Monday, June 15, 2015

The Venice of China

The Venice of China
PHOTO: Tongli, one of six ancient water towns, features boat rides through local waterways. (All photos courtesy of Travel Suzhou)
The nickname doesn’t really do this city justice since it tells only part of the story. Coined the “Venice of China,” Suzhou has more than its fair share of narrow streets and waterways, dotted with gondola-like boats navigating centuries-old stone bridges.
You’ll also find shops cooking up local seafood favorites, including plates of squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish — a fried, orange-colored dish with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Located in the southeastern part of the country near Shanghai, Suzhou’s claim to fame is certainly rooted in the waterways that traverse its streets.
Just a short drive away, however, there’s a much different kind of city emerging in Suzhou Industrial Park. Glass skyscrapers dominate the skyline as five-star luxury hotels set up shop. European-style restaurants tempt locals and tourists, as do rides on one of the largest Ferris wheels in the world. Indeed, part of the appeal of Suzhou is that it blends different elements of China, both old and new.
Setting the Stage: At the heart of Suzhou (pronounced Sue-Joe) is the old town district, the layout of which has remained untouched for more than 2,500 years. Here visitors can enjoy pagodas, temples, waterways and teahouses in one of the oldest cities in the Yangtze Basin.
Situated about 70 miles west of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, Suzhou has been an important trade market for centuries, boosted in large part by the silk industry. The city is also known for its gardens, many of which are designated as UNESCO World Heritages Sites. There’s also a significant portion of the Grand Canal to explore, the longest manmade waterway in the world.
Suzhou is accessible via nonstop flights from North America to Shanghai airports that offer access to Suzhou. Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport has bullet train service to the city, about a 50-mile, 30-minute trip; Pudong International Airport, an hour-and-a-half by car (not including the traffic); and Sunan Shuofang International Airport, a 30-minute trip.
What’s Hot: The summer and fall months are prime times to visit the city’s gardens, with lotus flowers and lilies coming into bloom. The Humble Administrator’s Garden (No. 178, Northeast Street) is the largest classical garden in the city, and one of Suzhou’s UNESCO sites. Considered by many to be the city’s best garden, it covers some 550,000 square feet, dating back to the Ming dynasty. The garden is popular among locals and tourists, and weekday afternoons are typically the best time to visit to avoid large crowds.
Altogether, 48 different buildings, 40 monuments and numerous winding streams are scattered throughout three sections: eastern, central and western. The central part of the garden, considered the “essential area,” is covered by ponds, flowers, pavilions and courtyards. Tickets cost about $11 to $14 depending on the season. There’s also an option for groups to enjoy a traditional tea tasting overlooking the garden with help from a “tea artist,” who makes different brews, including a certain green tea found only in Suzhou.
The Lingering Garden is also popular. It’s about half the size of Humble Administrator’s Garden, making for a more manageable visit that can either take an afternoon or morning. Lingering Garden (No. 338, Liuyuan Road,) is famous for its maze of halls and buildings, giving visitors different perspectives from which to take in flowers and animal-shaped rock formations found throughout the garden. Admission is about $8, and guests can pay an additional fee for a floral arrangement class.
Must See: From a distance, you can hardly tell anything is astray, but look closely and the Tiger Hill Pagoda tells a different story: the 150-foot structure is leaning. A foundation problem is to blame at the “Leaning Tower of China,” which is also the subject of several local legends.
PHOTO: The Tiger Hill Pagoda is one of the must-see attractions in Suzhou.
The name is said to have originated when a king buried his father there. Three days later, a white tiger arrived and crouched at the top of the hill as if he was guarding the tomb. Nowadays visitors can make the trek to the top while taking in a Bonsai garden, which features hundreds of small trees showcasing a shaping technique involving wire. The cost to visit Tiger Hill (No. 8, Huqiu Hill), in northwest Suzhou, ranges from $10 to $12, depending on the season. Enjoying tea at the top of the hill is a recommended activity.
Just outside the city, visitors can check out Tongli (No. 1, South Zhongshan Road, Tongli Town), one of six famous ancient water towns. Roughly 11 miles from Suzhou, the town is known for its brooks and small foot-bridges, which are regarded as sacred by locals. There are also hundreds of gardens, temples, mansions and former homes of dignitaries built during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Visitors can take a daytrip on a bus to town and then walk around the neighborhood, where shops sell souvenirs and desserts, and streets are lined with lanterns. While in town, they can visit the Wormwood Institute, which offers a traditional Chinese medicine featuring the burning of wood inches from the skin. There’s no standard charge for the treatment and the cost depends on the condition of each patient.
Back in the city, the No. 1 Silk Factory offers an inside look at the history of the silk-making process, a craft that dates back millennia. Free of charge, the factory shows visitors how silk is harvested, from worms to cocoons. The best time to check out the process is during the summer months through October. Then you might actually see some real silk worms. But if they’re not in season, visitors can still watch workers use silk to make quilts and clothes. The tour concludes near a shop selling scarves, pillows, duvets and other reasonably priced souvenirs.
For a taste of the new China, head over to Suzhou Industrial Park. At its core is Jinji Lake, which is surrounded by hundreds of high-rises and a massive Ferris wheel that seats up to 360 riders. While the roughly 30-minute ride isn’t particularly exciting and the amusement park doesn’t have anything that’s remarkable, the wheel does give visitors a sense of Suzhou’s size and growth. Nearby there’s also a cultural convention and exhibition center, luxury shopping and several five-star hotels.
Where to Stay: From budget to luxury, there are a variety of hotels to choose from in Suzhou. With 100 properties scattered throughout the city, visitors can pick from a combination of local and international brands, such as Crowne Plaza, Hyatt, Marriott, Shangri-La and InterContinental. New properties are also opening up in the next four years, including W Suzhou, the Westin Suzhou Xiangcheng and Fairmont Suzhou.
Pan Pacific Suzhou is noteworthy because it offers special access to a city gate and pagoda, buildings that guests see when they wake up every morning as locals do Tai Chi. The hotel features classic local architecture, high-speed Internet access (though some American websites are blocked) and close to 500 rooms and suites. Basic rooms start at roughly $80 per night.
Visitors looking for a more boutique experience can sample the Tonino Lamborghini Boutique Hotel Suzhou overlooking Jinji Lake in the more modern part of town. The hotel features Chinese gardens along with some quirks, including Beatles lyrics inscribed on the floor. There’s also Danny’s Kitchen, which serves up French and Italian Mediterranean cuisine, providing a nice break from local fare. Rooms start at around $200 per night.
Where to Dine: Those looking for a real taste of Suzhou cuisine should head to the historical district and Shantang Street. There they’ll find Song He Lou, where diners munch on tiny fresh water shrimp, tofu with crabmeat, Chinese-style pickles and green rice cakes filled with red bean paste for dessert.
The restaurant, which overlooks a bridge and waterway, is an ideal stopping point for travelers looking to explore the neighborhood or try some Mandarin fish. For lunch, you can expect to spend around $20 to $25 per person. Afterward, visitors can stop at the Qian Sheng Yuan candy shop, which sells different preserved plums and pastries, and then take a ride on a local version of a gondola.
Getting Around: Suzhou has two metro lines in service along with another two under construction. One runs east-west, the other north-south. Ticket prices are less than $1 but can vary depending on distance. Taxis are available, and start at about $1.50 using metered rates. A convenient bus system costs about the same as the subway. Bicycling is also a popular way of getting around, with rentals costing about $4 per day.
What Tours to Book: Tour operators that offer programs to Suzhou include Alexander and Roberts, Asian Vistas (formerly Orient Flexi-Pax Tours), China Advocates, and Wild China.
For more information on Suzhou, call 646-465-9770 or visit

Monday, April 13, 2015

Scroll revives cheongsam beauty in New York

The representatives who participated in the "Guohua-Global Chinese Cheongsam Image Giant Scroll" project show the beauty of cheongsam at the Cheongsam Culture Salon at the City University of New York on March 6. Hong Xiao / China Daily
In fine make-up and vintage high heels, 11 ladies dressed in cheongsams walk before the audience, demure yet sexy. At the "Cheongsam Culture Salon" held at the City University of New York on March 6, the cheongsam - the quintessential ladies' dress of China popularizedinthe 1920 -seems ready to re-blossom in New York City after almost a century.
Scroll revives cheongsam beauty in New York
Organizers of the fashion show, presented by the Chinese University Alumni Alliance and the Tianjin Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, were invited to gather and share the history of the classic garb.
Liu Bing, creator of the "Guohua-Global Chinese Cheongsam Image Giant Scroll", and Meng Qinggang, heir to a time-honored cheongsam name brand, were on hand along with some of the women depicted on the scroll.
The scroll is an ongoing project, initiated by Liu Bing, a cheongsam enthusiast and local TV host from Tianjin, that invites women to dress in cheongsams and pose for photos that will be added to a giant printed scroll in the manner of the classic Chinese painting Scene at the Upper River during Qingming Festival.
Liu said his interest in the cheongsam was inspired at a young age by old photos of women wearing cheongsams in the movie magazines founded by his grandfather, a former newspaper editor.
So far, his camera crews have captured photos of more than 7,000 women in cheongsams, women from many walks of life, including both celebrities and retired workers, ranging in age from 4 to 80.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Themed Show in Central China Recreates 1920s Shanghai Nights

A shopping mall in Xuchang, a prefecture-level city in central China's Henan Province, held a themed show on February 7, 2015, recreating the charming nights of old 1920s Shanghai. The show also featured a cheongsam — a women's traditional one-piece body-hugging Chinese dress that emerged in 1920s Shanghai — competition and awards ceremony.
Hundreds of guests and models attended the show in various costumes, including cheongsams — also known as qipao, their Mandarin name — and school uniforms, of the era. Some staff members even dressed up as paper boys and flower girls, to help drive the atmosphere.
Ladies marched down the catwalk, showing off their breathtaking cheongsam dresses. The graceful dancing and beautiful music recreated the enchanting, classy extravagance of Shanghai nights in 1920s and 1930s, to the cheers and applause from the audience.
Shanghai in that period was famous for its bustling, exciting nightlife, in particular its exciting, thriving nightclub scene. The men and women of the upper class usually spent their evenings hitting the town, losing themselves in the rich entertainment reverberating throughout the city.
Actresses in school uniforms[Provided by Geng Guoqing]
Flower girls[Provided by Geng Guoqing]
Singing performance[Provided by Geng Guoqing]
Ladies in cheongsams [Provided by Geng Guoqing]
(Provided by Geng Guoqing/Translated and edited by Women of China)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Raiders of the lost art

Nebamun Hunting Fowl, British Museum exhibition
Enter the British Museum's new Egyptian gallery and you will be struck by a line of painted panels of unexpectedly rich colouring and extravagant composition. On one panel, a pair of naked female dancers, their fingers interlaced, glide sinuously before a crowd at a banquet. Beside them, a flute player stares out from the painting, her hair shimmering as if she is swaying to the music. Each figure is distinct, individual and freely drawn, their proportions and detail captured perfectly.
Wander further along the main wall and you will find other exuberant depictions of everyday life in 18th Dynasty Egypt: a boy driving cattle along a road; geese, stored in baskets, ready for the market; a farmer, stooped and balding, checking his fields, and a hunt through reed beds that burst with creatures - shrike, wagtails and pintail ducks - easily identifiable still.
These are the tomb paintings that once belonged to Nebamun, a court official who lived almost 3,500 years ago, and they are the greatest surviving paintings we have from ancient Egypt. Each was created for Nebamun by a painter as gifted as any of the Renaissance's finest artists, and they will be revealed to the public this month when the British Museum opens a special gallery dedicated to them, a 10-year project that has cost £1.5m to complete. It will be a striking addition to the museum.
Yet for all the effort that has gone into the gallery's construction and the studies of its paintings, mystery still shrouds the Nebamun panels. For a start, archaeologists have no idea about the identity of the artist who created them and are equally puzzled why a painter of such talent was involved with a relatively minor clerk like Nebamun.
Nor do historians have any record of the original tomb's location. The man who discovered them was a Greek grave robber called Giovanni d'Athanasi, who dug them up in Thebes, as Luxor was then known, and then passed them on, via a collector, to the British Museum. However, in 1835 D'Athanasi fell out with curators over his finder's fee and refused to divulge the precise position of the tomb. He took his secret to the grave, dying a pauper in 1854 in Howland Street, a few minutes' walk from the museum. Ever since, archaeologists have searched in vain for the tomb of Nebamun and any treasures that it may still contain.
The Nebamun paintings have - to say the least - a colourful history, and the task of unravelling it, and for caring for these remarkable works, has been handled by Egyptologist Richard Parkinson. Dapper, bow-tied and possessed of an infectious enthusiasm for his subject, Parkinson showed me the panels last November, when they were cased in wood and glass, ready for removal to their new gallery. They were stacked in a museum basement store which held other Egyptian artefacts, including a series of panels dedicated to a chief treasurer, Sobekhotep. Think of him as the 18th Dynasty's answer to Alistair Darling, a politician who controlled the nation's wealth and economic destiny. Yet the panels commemorating him are thin, lifeless and provide little feeling for the man's life or times, or any sense of artistic sensitivity.
By contrast, the artwork that celebrates Nebamun's life bursts with energy. In one panel, he stands on a papyrus skiff at the head of a hunting trip into reed-covered marshes filled with tilapia and puffer fish, Egyptian red geese, tiger butterflies, black and white wagtails and an exquisitely painted tawny cat that is helping itself to the birds being brought down by Nebamun. The cat is a product of particularly grand draughtsmanship, in which stripes and dots have been delicately assembled to produce a magnificently whiskered tabby. Scales on fish, feathers on ducks and soft folds in the clothes of the Nebamun retinue have also been created this way. It is an extraordinary evocation of Egyptian life, its vitality undimmed 3,500 years later. As for Nebamun, in the hunting panel he towers over proceedings, his wife Hatshepsut beside him and their daughter at his feet. Wearing a black wig and a great collar of beads, he strikes a pose that is assured and proud, almost regal.
Yet Nebamun was really just a bean counter - or to be precise, a grain counter whose job was to make sure the wheat stores in the temple of Amun were properly controlled. So how did this middle-grade civil servant acquire the services of one of the greatest painters of ancient Egypt while his superiors had to make do with second-rate artists?
"These are the greatest paintings we have from ancient Egypt," Parkinson says. "There is nothing to touch them in any museum in the world. Yet they were created for an official too lowly to have been known by the pharaoh. It is quite extraordinary." Parkinson does, however, have an intriguing explanation. The "Michelangelo of the Nile" who created these great tomb panels was almost certainly working on another project in the neighbourhood of Nebamun's tomb at the time. This building or burial complex would have been constructed, and decorated, on a far grander style for a far more important figure. Nebamun merely slipped the artist and his team some extra cash and they stole off to paint his own panels. In short, the secret of his tomb and its great painting lies with one word: backhanders. "Life then was not that different from today," says Parkinson.
Ironically, the artist's main project was no doubt a finer work, but it has disappeared, looted and trashed like the vast majority of ancient Egypt's great treasures. The Nebamun panels are the only record we have of this genius. We have therefore good reason to be grateful to Nebamun, one of life's perennial opportunists, but an astute collector of fine art just the same.
As to their purpose, the paintings were intended to make Nebamun appear important in the afterlife. They would have covered the tomb's upper level, while his body was interred in a chamber below ground. Friends and family would have visited the upper part of the tomb, left gifts and held feasts to commemorate Nebamun's life. "This was where life and death merged," says Parkinson. Thus the paintings were not buried and hidden away but established a link between the living and the dead. Hence their importance to Nebamun's family. They were to be appreciated, leisurely, after the man's death as reminders of his achievements.
They were certainly not created at a leisurely rate, however, as Parkinson has found in his investigations of the paintings. Once the tomb's stone walls had been erected, they were covered in straw and Nile mud mixed together into a squishy paste. Then, when this was dry, a thin layer of white plaster was added. As that started to dry, the artist and his team began to paint, using soot from cooking pots, desert stones for red, yellow and white pigments, and ground glass for blue and green. Rushes, chewed at the end, would have acted as brushes. Squashed into the dark, narrow upper tomb, the painters would have had to work by lamplight before the plaster dried. The results are almost impressionistic in the freedom of their execution.
"I think Nebamun had all his paintings done for his tomb-chapel walls in three months," says Parkinson. "Yet the draughtsmanship was quite wonderful. The thing is that although the artist and his team may have done them in a few weeks, I have now spent a quarter of my life studying their handiwork."
The panels' importance to modern eyes is clear. They tell us a great deal about ancient Egypt and its everyday activities, and about differences and similarities between life then and now. "The straw crates in which geese are sold at market - you see these on just about every street corner in Cairo," says Parkinson. "And the women's jet-black hair and skin colour are just the same as we see in Egypt today."
However, Parkinson warns about drawing too many parallels between modern life and the scenes depicted in the panels. Objects and animals are often included because they had great symbolic importance. That great hunt scene is more than a depiction of everyday life: the birds and cat are symbols of fertility and female sexuality, and Nebamun's expedition can also be seen as "taking possession of the cycle of creations and rebirth", as one scholar has put it. Certainly, visitors should take care when trying to interpret the panels' meaning.
Nevertheless, the paintings repay detailed inspection. On several of them, you can see where d'Athanasi's grave robbers had started to crowbar a panel from a wall only to find it cracking, ready to split. They would then move on to splinter open the panel at a new spot. "Only 20 per cent of the panels survived these attacks," adds Parkinson. "Only sections that would appeal to British audiences were taken: the ones with naked dancing girls and scenes from gardens. Perfect for our taste, in short."
One or two other fragments did end up in other museums, including several that are now kept in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Evidence also suggests that a handful of fragments may survive elsewhere. For example, records from the Cairo Museum show that, just after the second world war, a few sections from the tomb were about to be exported from Egypt, a move that was opposed by its government - so officials had the panel pieces photographed and stored in the great vaults below the Cairo Museum. And that is where they rest today, though their precise location has been lost. All that is known is that among the tens of thousands of other ancient treasures kept in the museum's store, the missing Nebamun panels are today gathering dust in a dark, lost corner. It is a strange fate and it invites - irresistibly - a comparison with the fictional resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, dumped in a mammoth warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In short, a fantastic end for some fantastic art.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tripping over ancient obstacles

Sweltering in black nylon, Caroline Hendrie endures the religiously enforced restrictions on women to visit the heartland of Islam
Woman in Saudi Arabia
A woman dressed in the all-enveloping black abaya contemplates a painting in a Saudi Arabian hotel.
Never has 'my trip' been a more apt description of a holiday. Half of us in Explore Worldwide's first group to tour Saudi Arabia spent two weeks tripping - up ramparts, onto coaches, into tombs and over disused railway tracks.
The deeply traditional kingdom has tentatively opened to tourists, but in a very controlled and restricted way. So, no independent travellers; no tourist visas for women under 40, unless accompanied by their husband, father or brother; a list of subjects that must not be photographed, including all women; no alcohol, of course, and a compulsory dress code. While male visitors must remember only not to pack their shorts, women can't get away with just loose and modest clothing. So on our first morning in Riyadh we were whisked to the nearest shopping mall to be kitted out in black abayas.
Sajjad, our Pakistani guide, held up larger and larger tent-like garments, explaining that men must not be able to discern the outline of our bodies: for their protection and ours, it is the law. But as foreigners we need only wear a headscarf, not the burqa, the full head covering and veil with only a slit for the eyes that is compulsory for Saudi women outside their homes. For 100 riyals (£20) I bought a wide, all-enveloping wrap-over with poppers at the neck and tasselled cord ties on one side. I also bought a short burqa for £4, which turned out quite useful - dispensing with the need for sun block, less sweaty round the neck than a scarf, and staying firmly in place.
We left the air-conditioned shopping mall and drove to the outskirts of Riyadh, to Direyah, the remains of the mud-brick capital of the first Saudi state founded in 1466. But dizzy with the scorching sun beating down on my black-nylon-covered head and constantly stepping on the hem of my abaya trying to keep up on the rough paths, I am afraid the sophisticated level of architecture and Sajjad's talk about its history passed me by.
The reason we were out in the midday sun on our first day in Saudi Arabia was that the nice cool National Museum where we were going to have our orientation is 'men and school parties only' on Monday mornings, and we had to wait until late afternoon for 'family' time to begin. And so it was that our odd 'family' (it was by being classified as a family that our motley group of seven tourists - two couples, a single man and two single women - were allowed to travel and eat together) embarked on a sightseeing tour where we turned out to be the curiosities in many places we visited.
Saudi Arabian society is so strictly segregated that men and women are forbidden to work together, shake hands, converse or even catch one another's eyes. Women cannot eat in public, travel on buses or drive. The all-powerful matawwa - religious police, recognisable by their fearsome long beards and above-the-ankle hemlines - enforce the law.
That first night in Riyadh I had another taste of the challenges to come. Walking blithely through the door of a recommended restaurant I and my two companions were greeted by a waiter rushing forward to shoo us round to the 'family' entrance down a side alley. In a gloomy windowless room we were shown to a screened-off table where we ate our meal in purdah. Another thing everyone needs to remember when looking for something to eat in Saudi Arabia is that restaurants (and shops) shut for a good half-hour for prayer time around midday, sunset, and again when darkness has completely fallen.
The next morning we flew north to Al Jawf, near the Jordanian border. Due to its position on a major trade route with what are now Iraq and Syria, the area is rich in archaeological sites. As we stumbled up the crumbly steps of Marid palace in the ruined pre-Islamic settlement of Dumat al Jandal, Frances, a retired teacher from Yorkshire, catching her foot in her hem yet again, mused, 'How do the women here manage?'
'They don't go sightseeing. They don't go anywhere,' I said through gritted teeth.
Certainly Saudi women don't take part much in active outdoor life (bearing on average 6.4 children can't help), and so far we'd had every site to ourselves - the mysterious fourth-century standing stones of Sakaka in a lonely field were all ours, as was Qasr Zaabel, a fort perched high on a rock.
At our hotel that night the presence of round-the-clock sentries in the lobby (to guard the prince of the region, who had taken over the second floor while his new palace is being built) rather inhibited me from leaving my abaya in my room. Generally, though, we were told, it is all right not to wear it inside hotels, where 99 per cent of the staff are foreign workers anyway.
We stayed in the best hotels wherever we went, on the insistence of the ministry of tourism, and all were proud of their leisure facilities. In the Hyatt Regency in Riyadh, my welcome letter invited me to use the gym and pool, but when I asked the receptionist about the opening times he regretted that ladies were not allowed, though with a day or so's notice they could drive me out to an expat compound for a swim. (At the Holiday Inn down south in Najran the Palestinian manager offered to close the steam room and Jacuzzi for an hour so the women in our group could use them, but not the pool, alas, because it is open-air, and can be overlooked.)
From Sakaka we embarked on a three-night camping trip by four-wheel drive, more or less following the route of the Hejaz railway, built nearly 100 years ago to bring pilgrims from Damascus to Medina, and raided by Lawrence of Arabia with Bedouin armies during the First World War.
It was a long drive into Wadi Madakhil for our last night's camping, so after seeing Bir Haddaj, the beautifully restored old well and ancient mud-brick Qasr al Hakuma in Tayma, we sped out of town. But not far.
At the first checkpoint we were made to wait, 'only 15 minutes' - which turned into an hour - for the local prince who was due down the road from the other direction. No vehicle could pass until the prince had come through. By the time his convoy arrived I was quite excited, would he be in a bullet-proof Cadillac or a silver Bentley? He finally swept by in a huge bronze and smoked-glass coach worthy of a country and western star on tour.
We pitched our tents in the fading light beside Elephant Rock, which, being a local attraction, was strewn with broken glass and cans. My abaya came in handy to cover my modesty for a quick wash behind my tent in the light of the full moon.
In remoter areas the atmosphere was more relaxed and we were able to eat in small restaurants in full view of local males, though there weren't any women's loos. The police were more interested in our documents than what we were wearing, and Sajjad got less strict about headscarf drill. So I was able to stride untrammelled round the huge Nabatean site of Madain Saleh, sensibly dressed in a sun hat, shirt and trousers, passport safely zipped in a pocket.
The nearest we got to the holy city of Medina - which, with Mecca, is strictly off-limits for non-Muslims - was the airport, where I saw pilgrims wearing just two pieces of white cloth, and holy water, one of the few home-produced souvenirs, on sale at £4 for 10 litres.
We flew to Jeddah, the cosmopolitan city port on the Red Sea, where plate-glass skyscrapers tower over the crooked narrow streets of the old town. I wandered in search of supper down a busy boulevard teeming with people from all over the Muslim world. There was no shortage of fast-food restaurants, but all the seating was 'bachelors only'. I had to buy my halal fried chicken through the 'ladies window' and scuttle back to my room with it.
The next day we visited Naseef House, an old merchant's home, now a museum. Sami Nawar, director of the Jeddah Historical Preservation Society, who showed us round, said that the ministry of tourism was interested in attracting more visitors, but rather than relaxing the rules was considering closing off certain areas to locals lest they be influenced by contact with the tourists.
It's this insular attitude that adds to the fascination for a tourist to a country untouched by 'Starbucksisation'. The overt discrimination I experienced because of my sex felt extraordinary. So while it may be an odd way to spend a holiday - in an outfit unsuitable for sightseeing or the climate, barred from restaurants and buses, not allowed a beer or a swim - it was extremely interesting, and often amusing.
I got strangely attached to my hot, flapping abaya, which had its advantages, like protecting my vanity from the crumpled consequences of two weeks without an iron. And while it hampered my movements, it also freed me to wander around on my own unhassled by hawkers or gawpers. My own, travelling, invisibility cloak.
Caroline Hendrie travelled with Explore Worldwide (01252 760000). Its 'Journey through Arabia' plus Asir Mountains extension costs £2,315, including flights, all transport, an accompanying tour leader, 13 nights' accommodation and most meals. A 10-day tour, without the Asir Mountains, costs from £1,765. The next tour departs on 13 October and there are trips scheduled for 27 October, 22 December, 16/30 March and 13 April. Explore can arrange a Saudi Arabian visa, which costs £39 plus a £20 agency fee.