Sunday evening 26 July

In no particular order

I cannot describe the frustration and disappointment of the last few days – and it is with a growing sense of relief that I leave Wuhan tomorrow. I’ve booked a flight to Jiuzhai Gou in Sichuan province, a World Heritage nature site, designated for its “dense forest, green meadows, rivers, rapids, ribbon lakes in various shades of blue and green chalky shoals and waterfalls of every kind – long and narrow, short and wide, terraced, rushing, and cascading.”  Frommer’s China.

Which all sounds fantastic as a nature reserve, but this one is accessible. It has five designated scenic areas which run along a 36-mile,Y-shaped route, with over 200 shuttle buses travelling between 7am and 6pm. You can hop on and off at bus stops along the way, and there are wooden plank or stone paths on the opposite side of the lakes away from the main bus routes. The temperature is cooler, and I just hope that the meadows will contain some flowering species. Nearly everything in Hubei seems to have finished flowering – and given the heat, I’m not surprised!

And although the daily entrance to Jiuzhai Gou isn’t cheap at the equivalent of 22 pounds a day (nor are reasonable hotels there inexpensive – I consider “reasonable” as one that I would like to go back to for a shower during the day, rather than dread) it’s got to beat the daily expense, travel and accommodation costs of a guide who was really a bit out of his comfort zone and lacked the experience and imagination to be able to work around the problems we encountered.

It’s interesting how, when there’s a financial deal and people start to get unsatisfied for whatever reason, money becomes a critical issue. Food is another. And what with travelling long hours and covering great distances over the last two days, it was very difficult to eat regularly, or even well. The two things combined made a difficult situation unbearable, culminating in a sullen and petulant travelling companion – who I believe felt taken advantage of despite agreeing a daily rate prior to leaving – and who abandoned me at the bus station in Wuhan at midnight, disappearing off home in a taxi. And to think I was even going to offer to pay for his!

Fortunately my copy of Frommer’s saved the day and after a conference of Taxi drivers, I eventually arrived at the Hotel Ibis Wuhan about 25 minutes later. The first hotel I’ve stayed in where they understand a certain amount of English at reception, and at ¥158 a night a god send. The rooms remind me of University campus rooms – a bed, corner wardrobe, “pod” bathroom, chair and shelf-desk. Oh, and the obligatory TV and kettle. You always boil water for drinking in China, and it is very often served hot.

It was also a huge relief to be able to have something I recognised for breakfast – there was coffee, which I’d previously paid exorbitant prices for, toast, cereal and boiled eggs. Then the usual dumplings and fitters and things like that. It’s taking a while for my stomach to settle down – I think it was quite alarmed at some of the spices it encountered in the first few days – and it’s good comfort food when things aren’t going too well.

So today has been a day to re-grouping and implement another Plan B. Hence the flight to Jiuzhai Gou.

Of course making the decision is one thing. Booking the flight quite another. CITS is the China International Travel Service, and I took a taxi to the office mentioned in the Travel Guide. Or at least I thought I had. It did look considerably smaller than I thought it should, but it’s easy to get disorientated in a foreign country where things are done so very differently.

After nearly two hours of trying to explain that all I wanted was a flight to Jiuzhai Gou (or the airport at Jiuhuang just northeast of the site) and “discussing” different flight times (the chap had extremely limited English and was really new at his job so didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and his experienced colleague didn’t speak any English at all), realising I had to get a connecting flight, and insisting that I didn’t want a hotel or a guide, he looked at me quite perplexed and finally asked me why I was going there. When I explained that I only wanted to paint, and asked why was it so difficult just to buy an airline ticket, he revealed that their Agency couldn’t just book airline tickets – they only dealt with packages.

It was now nearly 3pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch. But I’d noticed another CITS travel office nearby so asked straight out if they could book flights. No, she said, but she could show me someone who could, about 20m down the road. The young girl had studied English as her major and with her help I was finally able to book my flight. It took three of them to do it – this was only the second flight they’d booked in about six months and the hyphen in my last name caused quite a few problems until they eventually ignored it – but another hour and a half later I waked away with my tickets. And the young girl gave me her left-over Kentucky Fried Chicken lunch before I passed out from hunger! The kindness of strangers…

Then it was a 2 ½ hour round trip back to the Botanical Gardens where I’d left some of my luggage and finally the Hotel for a welcoming Heineken and shower – definitely in that order!

Jumping Back to Muyuping, Badong and The Three Gorges

While the visit to the Shennongjia Nature Reserve was extremely disappointing due to the appalling weather, the bus ride from Muyuping to Badong almost early made up for it. It was spectacular scenery, winding up the sides of these mainly forested karst-like mountains, their form reminiscent of squishing mud between your fingers. I took far too many photos through the window, and will probably keep just one or two to remind me of the scenery – choosing to ignore my reflection and the water-stains on the window!

Badong is tiered up the side of the Yangtze and like so many of the towns and cities here, is in the process of construction – the GDP of China is surely concrete – with massive new hotels and shopping centres. The consumer ethos here is astounding and comes at you from all angles including TV advertising on monitors inside ordinary buses. You just don’t seem to be able to escape it. Maybe nobody here even notices any more. Oh, just give me the sound of the wind in the trees and the stars in a clear sky.