Every week we’ll put up a photo from our huge archive of photos from China. These photos have been taken over numerous visits to China in the past 30 years. The photos show how China has changed over the 30 years we have been visiting it.
Twenty years ago Wutaishan was a remote and spiritual destination that felt a million miles away from the modern world. On our recent visit we could see that times had changed as the picture below shows.
“Please speak Mandarin”. “I am speaking Mandarin”.
Zhangjiajie / Wulingyuan / Hunan Province
From Zhangjijie city 张家界市we boarded the bus for the half hour trip to Zhangjiajie Village 张家界村 and the Wulingyuan Scenic Area 武陵源风景区. We are in Hunan Province 湖南省, in central China, also the birthplace of China’s first communist leader, Mao Zedong毛泽东.
Joining us on the bus was a young Chinese backpacker from Guilin 桂林 (China’s other famous natural scenic area). We soon got talking in standard Mandarin. The ticket seller, a friendly- chubby- bumpkin type chap with a ruddy face, cottened on that the foreigners could speak Chinese and joined in our conversation. He seemed able to understand us, but we and the young backpacker from Guilin were, completely at a loss as to what the conductor was trying to say. His voice high pitched and squeaky, the tones all over the place, was just incomprehensible.
CITS (China’s official travel agency’s description of an L Train 临客)
“L – Temporary Train In Chinese: LinKe (临客) L trains operate only during the peak travel season, such as the Chinese Spring Festival and the National Holiday. These trains are not listed in the official fixed train schedule. It is not advised to take L-trains if you have other options as they are known to be relatively slow and regularly subject to delays”.
“46 hours”. I doubted my Chinese at that moment, but the ticket seller repeated the departure and arrival times, there was no mistake. Bagging next day hard sleeper tickets from Beijing to Chengdu can be a taxing experience at the best of times, but in early August, you’ve got about as much chance as winning the lottery. Unless … unless, of course, you are willing to take the slow train 临客 , or L Train as it is known in China!
We got two middle berths, which are the best, as during the day you can escape the crowded lower berths, where everyone sits, and they have more space than the often claustrophobic upper berths.
Pandemonium broke out when the gates were opened at Beijing West Station 北京西站 to allow the passengers on. Those without reservation ran frantically, pushing and shoving the old and weak out of the way, to grab one of those precious seats. It was a simple case of survival of the fittest; get a seat or stand for 46 hours.
There was something dreamlike about the mishmash of canals, white buildings, eave roofs, arched bridges and winding cobbled lanes.
In 1990, the Jiangnan towns provided a glimpse into old world China. Back then, local residents still occupied the ancient buildings that lined the canals, and it was possible to stroll the waterfronts and savor a community ambience that had probably existed for centuries.
The onslaught of mass domestic tourism in the 2000’s and the crass commercialism that comes with it has unfortunately put an abrupt end to that picturesque way of life (picturesque for the western traveler at least).
Even until the late 199os, mega cities such as Suzhou, still pocessed a warren of ancient streets where time seemed to have stood still. From the kitchens of beautiful white-washed houses with their decorated doorways and stunning courtyards, smells of garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil wafted out. People lived and worked on the canals as had their ancestors. I can remember spending hours on the bridges watching the river traffic and river markets.
In modern day Suzhou, any trace of the past community life along the canals has all but disappeared. In its place, plush restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up near the historic sites to cater for mass tourism. In the surrounding small historic towns, much of what was local, has been given over to tourism and converted the towns into theme parks and places to buy souvenirs.
In many Jiangnan towns, the local residents have been evicted from their houses and moved to housing complexes on the outskirts or even further afield. A new breed of entrepreneurs has filled their places setting up shops, restaurants, discos or hotels.
You only have to visit pretty but touristy towns of Zhouzhuang and Wuzhen to understand what I am talking about. Improvements in transport and the proximity of the historic towns to huge population centers such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou make many of the Jiangnan towns weekend playgrounds for city dwellers.
They were spellbound by a riot of colour as Chinese dragons, Tibetan Qiang minority dancers, and Muslim Hui singers took over the town, paraded through the streets and usurped the public squares. The real fun began after the Communist Party leaders had made their speeches, sped off to lunch in their limousines and left everyone to an afternoon of spontaneous revelry. Here are some photos of what they were enjoying.
The road south of Quanzhou, towards the town of Anhai, passes through what must be some of the most depressing and ugly scenery in China. For about 30 kilometres, the road runs through a series of towns the outskirts of which all merge into one dirty and chaotic urban sprawl, leaving the despondent traveler to wonder what on earth has brought him there. Most of the buildings look as if they were put up in half a day, many are unfinished, bits of cables and wires sticking out, but in full use. This is not a poor area of China; it’s just an example of the complete absence of urban planning.
It is difficult to know when or where to get off the bus in Anhai, as there seems to be no apparent centre. In spite of the huge billboards advertising the bridge as a Number One Heritage Site, the driver of our clapped-out motor-cycle rickshaw was not quite sure where we wanted to go and initially tried to take us to a hotel. However, we soon put him right and after a five-minute ride arrived at our destination.
Built more than 800 years ago (1138-1151), Anping bridge stands out from the urban mess that surrounds it, a haven of peace, far from the thunder of lorries and the honking of horns. The bridge crosses a two-kilometre stretch of sea and is made entirely of stone. A few pavilions and a small temple built along the bridge add to its feeling of timelessness and tranquility. Walking the full length of the bridge and admiring its immaculate ancient stones, is a strangely moving experience that takes about an hour. On the way you will meet many local people who use the bridge and its temples to have a rest and a chat.
This photo was taken at Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge, near Sanjiang 三江 in Northern Guangxi Province. It is one of the best examples of a Dong Minority Wind and Rain Bridge. Built in 1912, it’s 64 meters long and reported not to have a single nail. This photo was taken after scrambling up a steep path to find an ideal spot to get an overview of the bridge. A pity about the crappy camara I had at the time.
The area around Chengyang Bridge is stunning. Beautiful Dong Minority villages are set amongst electric green paddy fields. In the lazy meandering rivers, huge water wheels turn slowly as they have done for centuries, tipping water into bamboo irrigation pipes. And above all there is the Chengyang Bridge. Sounds like paradise doesn’t it?
In 2003, the only place to stay near the bridge was the lovely rambling Chengyang Bridge National Hostel, a funky wooden guest house with a great veranda for chilling, reading and knocking back a few beers right next to the Bridge. Unfortunately for Margie, it was also home to some of the biggest and fastest moving 8 legged monsters you’ll ever meet.
Spiders, big long-legged, hairy spiders scuttling across wooden beams from room to room, hiding behind the bedhead or hovering above you in the shower; Margie’s nightmare; my hassle. Travelling in Northern Guangxi and Guizhou Provinces with an arachnophobic can be quite a testing experience. The old wooden houses in the minority villages provide perfect abodes for these arthropods. And my job, as always, is to make the rooms safe before Margie will go in them. Given the spaces between the wooden slats; an impossible task.
Every week we’ll put up a photo from our huge archive of photos from China. These photos have been taken over numerous visits to China in the past 23 years. This week’s photo was taken on Tai Shan in Shandong Province in September 2002. The tea was still warm but not a person was in sight.