Sun, sea, mountains, karsts, and rice terraces

That was the summer of 2021. A summer where we were living in a closed country but we were free to travel around.

This was the title of the blog that I thought I would write, but clearly didn’t.

So as Summer 2022 is about to kick off, time to sit back and catch up on some memories of summer 2021.

The summer started with a trip to Naked Castle . A mountain retreat – where no one is naked- it is just about getting back to nature, and for us as a family to connect with each other and two sets of our dear friends who are leaving this year (Summer 2022). The days were filled with food, wine, massages, games and a swimming pool to die for. We travelled in style in a minibus which was packed to the rafters with essential supplies of food and wine and while one member of our party was saying the “Our Father” to ensure the minibus got up to the resort around all the hairpin bends with all of us intact, others were mesmerised by the view.

Moganshan is about 2 hours from Suzhou, and has little pockets of civilisation, and small hotels. It wasn’t our first time at Naked Castle, but it was for everyone else, it is also the most expensive of the Naked resorts but we all thought we deserved a treat as none of us were able to travel home. We had been to Naked Stables at Christmas.

After a couple of days of cooking, eating and drinking it was a quick trip home to pack again, this time for the sea and sand.

Our trip to Sanya, again saw the 9 of us travel. Our WeChat group is affectionately named The Golden Oldies and on this group we plan our adventures. So the Golden Oldies plus our kids took off to Sanya.

We stayed at the Sheraton at Yalong Bay, and from here we celebrated 2 birthdays and generally relaxed and ate our way round the hotel restaurants which included the Italian restaurant at the Ritz Carlton twice.

It appeared that most of the staff and students of the international schools in Suzhou were also in Sanya. A Thai dinner was had with another family whose dad is a colleague with the kids around the same age, a play date was organised at another hotel down the beach and a ladies cocktail evening was also had, sadly the men didn’t get their act together and organise one for themselves.

The hotel lifeguards were very officious, on most days there were signs up not to go into the water, we disobeyed these all of the time, but if they thought you were straying too far or you were outside the roped off swimming areas you got a whistle blown at you.

This was the summer that we also started getting wine sent to our hotels. Through various WeChat groups that we belong to, including Ziko, a Shanghai based French food wine merchant, we bought lots of French Rosé wine that was sent from Shanghai to Sanya to the hotel. Martin through points collection had ensured that we had a hotel room upgrade, and so with an additional room and balcony it meant that our room became the party room.

I also became the adult that did things with the kids. Turns out that while the kids may have loved the activities – I did not. Sitting with my legs straddled around an inflatable duck’s neck while going round and round holding on for dear life at what seemed 100 miles an hour while 3 kids are laughing and have a great time was not the relaxing time that I had in mind. Nor was the banana boat experience that had me sit at the front getting sea water blown into my face while the three young ‘uns had a whale of a time. Exhilarating it definitely was, but the other adults owed me big style!

For Lady G’s birthday we hired a boat and went out on the sea for a glamour birthday and for Martin’s birthday we went to Atlantis water park, followed by dinner at Gordon Ramsey’s Bread Street Kitchen. During the holiday in Sanya, we had dinner at Barbacoa at the Edition hotel which had a live band and superb food and wine.

A third of the Golden Oldies went back to Suzhou, while the rest of us flew out to Guilin. On the day that we wanted to fly, there were no flights from Sanya, so we had booked our flights from Haikou. An airport that is in the north of the island. The Croziers had done the reverse journey of Haikou to Sanya in December 2014 when I had booked Hong Kong to Haikou thinking that the distance between Haikou and Sanya was a taxi ride away… it isn’t. It was a 3 hour train journey, but now it is a 90 minute train journey.

The journey on 8 July 2021 was not plain sailing. Thank goodness Martin runs early. He had gone out running and had had a phone call from the airline. Flight was overbooked. If you want to be on the flight – arrive early. So back he came to the hotel, booked the 6 of us on an earlier train journey, then woke us all up – we (thankfully) had packed most of our stuff the night before, so we breakfasted, checked out and got on an earlier train getting to the airport in Haikou super early, guaranteeing us a seat on the flight – we checked in just before a massive red hatted tour party but we didn’t care. McDonalds for lunch and then we flew to the next scenic spot.

The next stop was Yangshuo. The land of karsts. We were staying in luxury, the Banyan Tree.

The view from the reception

We wanted to do one trip while here and that was down the river on a bamboo raft but I wanted to do more – so I got myself a didi (Chinese version of Uber) and went to a cable car to go one of the peaks, Ruyi. The cable car I had to myself, there was no queue, the place was empty. I walked over the suspension bridge, and a glass bottom bridge, took many photos on my phone, my SLR and the go pro. It was stunning scenery and I was confident enough to do it without a guide.

Our trip down the river we did through the hotel. The driver picked us up, and took us to the beginning location. It is a massive operation and we had to wait on tickets being bought and then we had to wait in a holding building for our number to be called. Once the number was called the 6 of us were paired up … or not. The youngest traveller went with Martin, and I was paired with Eleanor. The others travelled alone soaking in the view and atmosphere.

The raft bases were transported by flatbed truck, dumped into the river, chairs assembled on them and then they got across the river to be united with a rower and passengers before making the journey down the river, before the bases on arrival at the end were hauled out, and transported up the river again. The river journey was tranquil, the scenery beautiful and the river not as deep as I expected it to be.

Of course the river is not level, and there were ramps that we had to go down.

It was like a mini water ride at an amusement park

After lunch we were then transported to a viewpoint. Not all of us went, as once delivered to the car park it was then many many steps up and having searched around for a 20rmb note (cash) we were rewarded with the view. Cash now is a rarity. Most of us are using payments through our phones. Hardly anyone carries a wallet anymore. So getting 20rmb notes included a lot of forward thought.

The next day, the ladies went for a cooking course while the men did what I had done on my own.

We were picked up and deposited at the local wet market. We met other ladies after the market and of course quizzing of where we were from led us to establish that their long time friends in another Chinese city had moved to Suzhou and were mutual friends. It was bound to happen given that no one was coming into the country for tourism so the six degrees of separation were easily identified.

BC (Before Covid) Yangshuo was home to at least two cooking schools. Now only one exists. We had the same experience in trying to find places to eat, places included a curry house (Kali Mirch), but their phone rang out and we were told that the nearest place was now Guilin. (We tracked it down on our last night.)

We did however find a gem of a place, Luna. It overlooked Moon Hill and was a gorgeous Italian restaurant. At the end of the night, they even hired us a driver. Needless to say, anyone who was going to Yangshuo was told about Luna and everyone who went was not disappointed.

We also ate at Yangshuo Mountain Retreat right beside the Yulong river. We had sundowner cocktails with the sky an amazing colour it provided a lovely reflection.

After our couple of days enjoying the calm and peaceful surroundings of the Banyan Tree with chocolate fondue and Prosecco for breakfast we transferred to Rice View Villa in Dazhai Village. The only boutique hotel with a pool. The pool is unheated and the water is straight from the hills. It was gorgeously refreshing.

The hotel was on the side of a rice terrace. We hadn’t packed light. We were aware that the car wouldn’t be able to get us all the way to our hotel but we weren’t expecting our suitcases to be carried as they were…

We had no tours planned, though in the distance we could see a cable car. So the next day we set out for the bottom of the cable car then to go back down on foot to our hotel.

Food was ordered in advance and the hotel cooked whatever was available. It wasn’t gourmet food, but it was lovely. We had also eked out our wine supplies, but it was here we ran out. We had chicken cooked in bamboo one night which was a feat given that most of the chickens we saw running around were very scrawny.

The cable car to the top of the local peak was again not busy. It wasn’t as busy as it could have been and as the infrastructure in place suggested. We were right in the car without queuing.

Eleanor and I did a tourist thing …

The terraces were stunning, in the hotel we saw books with pictures of the terraces in autumn when they have a yellow hue, and in the winter when there snow had fallen, but the luxurious green colour in summer was beautiful and fresh.

The great thing was the tranquility. And the ease to go out into the terraces without anyone stopping you. It is unlikely to be like that in the future. Already in the more touristy areas they don’t let you wander through the terraces. It is a wondrous place, a photographers delight, but it is a person’s livelihood. I would have loved to have ridden through the terraces- but these ponies were working. They were carrying cement to the building site. The chickens seen wandering round the terraces were laying eggs for breakfast or being killed for dinner. People live and work on these terraces, their livelihood is supplemented by tourists. And at some point in the future I am sure tourists will be stopped from walking along the narrow ledges through the terraces.

This area is also famed for the Yao ladies who never cut their hair. We saw one lady, combibg her hair and putting it up in the bun, we we were having lunch and she had just come out of her home so we watched in awe as the hair was put up without the aid of a mirror or hairspray. Everyone that we saw no matter their age had black hair – one wonders if there was a supply of black hair dye somewhere!

The embroidery in this area is also fascinating. Suzhou is famed for its silk embroidery, but somehow seeing women on the side of the rice terraces using a small loom and creating works of art was incredible.

With travel being limited outside the mainland more locals and expatriates are travelling within China and those of us that do, are finding areas of China that are beautiful and diverse. This is a big country and there is more to see and do.

I am glad we got to travel last summer. We certainly ticked off a few more places on our China bucket list and managed to avoid hot spots of covid which would have put us in quarantine.