A day in China’s Countryside and a visit to the UNESCO approved Dazu Stone Carvings – Best Blogs Series

Bao Ding Mountain Rock Carvings, Dazu, Chongqi...

Bao Ding Mountain Rock Carvings, Dazu, Chongqing 大足宝顶山石刻 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Dazu rock carvings, Bao Ding Shan, demons

English: Dazu rock carvings, Bao Ding Shan, demons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Dazu Rock Carvings, Bao Ding buddhas

English: Dazu Rock Carvings, Bao Ding buddhas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Dazu rock carvings, including circle ...

English: Dazu rock carvings, including circle of life and giant Buddha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dazu County Rock Carving, Chongqing, a UNESCO ...

Dazu County Rock Carving, Chongqing, a UNESCO heritage site (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We completed our four-night and three full-day cruise on the mighty Yangtze River and were the first to disembark at the port of Chongqing. We were amazed that they used porters to carry our heavy baggage up hundreds of steps from the river level to the road above.

The metropolitan area of Chongqing has a population of 32 million within the metro area, and with our 8.00 AM disembarkation, we were travelling in the local rush hour. Like elsewhere in China, we were provided with a car, driver and guide – typically the driver spoke no English, whereas the guide was usually university educated and spoke fluent English, even if sometime s the pronunciation was a little difficult to understand.

Our plan for the day was to drive toDazu, visit the 7th century rock carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage site, have lunch in Dazu, then to continue by car to Chengdu, the capital City of Sichuan Province and home to the Giant Panda.

An hour after leaving Chongqing, we turned right onto a country-road. At first glance, it reminded us of the beautiful countryside around Bath, UK, that is our UK home city, but we were soon to notice many differences. This part of China is very fertile, quite humid, with regular summer temperatures of forty degrees Celsius, plenty of rain and high humidity – in short, it is ideal for farming. Our eyes were soon delighted with a patchwork of colours, set off against rolling hills. The patchwork included farms, trees, dwellings and people typically wearing the famous Chinese pointed conical hat, which offer good shade from the intense  sun. We saw hundreds of rice fields and terraces in different stages of the growth process but most of the rice had been harvested three months earlier. The rice fields were of all shapes and sizes, generally with water in the fields, so it provided a stunning setting, twinkling in the watery sunlight. Periodically, we had variations, with other crops of fruit, vegetables and grains. There is no mechanization on the farms in this part of China – everything is done by hand, with the help of their prized water buffalo, much the same as it has been done for centuries. When we asked our guide about farm mechanization, he replied that it was difficult because of the hilly terrain. Every so often, our journey was punctuated by little villages, with colorful markets, and wicker baskets on people’s backs, carrying everything from food to babies, or even both food and babies!

Farm people in China are typically very poor but generally with simple but happy lives. There are no luxuries but the produce is of excellent quality and traded daily in the local markets, so it is incredibly fresh and organic, without chemicals – it is light years away from the Western supermarkets with pretty but tasteless produce, produced in a highly organized and refrigerated supply-chain. Over recent decades, many farmers have left their farms seeking an easier life in the cities. Others supplement their incomes with part-time jobs in towns and cities, often doing some form of menial work,  like sweeping the streets. In the harvest time, children are released from school and work alongside the farmers from dawn to dusk. Despite the relative poverty and physical hardship of their lives today, we were reminded that older farmers still remember the huge contrast with the early fifties, in the early days of the Peoples Republic of China – sadly, in the fifties, it is suspected that huge numbers of people died from starvation in China.

Currently in China, the farmers do not own their land, unlike in other countries where farmers are relatively wealthy (although frequently cash poor) but we suspect that this policy will be a candidate for reform within the next decade.

Our guide was an expert on the 7thcentury rock carvings at Dazu, so we received an excellent explanation as we walked around the sight in the rain. The Dazu Rock Carvings are an amazing series of Chinese religious sculptures and carvings worked into the rocks and dating back as far as the 7th century AD, depicting beliefs of Buddhism, Confucianismand Taoism. This site is a true spectacle. Unsurprisingly, this vast site has UNESCO World Heritage approval. It comprises:

  • 75 protected sites
  • Circa 50,000 statues, and
  • Over 100,000 Chinese charactersproviding inscriptions and epigraphs.

Whilst walking around this site we experienced a miracle. Marilyn’s umbrella broke and so our guide suggested that we took it to the huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy and ask her to repair it. We smiled, but guess what? Yes, as we left her the umbrella worked!

The Dazu Rock Carvings will always rank with our top memories of China, despite the rain.

After the Dazu Rock Carvings, we returned to Dazu city centre for a light lunch and our first introduction in China to the highly spicy Sichuancuisine, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

At the end of a long-day, we finally arrived in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. Sichuan is World famous for two things, Sichuan food and Giant Pandas (that’s the subject of a future blog). It took our driver nearly an hour to find our hotel – it was right in the centre of an amazing, reconstructed, typical, historic Chinese quarter, pedestrians only, and hundreds of small boutique shops, and our hotel. Our hotel was called the Buddha Zen hotel and proved to be amazingly peaceful & relaxing. We were recommended to try the hotel’s restaurant and had an excellent Sichuan dinner of eggplant, spicy tofu, chicken and cashews – we also had a bottle of imported red wine to wash it down. Next morning, we met many of our fellow guests at breakfast – there was a small American group, some French and a Chinese couple – we had a power-outage during breakfast, but we were lucky to have finished ours before the lights went out! We were amused at the Western tourists struggling to cope with this disaster and we could hear “how will we manage to get into our room?” forgetting that this is China, and Alf explained to them that the hotel will have a mechanical override for the electronic key locks – needless, to say that is exactly what they had!

We met our guide at 8AM, ready to be taken to “Panda City”. Watch this space for Panda update….

Amazing Amalfi Coast Italy – Best Blogs Series

Looking back to Positano, Amalfi Coast, Italy.

Looking back to Positano, Amalfi Coast, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: location of Campania region in Italy

English: location of Campania region in Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Cetara on the Amalfi coast, Italy

English: Cetara on the Amalfi coast, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

View from Ravello, Italy, down into the bay.

View from Ravello, Italy, down into the bay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Amalfi Coast Italy 5

Amalfi Coast Italy 5 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Amalfi, an important port during the Norman Ki...

Amalfi, an important port during the Norman Kingdom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We left the Northern part of the Sorrento peninsular, rounded the point, and arrived on the Southern coastline, which is known as the Amalfi Coast and is the international star attraction of the Campania region of Italy. The drive and the views are absolutely amazing and stunning, with words hard to find to capture the beauty of the breathtaking scenery. The towns of the Amalfi Coast have become global tourist meccas, towns like Positano, Amalfi and Ravello. The Amalfi Coast is rightly described as one of the most beautiful coastlines in the World by millions of visitors each year, with each visitor probably taking many hundreds of photos.

Personally, we spent two nights in Maiori, a delightful resort on the Eastern part of the Amalfi Coast, right on the sea, popular with Italians but relatively unknown with international tourists. We found a very comfortable hotel, set back on a side street that was remarkably good value and a fraction of the cost of the glamour resorts. It took us nearly two hours to manage the coastal drive to Maiori of about twenty miles. The first day after getting settled in Maori, we went back up the coastal road and headed inland for the famous hillside resort of Ravello, with stunning views and exclusive five-star luxury hotels. For our part, we managed a couple of Coca Colas in the main square, listening to the brass band. There were, of course, amazing shops, all targeted to the customers in the hotels – Ravello seemed indifferent to the custom of passing tourists like ourselves.

Our first night in Maiori, on the busy main street facing the sea, we found an excellent, inexpensive restaurant for some fresh fish and like most “ristorantes” these days was also a popular “pizzeria“. It was noticeable this trip,  that traditional Italian restaurant categories had caught up with fast food and many restaurants carried multiple labels including: pizzeria, osteria, trattoria, ristorante, with the faster end of the market including spaghetterie, pizza a metro, pizza a taglio or even rosticceria for takeaway roasted chicken.

The second day on the Amalfi Coast we spent the day in Positano. Alf had become slightly more comfortable driving on the roads but was glad to park up for the day and explore Positano on foot. We parked quite high on the hill and descended the single road down to the sea on foot. The views were spectacular, with lots of little bars, eateries and boutique type accommodation. We heard tourists from all over the World, often joking about the costs. As we reached the pedestrian only narrow shopping alleys, the range of merchandise was just amazing but prices were generally pretty high and most people were just looking. We eventually reached the beach and explored in both directions. We escaped the crowds and took a coastal path (to the right facing the sea). We discovered some secluded beaches and a wonderful pizzeria, set high up over the bay where we sampled a simple and surprisingly inexpensive lunch – it was nice to escape the crowds for a bit. Late afternoon, we climbed back up the hill, found the car and returned to Maiori along the incredibly narrow road and hairpins pins, with Alf feeling quite at home honking the car’s horn as every bend approached!

Sadly, the narrow roads are incredibly dangerous too, and Italian drivers, especially on scooters and motor bikes were often impatient with a right-hand drive, UK registered car. On the other hand, the drivers of the huge buses that plough up and down the Amalfi Coast every day were true gentlemen of the road, and wonderfully patient and skillful. On these roads, Alf often struggled to keep up with the buses.

Strictly, the famous Amafi Coast is the Northern Amalfi Coast, North of the busy port city of Salerno.  Salerno has been our destination for picking up a ship to Cyprus but that’s another story and another blog, as is our exploration of the Southern Amalfi Coast which is largely off the tourist map…

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