Cizhong 茨中 Yunnan. The Road from Feilai Si near Deqin winds its way to the bottom of the Langcang Valley (Mekong River Valley) in a series of dramatic hairpin bends. On the right the mystical mountain of Meili Xueshan teases and torments the traveller with rare glimpses of its summit and glaciers in a game of hide and seek in the monsoon summer months.
For one second it’s there in all its majestic glory and then the next it’s gone, hidden behind swirling clouds or an impenetrable mist.
As the road reaches the river at the bottom of the valley, the barren rock faces on the left that threatened to come crashing down on our puny vehicle give way to fertile green fields dotted by white villages and prayer flags.
Welcome to one of the most romantic places in China; the tiny village of Cizhong in China’s South West Yunnan province.
While there are many other beautiful villages in the area, Cizhong stands out because of the lovely Catholic church that dominates the centre of the village and its surrounding vineyards.
Zhengding 正定 was known as the town of ´nine buildings, four pagodas, eight great temples and 24 archways’.
Zhending: China’s Unknown Temple Town
Zhending: China’s Unknown Temple Town is just a few hours from Beijing. On our way to Beijing’s colossal West station, the taxi driver asked us where we were going. When I told him, “Shijiazhuang“, his reaction was one of bewilderment: “Why? You could go to Chengde.” “Been there”, I replied. “Beidaihe is also nice”, he continued. “Been there too”, I repeated. “Anywhere but Shijiazhuang“, the driver insisted, “meiyou kekan de dongxi 没有可看的东西” (there is nothing worth seeing), he sentenced. I extolled the virtues of the places we were going to see around Shijiazhuang, such as Zhengding orCangyan Shan, hoping for a more favourable reaction. The driver just waved his hand dismissively, probably thinking stupid “laowai ” (foreigner), and just dropped the subject. It was too late anyway, since we had already bought the tickets.
Welcome to Shijiazhuang and a Health Warning
Shijiazhuang should come with a government health warning and when we alighted at the train station and inhaled the first whiff of some vile eggie sulphuric gas that seemed to be hanging over the city and then looked up at the yellowish sky, I did wonder whether I shouldn’t have taken the taxi driver’s advice.
So what can you do if you find yourself In Shijiazhuang? The first thought that might come to mind is, just catch the next train out. Or you might also like to carry out a scientific experiment and try and see how much pollution your body is able to absorb, before you turn Day-Glo. Alternatively and less drastic, you could get out of the city and explore the interesting sites that lie nearby. And that’s what we did.
In fact, there are a couple of days of interesting sightseeing near Shijiazhuang and, following this brief introduction, it won’t come as a total surprise that you’ll have most of those sites almost to yourself.
Zhending: China’s Unknown Temple Town
The first place to head for is Zhengding, a dusty town whose old quarter is littered with pagodas, temples, mansions and remnants of ancient city walls. Zhengding’s skyline of temples and pagodas is a reminder of what old China must have looked like.
Getting there, it’s an easy 45 minutes to one hour on bus 201 from outside Shijiazhuang’s Train Station, all the way to Zhengding’s chaotic bus station. From there, a bus number one will take you to the enormous Dafo Si, or Big Buddha Temple, which is a fitting starting point for four to five hours of rigorous sightseeing.
“Please speak Mandarin”. “I am speaking Mandarin”.
Zhangjiajie / Wulingyuan / Hunan Province
Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin. 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.
Eventually, out of desperation, I asked the conductor if he would switch to Mandarin (普通话), and not speak Kouyin (口音 local dialect). To which the conductor indignantly answered ” I am speaking mandarin”. The young Guilin backpacker added that he also didn’t understand Continue reading ““Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin””
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.
With a reservation in our hands, we took a more leisurely stroll to the train. Unfortunately, we found a family, consisting of two adults and 5 unruly children (not sure how that is possible in one-child China), occupying the 4 other berths above and below us.
Luzhi 甪直 is an Authentic Canal Town (more or less): I say more or less because even the least touristy Jiangnan towns have many tourists trappings such as hawkers and tacky souvenirs. However, Luzhi is still pretty authentic on a week day out of season.
I love Jiangnan Towns
I have a nostalgic hankering for Jiangnan towns (Jiangnan 江南 means south of the Yangtse River).
There was something dreamlike about the mishmash of canals, white buildings, eave roofs, arched bridges and winding cobbled lanes.
Old Jiangnan River Towns before Mass tourism
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 daySuzhou, any trace of the past community life along the canals has all but disappeared. Now,plush restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up near the historic sites to cater for mass tourism. in and around 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.
Many Jiangnan towns have undergone seismic changes. 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.
Jiangnan River towns and Tourism
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.
Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) & City of Life and Death 南京! 南京: Two Films One Story
Two films, one story
Zhang Yimou’s new film on the massacre in Nanjing, Flowers of War (金陵十三钗), is the second major Chinese production to hit international cinemas on this topic in the last few years, the other being Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (南京 南京). Having now seen both, I’ll try to compare and contrast them.
Both films are set during the early days of the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanjing (南京) in 1937; Nanjing which was then the capital of the Republic of China. It was during this period that the Japanese committed the atrocities that were to become known as the “The Rape of Nanjing”. It is estimated that over 300,000 people were killed and thousands of women raped.
City of Life and Death(南京! 南京!) by Lu Chuan
Filmed in black and white, Lu Chuan’s film conveys all the horrors and brutality of the destruction of Nanjing and its people under the Japanese occupation. Grey scene after scene, tense, gripping, and harrowing scene after scene, the spectator is left numb by the cruelty meted out by the Japanese army. The scene where the Japanese machine guns kill off the Chinese prisoners of war is horrific; yet, it represents the true events that took place on December 18, 1937, on the banks of the Yangtze River.
Lu Chuan was heavily criticized in China
Nonetheless, in spite of the gruesomeness of his film, Lu Chuan was heavily criticized in China for showing the human face of (some of) the Japanese. At the end of the film, the young Japanese soldier Kadokawa is overwhelmed and tortured by shame and remorse for what his fellow countrymen have been doing in Nanjing. Apparently, Kadokawa’s show of feeling contradicted the Chinese Government’s official version that each and every Japanese soldier in Nanjing was nothing less than an unrepentant and murderous rapist. Lu Chuan, apparently, even received death threats for having shown this side of the conflict. However, despite this one slight tilt towards showing some kind of Japanese humanism in Nanjing, I must admit that the Japanese still come out of this film looking pretty bad, for want of saying anything stronger.
Amazing Xiahe: This is the final part of our travel report on Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery in China’s Gansu Province. The article is an unedited extract from the diary that Margie kept during our two year trip around Asia and the Middle East. The trip began in Lahore, Pakistan in early October 1990. By late November 1990 we had reached Xiahe. Though we have now visited Xiahe 3 times (see previous articles), it was our first visit that really stood out, probably because we hadn’t really experienced Tibetan culture before.
Wednesday 21/11/ 1990 (Lanzhou to Xiahe)
We have to get up early to catch the 7.30 bus to Xiahe; the only one of the day. The scenery gradually becomes more and more interesting. The whole morning we have been driving through a winter landscape of soft brown, reddish and yellowish shades. Every available scrap of land is being used: all the mountains have been terraced and divided into tiny vegetable plots, while the fields are used to grow potatoes, cereals and barley. There are haystacks everywhere and corns on the cob on every roof, drying. The villages, of a pinkish-brown hue, form an indistinguishable part of the landscape.
Looking out of the bus window, we can see many non-Chinese people, walking along the road. Most of them closely resemble Uyghur people, and they are wearing greatcoats, animal skins and furs, as well as heavy leather boots. The majority seem to be Muslims, judging by the white skull caps of the men and the black velvet and lace headscarves of the women. Many of the men also wear the large, round, horn-rimmed sunglasses that seem to be typical around here.
We stop for lunch just outside Linxia, a large Muslim market town, situated atop a reddish loess plateau. We can see lots of yaks milling about; as well as a whole pile of severed yak heads lying in a cart. Apart from yaks, there is a busy traffic of donkeys, pony’s and bicycles. Lunch, of course, consists of beef noodles, eaten at a street stall.
The Songpan Festival was a marvellous spectacle. The spectators 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.
Xiahe 夏河: 3 visits; a reflection: The Xiahe we found on our last visit had changed considerably since 2004. It was no longer the rather innocent, peaceful, Tibetan little backwater we had enjoyed so much before.
The Chinese new town is much larger now, with charmless, concrete buildings, traffic lights and plenty of motorized vehicles. There was building work going on everywhere: in the new town, where more and more buildings were being put up at the usual breakneck speed; opposite the monastery, where a large coach park was beginning to take shape; and even in the monastery town itself, where trenches had been dug and water pipes were being laid.