It’s been said before but it deserves being said again – the one big constant about modern China is that it changes at a rapid pace.
We arrived in Shanghai and queued to go up the building that was the highest in Shanghai on our first tour a decade ago. It now struggles to make the top 10.
We then took the very fast bullet train to Suzhou and the very slow motor boat along the Grand Canal. At 1800 kilometres in length and 1400 years old it is one very spectacular supply channel. We then headed to the ancient walled city of Xian – setting out point for merchant caravans heading to Europe.
Then onto far north western China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region – home to a vast irrigation industry. We were in China’s ‘outback’ where the crowds were smaller and the farms larger.
We flew back east over the Gobi to Hohhot, a vast grain area and then continued further south to a section of the Great Wall of China. It may have been built to keep the rabbits out but it couldn’t stem the onslaught of many thousands of Chinese families on summer holidays.
Then onto Beijing, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and Peking Duck banquets.
When horsemen ruled the world Mongolia is different – incredibly so! It’s empty, or at least seemingly so and we loved it. As the guide books rightly say, Mongolia boasts an eternal blue sky, a rich history, a unique culture and stunning landscapes.
Ringed by mountains in the north and west and the Gobi desert in the east and south the rolling grasslands (steppes) cover more than 75 per cent of the country. The traditional nomads – 30 per cent of the population – pack up their gers (circular hide tents) and move with their livestock up to four times a year.
The Mongolia government is looking to move to grain self-sufficiency. We visited some local cropping operations – some very impressive, some not so. The growers face huge challenges with sourcing inputs and information, not to mention the almost non–existent infrastructure. Out of the grass and into the trees The national border between Mongolia and Siberia seemed to double as a vegetation demarcation line. Siberia was very large doses of trees, water and abandoned farms.
We travelled into the spectacular and fertile Tunka Valley which is dotted with the agricultural settlements of the Buryat people – the descendants of Mongols. The farmer we visited had a real entrepreneurial streak. He needed it because, as he explained, sourcing finance was very difficult. The land itself is virtually valueless because so much has been abandoned.
Our tour finished in the very attractive and cosmopolitan Siberian city of Irkutsk. Some intrepid group members took the train west to Moscow and St Petersburg, some east to Vladivostok, and the rest headed south to Beijing, Hong Kong and home.