|Shrine halfway up the crag|
|"Tastefully" illuminated cave, below the crag|
|"Plopping" carp fighting each other for food|
|Pagoda and old city wall|
Our reason for coming to Zhaoqing was to see the Seven Stars Crag park, across the lake from town. We walked down to the water front and were immediately met by touts waving maps of the park under our noses. One in particular was persistent and followed us for quite some time laughing at our inability to understand him. We found the company, probably one of many, who run the boats across the lake and bought our tickets. They are small little motor boats with a covered section at the front to keep the boatman dry and an awning covering the part where passengers sit.
It was a quick hop across the lake. We passed a small pavilion along the way and a couple of people out in very small canoe style boats The were incredibly narrow and they were down on one knee, paddling their way forward. The park is named for its seven limestone karsts, which are huge lumps of rock set among lakes and waterways. A network of paths and trails works its way around and there are many opportunities along the way to stop and buy souvenirs of your visit. All around the park there are neat and tidy landscaped borders and as with parks we have seen in the rest of China so far, the park is litter free.
A short way into the park a trail of steps leads up to the top of one of the peaks. It was a 113m climb to the top and well worth it for the views. About a third of the way up was a derelict building that was divided into what looked like four or five small houses. Further up still was temple carved into the rock, the smell of incense giving it away before we got to it. To compensate for the number of photos Stef took we bought and lit some incense sticks, probably falling foul of all the common standards and practices for this activity in doing so.
At the start of the trail there had been warnings not to go up when it was wet and slippery. The tail has been concerted over and in most parts, especially where there is a steep drop down on the side, there are handrails. The steps were uneven with some very low in height and others quite high. One thing they all had in common though was that they were not very deep, not great for our Western sized feet. On most of them the concrete had taken a smoothly worn patina and I reckon it would be easy to slide down quite a way in the wet. For the most part the path was fairly wide, in a couple of places going through a small cutting in the rock, but the closer to the top we got the narrower the steps became.
The views from the top were superb, marred only by the smog like haze that engulfs the whole area, in fact the whole of China so far. A small pagoda is perched on top of each of the crags in the park providing a cool and shady place to admire the view. You could see down to the Five Dragons Palace below, a central pagoda with four smaller ones at each compass point, all built on stilts into the water. A large part of the waterway was clogged with water lilies, unfortunately not in bloom at this time of year. To the left a splash of gold caught my eye, then another, then another. They were huge fish in a pool below. People were feeding them and it looked like the fish were climbing over each other to get at the food. Abandoning our first route back down as it was a very narrow path with a sheer drop down to the left, we retraced our steps and wound our way back down hill.
Further round the island was the Dragon's Cave and our first indication that the Y50 you pay to get into the park does not cover you for everything. The extra Y10 to get into the cave was worth it though. First you are taken in a small flat bottomed boat on a tour along an underground lake. It is a slightly tacky tour as they have lit up rock formations in the cave in different coloured neon lights. There is an elephant, a lion's head and the dragon that gave the cave its name. One of the Emperors used the cave as a hideout during a time a of war and there is a small shelf where he slept. Surprisingly, as we went further into the cave it got warmer and muggier. Apparently it is warm in the winter but cold in the summer. The rock is mainly limestone but there is also some jade. In one part the rocks when hit make the booming sound of a large drum which reverberates around the cave.
After the boat trip there are more caves that you can walk along. A boardwalk path, lined with decorative bamboo railings, leads you past more illuminated rock formations, the inevitable shrine and down to a small pool which is home to a large turtle. AT first sight the turtle looks real but it is stone. A dirty film on the pool shows how polluted the water is here.
The path out of the caves took us to the other side of the island. Here a sign pointed to the Cave of a Thousand Poems, a strange place. The cave is quite large and is open to the elements but it has been turned into a big book. The walls are covered with different tablets of Chinese script, the style of which differs as the writing style has changed over the years. Here too was a temple. Once more we were frustrated by our inability to decipher the characters and interpret what the poems said.
From here we walked up to the pond we had seen from the top of the peak with the large gold fish. The fish had looked pretty large from up high but close up they were enormous. Most were the same orangey colour as goldfish but some were white and others steel grey. They are obviously used to being fed and soon a small group were all in the water below us, mouths gaping in tube like fashion waiting for food. We bought a bag of fish food and within seconds of throwing some in, the water below us was a squirming mass of fish. The newest ones to join the mass simply swam in on top of those already there. It was a strange sight to see and lots of squishing and gurgling noises accompanied the sight.
A floating restaurant behind us provided a good spot for lunch. Three large tables of elderly Chinese all gawped at us as we walked in but following the standard pattern grinned when we smiled and said hello. Our attempts at food ordering were pretty dire and we ended up with two different plates of fried rice. Stef, needing a chilli fix, tried to find a way to ask for spicy food. The closest he could find in our dictionary was "with lots of garlic". The result was a whole bowl of raw garlic cloves! The poor waitress could not understand why we were chuckling away as she put it on the table.
We paid a few more yuan to walk across the steel bridge which true to its name is made of steel plates joined together by big steel cables. Despite the signs saying not to shake the bridge unnecessarily, every group of people who walked across it made it rock as much as they could. We went into another series of caves lined with a whole range of statues of what looked like historical characters or those from old legends and stories. The tunnels looked like they had been carved from the rock, rather than being natural, and incense hung low in the air from the few temples dotted around the caves. From here we wandered back round to the boat wharf, stopping briefly at yet another temple where we bought more incense. The largest incense sticks they had here were about as tall as Stef and a couple of inches in diameter.
After a short wait at the boat wharf we were whizzed back across the water and into the hubbub of Zhaoqing. As it was still light, and would be for another hour or so, we decided to head down to see the old city walls. These must have been about ten or fifteen metres high and were very thick and solid. One of the main entrance gates was near where we were and had big red wooden doors that were closed, perhaps to keep out prying eyes. We climbed up what looked like fairly recent steps and walked a little way along the walls. The houses here looked very run down and with few, if any, modern facilities. The people generally looked less affluent compared to those just a few streets away. We did not want to get caught in the rabbit warren of the old town in the dark with no way to work out where we were or how to get back so we headed back into town and checked the time of the bus we need to get tomorrow. We are heading for Wuzhou and checked the symbol for it in our book so that we could try and decipher the timetable painted on the wall above the ticket office. We had managed to make ourselves understood but were still very pleased when a lady who spoke English helped us out and confirmed the information we had got.
For dinner we went back to the same place we had gone to last night but this time went armed with more interpretive tools, our Lonely Planet and our Point It book. The latter is a small book full of different pictures of food, clothes, transport and pretty much everything you think you might need on your travels. We had a friendly welcome in what today was a very busy restaurant and had to sit in the posh bit where you got tablecloths rather than just a glass topped table. On our way up the stairs to the restaurant they had pictures on the wall of some of the dishes so we asked the girl downstairs to mark on the menu what they were and very smugly looked forward to a good meal.
As you can guess it did not quite work out the way we thought it would. What had looked like beef on a bed of noodles was spicy noodle soup with about three strips of fatty and chewy beef in it. The dumplings and rice were OK but Stef needed more meat and he decided to order and extra dish, half a chicken. We thought that would be trouble free but oh no! It came still with its head attached and I reckon it must have been boiled. The skin was a pale yellow colour and very rubbery and they had simply hacked it, bones and all, into small pieces. Stef found the few bits of breast meat but the rest was simply too unappetising and rubbery to eat!