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A Visit To China

A Visit To China

China Trip – Spring 2014

Wuzhen!  How could this water town abutting the Grand Canal, which extends for over 1,700 kilometres, linking the Yellow to the Yangtze River, ever have been a war zone.  An eastern-version of Venice with its canals and wonderful old brick-built, tile-roofed houses sitting snuggly among the willows and creeping wisteria, it exudes a sense of timeless tranquillity.  The granite-bedded streets weave past shop-house fronts with their delicate wooden window freezes masking deep layered structures with their reception room followed by courtyards retreating.  Once paper-backed now glass-paned, the overhanging windows allow tearoom guests to gaze out over the canals and observe the boatmen performing their rhythmic push-turn and pull-motion that nudges their stub-nosed craft swaying gently forward.  Surely more serene than unconsciousness, a paradise of sorts enhanced with the ever so faint olfactory tingle of the midday meal and the occasional murmur of visitors.

Apart from imbibing the peace, there are a variety of museums that display subjects such as the practice of foot binding.  Here you will find an extensive explanation of the practice over the ages together with an exquisite collection of embroidered shoes to fit the perfect three inch golden lotus.  The Bed Museum, with its display of the Chinese enclosed sleeping arrangements with their superb wood carvings, is also notable and for fun, there are rice wine distilleries, the indigo factory, the money changers shop and lots more.

What is so telling is that when one crosses to the eastern (Dong) side of town, which was not evacuated and redone in 2004, there is a totally different feel.  It’s alive and boisterous with traders pushing their wares and street venders imploring one to try some unknown delicacy (the most challenging seemingly, stinky tofu).  Overall the experience is revealing - humanity brings to life but also reappoints!

The drive west past Hangzhou is very flat and exhibits that remarkable phenomenon of modern China, the concerted and dense planting of a great variety of trees along highways.  Before long we are into the foothills of the mountains.  As one passes these undulating settlements, for they are more like random placements of buildings of some density rather than thoroughly planned neat little olde villages, one is astounded at the size of the individual homes.  No modest single level square boxes here but large two or three storey, wide fronted deep structures.  Mulberry trees (silk) and tea is the cash crop but one wonders how the inhabitants are all gainfully employed.  We noticed few cars, nor spotted any farm implements and the arterial road we travelled bore no evidence of heavy traffic.  The roadside stops are still government-owned and work well if a little stilted with a nostalgic taint of the central plan of old.

On to the mountains.  The Huangshan (yellow mountains) are truly magnificent with their soaring peaks occasionally given a horizontal dimension by some gnarled old pine tree that has tenaciously wedged itself into a crevice on some improbable sheer face.  The exercise of walking these mountains has been tamed by meticulous paths that allow one to see the full extravaganza in standard footwear.  Some of the climbs can be narrow and literally breath-taking but it’s well worth the effort.  There are some long and narrow stair passages cut into the host rock that can be addressed only in single file and one could picture how a stumble could lead to a ten pin cascade.  It is these tight passages that cause one to wonder what it’s like in peak season as the crowds, even in the early spring, were gargantuan.  Discouragingly, as the season builds so do the crowds -battalions of day trippers are guided around by their slightly weathered megaphone-toting leaders, staccato interludes would be fine except there seemed to be a nagging need for each perfectly peaceful peak or rock to be attributed some human or animal attribute for it to be fully appreciated!  Worse, just as one is settling back into peaceful contemplation, another gaggle would arrive.

Some very flash hotels have been built for overnight stays, sunrise viewing etc.  Remarkably, we were told that even the earth-moving machinery (dismantled) was carried up the five kilometre path to build these facilities.  I could barely believe it except for seeing the porters with their time-honoured bamboo yokes carrying unimaginable burdens.  One fellow was carrying 58 kilograms of rolled steel rebar on each side.  For this limb-bending ordeal he collected one RMB a kilogram (about US$20 per day).  For those with problems or a need to show their wealth there are wicker palanquins whose bearers somehow manage to climb the steeper parts of the route.

Before leaving the mountains we experienced an unusual spa that was attached to our tired hotel managed by the Worst Eastern!  Here one could experience mineral springs that infused one with remedies for ailments of a wide range.  The highlight was the spring with nibbling fish.  One sits in bath-warm water as tiny brown fish massed and pecked at one’s legs and arms supposedly removing dead skin.  Sounds vulgar you say, see how you feel as these little devils tickle you to death!

Before flying back to Shanghai, we visited some ancient walled villages to get a sense of post-Ming Dynasty (1366-1644) rural settlements.  The surprise was the contrast in the wealth of members of these relatively tightly knit and small communities.  The larger homes were a favourite target during the Cultural Revolution.  The thought of the destruction wreaked upon these delightful, yet remarkably standardised homes, set a Roman-born member of our party into contemplation about what had been lost during those chaotic revolutionary days of malicious destruction.  Wonderful things are still being made and in particular there is a smooth black stone that is worked into shapes varying from teapots, resembling animals or plants, to calligraphy ink platforms of considerable variety and interest.

Xishuangbanna in the south west of Yunnan province is a very different experience.  It’s tropical and lies beside the Mekong River.  One is no longer in Han territory yet can see the huge strides that have been made on account of the Central Government’s efforts to “modernise” the more distant territories.  Formerly part of the Nanzhao empire of the Bia people, it is famous for its Pu’er tea and exudes a frontier vitality (close to Burma/Laos).  We were hosted by an unusual Swiss who had bought this site overlooking the Mekong and gone about recovering the old wooden houses favoured by the local Dai minority and reclaiming the land from the rubber trees by replanting with some 300 indigenous species.  Sadly, he subsequently collected a high rise developer to his rear and a water-borne poogie parlour to his front on the Mekong below.  This was frequented by visitors from the big eastern cities who are apparently enthralled by the cross-dressers from over the border.  No harm in that except at critical moments the drums would beat to induce a level of hysteria necessary to make the evening a memorable experience.

There is a spectacular garden supervised by the Chinese Academy of Sciences an hour’s drive from the city with the opportunity to see great botanical diversity and a natural forest.  This is rare as there have been several cyclical rubber planting booms to the extent that now as one flies over, all one sees are circular rows of identical foliage that spirals up the heights - all being rubber plantations.  On high ground, we visited the oldest known tea tree in China, claimed to have yielded for 800 years.  The tree itself looked somewhat time-worn but the good bit was the captivating walk through rubber trees and some surviving natural forest.

Moving north we flew to Dali (altitude 2,000 metres from 600 metres above sea level) an important way station in the days of the horse-tea trade, and then motored on to Lijiang.  Both are fascinating places with their own charm.  The provincial government has done well to recreate a sense of the old towns but the flood of tourists and the attraction of these destinations to the “cool set” from places like Beijing and Shanghai attenuates the intensity of the experience.  We would wander around, stop off for yet another spectacular meal, drinking mostly beer and then proceed cautiously for more visual titillation.  There was much walking and viewing which seemed to embolden the team’s certitude as to finding that perfect Chinese wine to accompany the evenings culinary extravaganza.  Try as one might to grace the company with logic, they were indefatigable in their quest!  We rational members of the team with a sound understanding of probability theory settled for brown rice wine.  This can be a totally satisfying drink, bearing likeness to a dry sherry or occasionally a thin port but for our wine-swilling-donkeys, to steal a phrase from that other indomitable Australian, there was no surrender.  So bad did their cravings become that they resorted to elevated prices in the belief that this would ensure a pleasing outcome: disappointment was palpable.  For all these setbacks, not once was anyone disappointed with our meals; they were wonder-full and agreeably quickly served.

Onward and upwards we drove.  Now in high country at the same altitude as Lhasa at 3,400 metres, we approached the mystical Shangri-La.  The old town had recently had a mysterious fire so we were contented to see alternative attractions like the tree and Yak studded landscape.  Here it is poor and spare.  Rainfall is low and the air dry and thin.  While interesting, the remote deprivation of the wooded countryside left some of us unsettled.  Beware too that unless you have a constitution of a Yeti, it is recommended that you travel with your own survival rations.  A night of authentic Yak milk, yak butter tea and barely-butter paste (bread) is a testing encounter, yet it sustains the locals year- in, year-out.

When in Dali, we had stayed in one of the horse-tea staging inns in Shaxi village and to think that over the centuries, Pu’er tea had been carried from our starting place in lower Yunnan to these desolate highlands.  Three months of carrying 60 to 90 kilograms of compressed tea on one’s back rising by 3,000 metres, sleeping rough and presumably thinly nourished is a harsh and indelible reminder of hardiness born of necessity.

We had seen some extraordinary sites over the two weeks that cannot be adequately described.  The beauty of the Huangshan; the power of nature, Tiger Leaping George on the Yangtze River; the serenity of age-old settlements; the grand ambition of man at the remote Buddhist grottos with extraordinarily beautiful  8th-9th century carvings at Stone Bell Temple (Shibao Shan); the calcium springs in the Tibetan highlands.  The freedom and joy of walking, climbing and cycling and the ever certain prospect of a delicious meal, dilute beer for some and the wild imaginings of others in their quest for a drinkable local grape wine!