across the Jinshui He (the Golden Water stream) which runs east to west, with 5 parallel marble bridges cutting across it. A vast courtyard brings you to a large ceremonial gate the Taihemen or Gate of Supreme Harmony.
You cross this into a larger courtyard which holds three halls Taihedian, Zhonghedian and Baohedian- the halls of supreme harmony, middle harmony and preserving harmony respectively. The first one was for the grandest state occasions like imperial birthdays, coronations etc. The second one was for the Emperor to greet foreigners and his children. The third one was for state banquets. They have a similar layout but expectedly Taihedian is the grandest. The queue for glimpsing the golden throne that sits in its hall was crushing. The other halls have grand thrones which will make lovely photographs and the queue was less pressing.
You then leave the complex of ceremonial halls to enter the imperial living quarters. These again have three quarters of reducing grandeur one after the other- the Quanquinggong, the Jiaotaidian and the Kunninggong. The first one is the Palace of Heavenly purity which held the imperial bedroom in the past, the second one hall of Union holds the Empress’s throne room and the last one Palace of earthly tranquillity was where the emperor and empress spent their wedding night. It has a room painted entirely in red with rich fabric and intricate woodwork.
We had reached the gates of the Imperial garden and our parents decided they had seen enough and wanted a longer rest. We left them to browse the souvenir shops and have a meal while my husband, daughter and I decided to see more and said that we would be back in another two hours.
We first did the West palaces which hold the Yangxindian, the palace of Mind Nurture, the most decorative one. These palaces were where the royal family in effect spent most of their time. They do not have the scale of the main buildings in the central line of the Forbidden City but hold a charm of their own all the same. The buildings typically open into a courtyard with several rooms you can peer into through glass to get a glimpse of the heavy furniture and articles of use. I found them very reminiscent of the Summer Palace. A common decoration at the entrance of several complexes were two golden lions placed on either side of the entrance, one with a cub under his foot whilst another holds a golden ball. A large pair guards the entrance to the main complex of imperial living quarter, several smaller pairs are found on the eastern and western palace complexes.
We then came to the Treasure Gallery and Nice Dragon Screen. You pay an extra 10 RMB for entrance but it is worth it. The display is like a museum which puts up gold, pearl, jade and other precious items of imperial use. The workmanship is intricate.
We made our way back to the Imperial Garden and found our parents. It was time to make an exit.
We walked along the line of the moat till we came to the bus stop for bus number 2 which dropped us off at Tiananmen Square. We saw the flag downing ceremony and waited for the lights to come up. Our parents were understandably tired by now so we did not walk around Tiananmen square much. A few photographs of the area lighted up and a last family picture in front of the huge picture of Chairman Mao. It was time to get a taxi.
We had to walk quite a while before we could persuade two taxis. But we eventually reached the hotel around 6:45 pm.
Our last dinner in China was at Bian Yi Fang on Xingfu street near Red Theatre, across the street from our hotel. Peking roast duck, what could be a better ending?
Time to go home. Our flight to UK is at 11:30, our parents’ at 16:20. We bid good bye in the morning and take a taxi from the street (the taxi Springs Valley had ordered had not arrived almost 20 minutes after we were expecting it and we decided we did not want to wait any longer). As I say ‘airport’, I meet a blank stare- I flap my hands like a bird and signal 3 with my fingers. He gestures us to hop in, no problems.
The remaining RMBs are spent on some last minute shopping for souvenirs. We fly off with some very sweet memories. Later on that night we confirm that our parents have reached home safely as well (their taxis ordered by the hotel were fine). The trip is over.
Sri Lanka- 2017
This was the big family trip- husband, 15 year old daughter and me- from Leicester; joined by parents (grandparents) from both sides flying in from Kolkata. Seven strong and ranging from 76 to 15 and three generations, months of emails, phone calls and internet searches and here we were once more in a new country. However, after China in 2014 we were ready to take on more!
Some basics- We flew Oman Air, Heathrow to Colombo via Muscat. The seniors flew Air India, from Kolkata to Colombo via Delhi. The trip in Sri Lanka was organized with Blue Lanka tours, chosen for their TripAdvisor reviews (never been disappointed by my Tripadvisor choices in the past). I did however organize accommodation and meals myself. Blue Lanka would provide the vehicle for transfer, guide, site entries and the activities I had requested.
The reason for choosing accommodation myself was because I preferred homestays and guesthouses. Given a previous experience in a different country, I loved the flavour of local hospitality which was so different from a hotel. Blue Lanka Tours did only hotels, understandable, because homestays are not everyone’s cup of tea. Also for meals I am sure they would choose good quality, but I somehow preferred the local and cheap. Besides we are not great eaters and one heavy meal a day sometimes leads to skipping another. Hence we decided to be flexible with meals. Accommodations frequently come with their breakfasts and choices of dinner.
I had no problems choosing from a wide range of homestays on many popular websites. Very reasonably priced (if you are not wanting luxury, five star, swimming pools etc). Also realized once we were in Sri Lanka that the country is gearing up for tourism at every level. Anyone with a property or a couple of bedrooms to spare were taking in guests and most of the hosts were great people to get on with.
For food in general- look out for ‘roti shops’, ‘fried rice’ stalls and local cuisine. The big buffets with lots of tourists are good but extravagantly priced compared to what you can have for a fraction.
Day 1 (Sunday)- we reached Colombo airport in good time and were in our first guest house by 6 am. Our Blue Lanka guide Dilshen and driver Amilan informed us that our parents were safe and rested in the first of our series of guesthouses Nature’s Bliss Holidays. A large spread property with cool tiled floors, heavy wooden furniture and a grand chandelier that held a tiny bird’s nest with two closely nestling chicks- I was more than satisfied with my choice. The area was residential with plentiful trees, birdsong and air fragranced with tropical flowers. It felt like home. The property is around half an hour drive from the airport, in the Ragama area. So I booked this for our first and last nights in Sri Lanka, for convenience. It is a very well maintained property with an attentive housekeeper who cooks brilliant meals.
The host Nishan was on the phone checking that things were okay. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had actually booked another property and had been upgraded to this one because it happened to be available. Nishan let the three of us rest and freshen up in our parents’ rooms with no extra charge. The housekeeper Rowan kept checking that we had all we needed.
Breakfast was a great spread of noodles, thick rotis and pancakes with lentils and eggs. Filled to the brim we hit the road for the five hour journey to Polonaruwa.
On the road we saw huge Buddha statues and lush greenery over fields, palm trees and low lying hills- the quintessential Sri Lankan scenery that was to stay with us for most of the trip. Our first toilet stop was near a small café. A snake charmer was displaying a cobra and a cute monkey. One for cuddles and the other for distant admiration- no prizes for guessing.
We stopped for lunch at a buffet with lots of vegetables and chicken curry with coconut milk. For 800 rupees it was good, but Sri Lanka can offer a number of cheaper choices if you look out.
5 hours after we had started, we were in the ancient city of Polonaruwa. Joined by a site guide, we went through a museum which gave us an overview of what had been the second capital for ancient Sri Lankan royalty. There were a few statues and ancient objects. There were models of many of the ruins as they would have stood hundreds of years ago.
Outside we boarded our minibus again which stopped in turn at the Inner city, Outer city and Northern city. The area is over a huge spread. Walking from one end to the other would probably take an entire long day, cycling may be an option. With the elderly grans- we had the excuse of taking the easy option!
The history of Polonaruwa I suppose is the old history of human ambition and greed. Twelve kings over two centuries had ruled; three had left their mark. Intrigue, assassination and pride had led to bloodshed and a number of monuments. Even time, erosion and a number of malevolent fires could not hide the grand scale of the old city. It was not difficult to visualise how it might all have looked in the 11th century.
A palace has only two lower storeys of bricks that survived a fire that destroyed the upper five storeys of woodwork. The council house has a corridor lined by eight pillars on each side that once seated a king with his sixteen ministers or a judge with a jury.
Then on to Sigiriya and our first sight of the Sigiriya Lion Rock. After a few enquiries we found our guest house- Village Guest Sigiriya. Niluka made us feel welcome and we saw Sahani, a tiny girl, who had been doing the correspondence.
This is a family home with three en-suite rooms for rent. Meals are laid out in a large dining area. The decor is homely and warm, with bright colours and heavy wooden furniture. Family photographs line the cupboards and cabinets.There is a garden and fields around the property. Early in the morning we would hear peacocks crying out. It is walking distance from Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress and from the tiny town centre with a number of eateries. The home cooked breakfast and dinners were authentic Sri Lankan. The host family were always nearby to make us comfortable and help us out with arrangements. They have other family nearby who can provide a car, driver and other rooms- all in all a very cosy atmosphere. The family living on site made it feel like a proper homestay.
There was confusion with our booking though. We had booked 3 rooms and there were only two available. The hosts made every effort to sort it out, by giving us a bigger room with five beds and we were not inconvenienced. It is a lovely place and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Many thanks to Niluka.
I sat down with Dilshen to plan the next day which would be complicated as the three of us had a different itinerary to our parents. However, Niluka helped by organizing the extra car that would take the three of us while the minibus took our parents with Dilshen and Amilan.
My husband and I then walked to the neighbouring centre which had lots of eateries and got some ‘devilled chicken’ to go with rice and potato curry. It was a fifteen minute walk and a bit in the dark. But with torches we were fine and faced no trouble.
Day 2(Monday) - We had a day to ourselves in the big family trip to Sri Lanka. Hubby, teenage daughter and I were going to do some hectic sightseeing while the 60 and 70 plus grandparents were sent off safely with the tour guide to explore Anuradhapuram. The three of us had seen Sigiriya Lion Rock fortress with its manicured gardens, painted maidens and the entrance guarded by massive lion paws which gave a hint of the cavernous jaws that would have once been on the gate. Dambulla caves were a magnificent set of five, deceptively hidden behind a modest whitewashed facade that disguised the huge halls behind it. Lined by dozens of Buddhas of every size and posture, walls decorated with intricate paintings, their colours glowing and vibrant; we emerged into the courtyard, into the bright sun rather dazed.
We left the seniors to make their relaxed start to Anuradhapuram while the three of us left for Sigiriya Lion Rock around 8 am. Niluca had cooked thick coconut rotis and lentils. Thick slices of pineapple completed our breakfast table. Niluca’s brother arrived with a small car to take us to the site.
We met our site guide, Karu who took us through the water gardens, fountain gardens and terraced gardens. Then we took the spiral stairs up to the painted damsels, then past the mirror wall to the wide landing with lions paws guarding the entrance that once upon a time went through the open mouth of a lion. Up on the top we had grand views and tried to imagine with the ruined ramparts what this might have looked like in ancient times. Swimming pools, thrones, a stage for dancers completed the picture of luxury.
Next on to Dambulla caves. Bit of walk to the ticket office but glad at the entrance. There were people turning up with no tickets and being sent off for a long walk. Our site guide Ranaveera took us to the 5 caves which are now covered by a white corridor which deceptively hides the vast halls within.
On the way back we bought two boxes for fried rice for 100 rupees each which came with omelette and pickles. There are road side stalls which advertise ‘fried rice’ and our driver told us that they are very popular. Not surprising considering the large portions and very reasonable price.
After a nap my husband and daughter decided they had had enough for the day. Sadly, I did not manage to nudge them from their siesta after the walks on Sigiriya and Dambulla. Telling them that I would return after sunset I set off by myself around 4:30 pm. I decided to make it to Pidurangala rock for the sunset that I had read so much about. Watching Sigiriya rock at sunset from Pidurangala rock, just opposite it was on my to-do list. What followed was quite a story.
The van with our parents and the guide was returning when I was walking towards the rock. My mom exclaimed that I was a ‘bit crazy’, with my itinerary. But ah well…!
I met a tuk tuk, three wheeled vehicles that form local transport, who offered to take me to the rock for 300 SLR and I decided to take the offer. I was glad, as the distance looked more than I had estimated, went through some rather lonely forested areas but by 5 pm I was at the ticket counter. I met another lone lady who I tried to persuade to accompany me, but she had to get the bus to Dambulla by 6 pm. So lonely again, I started off on the stairs.
‘You should take a guide’, suggested the man behind the ticket counter. I was standing by myself, facing the monastery and stairs that lead to the top of Pidurangala rock in Sigiriya village in Sri Lanka. The hopeful guide was lounging nearby, casting glances in my direction- his body language torn between eagerness and a show of indifference. It was around 5 pm and sunset would be at 6:20 pm. ‘It gets dark very soon and it is easy to get lost,’ insisted the ticket man. ‘How much?’ I asked guide hopeful tentatively. ‘1000 SLR’, he said. ‘Forget it!’ I answered and pocketed my entry ticket for 500 SLR and an information leaflet, before striding off to the climb.
The stairs were straightforward and well-marked. Wherever there were forks, red arrows pointed out the way to take. In 20 minutes I had reached the Sleeping Buddha which is almost near the top. Expansive views of the forests of Minneriya and Sigiriya stretched before me. A few photographs and now it was time to tackle the scramble which I had read about.
I was hardly lonely now. Joined by at least another 6-7 people-a family and a group of friends, we embarked on the last 5 minutes of the hike on irregular rocks which needed all fours. Skirting around the head end of the Buddha, the outline of the top of Pidurangala was well visible. I was glad of the company and the help. Some push from behind and a hand ahead, I was finally on the top of the rock which was a flat expanse opening out to 360 degree views of greenery. Sigiriya of the morning rose from within the green in a blaze of orange highlighted by the low sun. It was around 5:30 pm.
Photographs, strolling around and listening to a variety of tongues from the at least 50-60 people who had congregated up there, it was finally time to settle down to a spot to enjoy the sun going down. It was my ‘me time’ in Sri Lanka. Watching the landscape, watching the colours, watching the birds fly home.
Just as the sun sank out of sight, a queue had formed to descend. The pace was automatically slow and easy. It did get dark, but with the crowds there was no way to feel unsafe or get lost. My little torch though was useful on the steps.
I made friends with two Croatian ladies Anna and Angelina who shared a tuk tuk back with me to town. We had a drink and a chat together before I started off towards our guesthouse on the road I had taken with my husband the evening before.
As I approached the narrow lane which led to our guest house, I could see our van emerging on to the road. ‘Oh God, the search party,’ I groaned inwardly, knowing my mother for over four decades. I ran up to meet our pale faced guide to assure him that I was back and safe. ‘You better go talk to your mum…..’ he let the rest trail off in the air.
Day 3 (Tuesday) – After more coconut rotis, we hit the road for Kandy. En route we stopped at a gem factory and a wooden crafts factory- both eminently skippable and touristy. To be fair our guide and driver did not encourage us to go at all but my mom wanted to have a look (she looked eminently recovered and I decided to humour her). We did buy some things at the wooden crafts place but we could have got them much cheaper elsewhere (there was a makeshift shack near shops in Mirissa along the road to the city centre) and even at the airport! However they will give you a show about ‘natural colours’ and ‘chemical colours’ and how the former is more long-lasting. We later bought another mask at the airport to spend our last amounts of currency. I have both masks put up side by side- time will tell which colours last longer!
Around 1 pm we were joined by our local guide at the Temple of Tooth. The tour takes less than an hour. Grand as the place is, it is more the significance of the relic and what the place holds and signifies that brings the impact.
Lunch was at a very unadventurous Pizza Hut. My father was tired and we took the nearest option. Around 4 pm Dilshen picked us up and our minibus skirted around the lake to reach the cultural centre where we would be entertained by a two hour long Kandyan dance and drum show. We took seats right at the back row but it was a good thing! We could stand on our chairs for an unobstructed view and some great videos. The middle rows are the worst- you have rows of people ahead of you and you cannot stand up!
It was pouring as the show finished and we reached our accommodation Heavens Holiday Resort in the dark. An excellent property in newly refurbished condition, slightly away from Kandy but not far from attractions. It is attractively placed within greenery and the rooms sparkle with newness. The home cooked meals were sumptuous and traditional. The hosts were friendly and looked to our needs attentively. Slightly on the more expensive side of our range of homestays though. Business seems to be booming as the house was going through extensions and renovations to accommodate more en suite rooms.
Dinner was a great spread of vegetables and spicy chicken.
Day 4 (Wednesday) - I decided to take a morning stroll outside our guesthouse. There were green fields and high mountains in the background and a narrow road that seemed to lead into a village. Back to the guesthouse, my mother-in-law insisted we take the steps to the flat roof which showed us the spread of greenery around. We were truly away from the city. Birdsong was a constant in all the places we had stayed and I was beginning to feel pretty smug about my choices in accommodation.
Back in the minibus we took the road to Nuwara Eliya, the tea country. It was clear that we were gaining altitude and the surroundings seemed greener (if that was possible in Sri Lanka!)
Around an hour and a half later we stopped at the Glenloch tea factory. A staff member took us around the various rooms explaining the process that tea leaves went through. Heady fragrance permeates the rooms, especially where the fermentation takes place. Back to the sunlight, we were offered cups of free tea of various flavours ranging from delicate to strong. A tea shop adjacent to the place where tea is served no doubt makes brisk business which keeps the free cups of tea flowing.
We stopped at Ramboda Waterfalls for a few minutes before taking the road again. Vendors were selling piles of fresh vegetables along multiple points on the road which bore testimony to the fertility and healthiness of the region.
I had set my heart on having lunch at the Heritance Tea Factory. Now this is not a factory any more but a very luxurious and pretty expensive hotel. Costs aside, the location which is at least 40 minutes from the town centre, made it inconvenient for an early start for Hortons plains the next morning. However, lunch was eminently doable.
We winded through the town centre where Dilshen pointed out the old post office and colonial building which buy Nuwara Eliya the title of ‘Little England’, and then we entered a narrow mountain road which spiralled its way towards Heritance Tea Factory. It was almost 2:30 pm when we reached the place. A silence away from the town centre is made magic by the swirling clouds which wind through miles of tea plantations where women with baskets on their heads were picking the leaves.
The staff at Kenmare restaurant were courteous and the manager offered us the buffet at a reasonable price with dessert added. We had a long table near the window through which we could glimpse Dining On Wheel’s Heritance Tea Factory’s railway carriage restaurant which provides an exclusive dinner service.
After lunch we were allowed to stroll through the ground floor and basement which still holds old equipment which has been tastefully incorporated into the unique décor of this hotel. Old photographs line the corridor in the basement that leads into the spa. Definitely the place to stay in if you have the time and the urge to splurge.
We now set off for our accommodation in Nuwara Eliya- Nidwalden Resort which turned out to be one of our best experiences of Sri Lanka. The house is perched amidst lush greenery, yet hardly minutes from the city centre. The host and hostess are friendly and go out of their way to make this a great homestay. The food is great and you can get South Indian as well as Sri Lankan, made to your spice heat tolerance level. The rooms have a colonial flavour and style. A TV plays in the front room with guests free to make their choices.
We spent a relaxed evening, looking at pics, me making notes whilst chatting to our host in the front room and going through our memories so far into the trip. Dinner was served on heavy wooden tables with our hosts making us feel like house guests rather than tourists. The yoghurt with local jaggery makes great dessert!
Day 5 (Thursday) - Early morning start again for the three of us as we hit the road at 6 am with packed breakfasts, destination-Horton’s plains to hike up to the World’s end. It was around an hour from Nuwara Eliya, spiralling up a mountain with great views which excelled with every turn in height.
The ticket lines and the checking of bags (no plastics allowed. They even strip the bottles of plastic wrappings) before you start the hike, take some time and we started the hike properly around 8 am. The hike can take anything between 3-5 hours. Having seen our pace in the past five days, Dilshen’s estimate for us was around 3 hours and he was not wrong!
We walked through a well maintained dirt rocky road which comes to a fork where you have a choice- circle so that you do Baker’s falls first or start such that you do World’s end first. Dilshen’s suggestion was Baker’s falls first- this is the easier way, counter clockwise. There is a steep section near Baker’s falls which you would rather do downhill compared to uphill.
We saw Samber deer in the park, a bright green lizard and some monkeys.
Baker’s falls was around 25 minutes from the fork. We stopped around 9 am for breakfast. It was around 9:20 am when we reached World’s end and sighed with relief to see a clear view. Later towards the afternoon, the famous point is covered with a hazy mist which makes the walk a bit pointless. The view point was pretty crowded and people tend to cluster in the edge where photographs take the classic picture. I had one of my boots hanging off the edge, sheer 300 feet of cliff with roads and a ‘toy village’ at the bottom.
Another half an hour and we were at ‘Little World’s End’ which is lower in altitude but the views are just as great. You can walk up a little higher than where the sign board is placed and get a view of ‘World’s end’ with its crowds from afar.
By 11:15 am we were back at the fork. It is a leisurely walk, not difficult at all but a long one. Good walking shoes and plenty of water is a must. The views at World’s End are a crowning glory but the park itself on a beautiful day is like a painting. We were blessed with bright blue skies and the grass was glowing golden and green. The rocks at some places are multi-coloured. It is a beautiful place and worth exploring if you like walking. There are no motorable alternatives within the park.
On the way back we saw a large family of monkeys on the road. We also had a clear view of Adam’s peak.
Back at Nuwara Eliya, we picked up our parents who had loved their Dosa breakfast and had a long chat with the host and hostess. After goodbyes to our hosts we had a short stop at the city centre to exchange money (the gold shops gave us a better rate than the airport!) and have lunch. We found a place selling fried rice which we wanted to try again and were not disappointed. There is a prominent complex within the city centre that houses both jewellery shops and a number of eateries.
Another three hours on the road and it was around 6 pm that we reached Udawalawe. We had stopped shortly near Rawana Water Falls. Nothing greatly spectacular but it had a pool at the bottom where some people seemed to be having a great time.
On the road between Nuwara Eliya and Udawalawe, we also had views of Piduratalagala, the second highest peak in Sri Lanka. We also passed through Ella, a quaint tea plantation town, much like Nuwara Eliya and possibly more popular. (The train journey from Kandy to Ella is supposed to be greatly scenic if you can fit this in, we just could not, our logistics did not allow)
Now other than the slight blip at Sigiriya, all my accommodation bookings were going fine till this point! Dilshen rang the contact number on my booking confirmation, to be told that the place no longer existed and that the person answering was an ex-employee who was willing to arrange another place for us for the same price. Utterly suspicious, I insisted we go to the address and check and truly there was no such property as ‘Big House Udawalawe’. We asked the taxi and tuk tuk drivers around and were told that the place closed three months ago. (Yet the last email I had received asking whether I wanted to book a safari through them was six weeks ago!). The tuk tuk drivers further volunteered that plenty of tourists had been in the same situation and had reported the matter to the police. By this time the contact number we had, had gone into voicemail. Deciding to put it to the back of my mind and deal with Booking.com later, I turned to Dilshen for help. Dilshen spoke to an acquaintance who opened up a bungalow that he was preparing for guests but which had not yet gone online. I might as well mention here that ‘Udawalawe Big House’ did try to charge my card for no show later on, but Booking.Com dealt with the matter swiftly and efficiently on a phone call.
Our accommodation in Udawalawe was a traditional house, much like the one we had in Sigiriya but with a more modern décor. The bathrooms had been clearly newly done up. A long verandah in the front and a vegetable garden added to the atmosphere.
We had dinner in a circular thatched room just outside the verandah. The staff were attentive to their sudden surprise guests and we felt very welcome.
Day 6(Friday)- An early morning Jeep Safari at Udawalawe National Park was the highlight of the day. Two jeeps arrived to pick us up and take us to the park entrance where there was a considerable queue. It was just after 7 am that we started our safari in earnest. It is a beautiful park with lush greenery. The sun was just rising above the trees as we started off, the skies turning pink and delicate orange.
We saw plenty of elephants, some deer and a variety of birds including eagles; a couple of monitor lizards (iguana), crocodiles and buffalo. Peacocks can put up a colourful dance show, their rainbow feathers in full display. A cheeky monkey was perched on a jeep in a place where we were allowed to disembark in the park. It looked perturbed by its reflection in the glass and put up some battle show, baring its teeth and challenging the perceived intruder, which was very amusing!
We returned to breakfast and then set out for Mirissa around 10ish in the morning. We arrived around lunch time, three hours later and first checked into Rainbow Guest House-A very reasonably priced guest house with good home cooked food and close to all that Mirissa has to offer. There is no lift and there are rooms on the first and second floors, so be careful if you have heavy luggage or knee problems.
The city centre where most of the restaurants are located are hardly a 10 minute walk away, but with our elderly parents, Dilshen and Amilen were kind enough to give us a lift with the minibus. We found a modest looking roti shop around the corner with a mixed crowd of tourists and locals. We had a hearty lunch of stuffed rotis to our choice and some kotu rothy before we returned to the guest house.
Evening was a relaxed couple of hours on the beach where we watched sunset and ate ice creams. We took a takeaway from the roti shop for dinner as we liked it so much.
Day 7(Saturday) - My parents decided to give the early morning a miss. So we left them to a traditional relaxed breakfast at the guest house while the five of us took the early morning cruise from Mirissa to do whale watching with Mirissa Water Sports (I later realized that I had planned four mornings consecutively with very little sleep involved!) A total of five hours from port to port, it was definitely more water than animals. Not having done whale watching before, I was enthralled to see the great creature, spraying tall columns of water into the air, before diving into depths with a flick of the tail. With the speed of happenings and the sway of the boat, pictures can be tricky but I managed one video which showed the tail of a blue whale.
We saw bright whales, blue whales, some dolphins and toward the end a whale shark which displayed its sharp golden spotted fin. Thankfully none of us were sea sick!
The pattern would be swaying in the sun, until we were almost dozing and then a call would ring out, something like ‘one o’ clock!’ Then by the time, we woke up and clambered to the railing, the shouts would go ‘Nine o clock, now twelve o clock, now three o clock!’ …..and so on.
It was lunch time by the time we were back. Our minibus picked us up and directly hit the road. My parents had come directly with our packed bags from Rainbow guest house.
We had lunch at a small local shop, which tried to hand us an extravagant bill which ultimately turned out to be one-third after I persisted with asking for the breakdown details.
We had a short stop at Galle and a quick stroll on the fort which also has views over the local cricket stadium. I later wondered whether it would have been better to skip the whale watching and spend the day in Galle…….but ah well, one trip is never enough for one country.
Back to Colombo and then to Ragama, we had reached the apartment of our first night. Where had the week flown? The owner Nishan came to visit us on our last evening. He is friendly attentive.
Day 8 (Sunday) - Due to ongoing work at the airport we had to be there 5 hours in advance. It was only after a few hours of sleep that we left but it took less than half an hour to reach the airport. Shops and money exchanges were all open even at that early hour.
At the airport we parted after lots of family hugs and great memories, until we meet for another adventure in July 2017.
PS: There was no big family adventure in July 2017. My parents could not join us for the Bastar trip as my father was already poorly. He passed away in August 2017, six months after the Sri Lanka visit.