Once ubiquitous and now no more: the red landline telephone in your local shop.
During my many visits to Beijing over the last 20 years, I was always struck by how convenient it was to make a landline phone call from just about anywhere in the city, and especially in the hutongs. Just about any small shop 小卖部, be it a liquor store, veg or meat shop, dumpling store or dry cleaners, they all had one or two red telephones on the store counter from which you could ring anywhere in China very cheaply. You just asked for permission, picked up the phone and paid the store owner a few Mao 毛 at the end of the call.
Over a period of just a few years, the Chinese started embracing smart phone technology to a degree that leaves many western countries lagging far behind, scenes like the one in the photo above have ceased to exist. The last time I visited I couldn’t find one single shop that had a landline phone outside, and with my mobile not working; I was quite desperate!
The journey from Kunming to Tonghai takes less than three hours, a straight bus-ride down the motorway with very little in the way of visual distractions. Tonghai itself is a small agricultural town, a few kilometres from the Qilu lake, on whose shores a village inhabited by descendants of soldiers from the Mongol armies survives to this day.
The town, which is currently undergoing a beautification campaign, like so many others in China, is nothing to write home about. Unfortunately, many interesting old buildings, mostly dating from the Qing dynasty, have already fallen prey to the sledge hammer, while others are undergoing dubious reforms.
However, Tonghai’s saving grace is its interesting population mix and, most of all, the wonderfully atmospheric Xiushan park.
Xiushan park is a large temple park in the style of China’s famous Holy Mountains, set on Xiushan mountain, overlooking Tonghai city and Qilu lake. Its total lack of cable cars, souvenir stalls and tourists make this park easily one of the most pleasant and laid- back in China.
Those relatively few monks and pilgrims there are, earnestly pray and leave offerings for the gods, simple yet beautiful gifts of flowers, rice, candles and incense. Meanwhile, the locals sip tea and play Mah-jong, Chinese chess and cards in the courtyards of the temples.
Minimalist Bonsai gardens and ancient, gnarled trees of a variety of species, such as camellias, cypresses or firs, many of them held up by metal bars, add beauty and a kind of timeless charm to the place.
Besides trees, dragons are the protagonists of the park, either wrapping their bodies around pillars, cavorting above doorways, or splashing in fountains. All in all, it’s a lush and peaceful place.
Entrance to the park is 15 Yuan and foreigner visitors still attract the curiosity of the locals in these parts.
Places to Stay and Eat:
We stayed at the Tongyin hotel, supposedly the poshest and most expensive one in town, for 145 Yuan, including breakfast. You can’t miss it, it’s the tallest building in town, two minutes away from the bus station, on a main road. There is no shortage of cheaper hotels, most of them new, near the bus station and on the road into town from Kunming.
Food options in Tonghai are not great. There are a number of small hole-in-the-wall type restaurants near the bus station with lots of meat and hanging carcesses, or the entrance to Xiushan Park, as well as at least one smart restaurant inside the Tongyin hotel. A couple of decent supermarkets provide for self caterers.
Coming and Going:
Buses to Tonghai leave from Kunming’s main long-distance bus station regularly throughout the day. There are plenty of buses in the other direction as well. Regular buses leave for Jianshui, every two and half hours.
In these times of Coronavirus, travelling around China in the way we used to, has become virtually impossible. Although the situation in China is gradually improving, it’s still far from stable. At any moment, a new outbreak could take everything back to square one and put the country back into lockdown mode. It’s hard to say when we’ll be able to go back and resume our travels. However, that won’t stop us from continuing to post at holachina.com!
Coming next: Datong: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Our next article will be a quick look at China’s coal town, Datong, a rapidly transforming city trying to give itself an image makeover; from soot city to tourist city with varying degrees of aesthetic success.
The best of Guangzhou: still to come
We still have loads of unpublished material, as well as updates and great photos to upload. Maybe this quarantine we are undergoing at the moment in Madrid will enable us to be more productive!
Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼 the Chongqing dish that is hot in Madrid’s Chinatown
A local specialty from Chongqing, China called Wanzhou Grilled Fish (Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼 ) is now all the rage in many restaurants in Madrid’s Chinatown neighbourhood of Usera.
What is Wanzhou Grilled Fish / Wanzhou Kaoyu 万州烤鱼
It is a grilled /roasted whole fish covered in a dry dressing of Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies and and served in a big pan filled with a soup like sauce that is not to dissimilar to the stock used in Sichuan hot pots 火锅 (huoguo).
The dish originates from Wanzhou (formerly WanXiang) in Chongqing municipality: It’s now popular all over Mainland China.
The original way of making this dish is to first grill a freshwater fish (Carp 鲤鱼 is popular) over charcoal and then cover it with various condiments that you order from the menu.
Some of these condiments might include lotus roots, potatoes, bamboo shoots, glass noodles, edible fungus, and beansprouts.
In Madrid the fish is usually Sea Bass (Lubina in Spanish)鲈鱼.
During the One Child Policy (一胎政策) which finished in 2015, the Chinese government tried to persuade the population not to discriminate against having female children. Unfortunately, the campaign was not successful and has resulted in there being far more males than females in China. Traditional families, especially in the countryside chose to have a male child over a female child.
This is a government propaganda sign in Rural China (Bakai, Rongjiang, Guizhou Province) reminding the local population that males and females are equal.
Hidden away up an eroded valley a few kilometers from a remote stretch of the Yellow River is Lijiashan 李家山. It is one of Shanxi Province’s hidden gems. A village almost exclusively made up of traditional cave dwellings 窑洞. It’s a place to spend a few days disconnected from the modern world, read a good book on one of the sunny terraces of the local home-stays and sip a cold (or lukewarm) beer. All the home-stays are cave dwellings built into the side of the mountain. If the sky is clear, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular starry nights(full article coming soon).
This summer we travelled with a friend who had never been to China before. So to give him a good introduction we made a route from Beijing to Xian passing through the province of Shanxi. Its a route that took in some magnificent Buddhist cave art, wonderful old towns and castles, the Great Wall and included some of the most beautiful temples in China. Finally finishing up with the Terracotta Army in Xian.
Getting train tickets in China has always been a hit and miss operation, especially if you want sleeper berths for long distance trains. At Chinese New Year, getting a ticket becomes something akin to winning the lottery.
This BBC clip sums the situation up quite well, and shows the growing divide between the haves and have nots in modern China, where just having access to a computer is an advantage。