Antik Travels

Colourful Scenery Tour of China 10-27 April 2013

Australia – China Friendship Society [NSW]

{sign beside track, Yellow Mountain}

Travels & Terrain

We effectively travelled south to north across China after flying in to Guangzhou then flying and bussing to Datong, almost on the Inner Mongolian border. We flew east from Taiyuan to Nanjing, and onto Suzhou, the canal city. We bussed south west to Mt Huangshan and onto Mt Lushan, then headed further south east to Nanchang and flew onto Xiamen {ancient Amoy} on the coast. After a final bus ride to Fuzhou we flew south west back to Guangzhou to return to Sydney, Australia.

We marvelled at the infrastructure of ring roads and motorways, and a five kilometres long tunnel in such out of the way places up north. The Europeans among us were a local novelty for photos and greetings. We got giggly after a long day on the road when we returned to a city at night with bright lights and much traffic. A favourite spotting at corners and traffic lights was looking out for the wiring on and around electricity poles, strung up loosely between trees and buildings in a most precarious way.

Two of the most entertaining road signs on the motorways, were DO NOT DRIVE TIREDLY and DRIVING WHEN DRINK FORBIDDEN.

There was the bus that would not start at the ancient town and needed to be pushed. There was the ‘son of the devil bus’ as another was called; even with a fluffy blue and white dolphin bobbing about over the rear vision mirror.

There was the dubiously booked flight out of Taiyuan.

There was the narrow winding mountain road ascended in mist, traversed in a minibus with luggage stacked against the front seats; and there was the bus with a clutch and spare suspension, that bucked its way to Yellow Mountain while one of the nine abandoned all attempts to type on her laptop. Then there were the steps and the steps; and that was even after the cable car ride up the mountain.

A good bus with lots of room was nice and comfortable and air conditioned; and we did have a couple of them. Along with competent drivers, this afforded us some feelings of safety, albeit fleeting, when the traffic jammed and the bicycles and mopeds, to say nothing of the pedestrians, practiced the extreme sport of driving or crossing the road in time with the seconds flashing by on the traffic indicators; and just squeezing in between a bus, a van, assorted cars and even a truck load of pigs or metal piping.

There were a couple of accidents, with tripping and falling; but the camaraderie of the group produced all manner of bandages and rubs for the afflicted; and everyone kept calm and carried on.

The flight back to Australia however, was uncomfortable, the food inedible and the cabin service indifferent. What rest one could get, afforded the time to reflect on the adventures we had.

Hotels & Happy Rooms

We were spoiled from the beginning, for every hotel thereafter. In an out- of – the way Datong in Northern China, we had the luxury of a truly lovely hotel with all the amenities one could hope, for after a weary flight and busy day on the road, stopping off to wonder at a centuries old wooden tower {no nails in any of the 4 levels}.

An assortment of hiccups such as smoky rooms, unmade beds, a blocked loo, internet not connecting, and the joy of negotiating the laundry list, just added to the colour of this tour. It is worth the price of the laundry just to receive back one’s blouses, ironed, folded and decorated with a little cardboard bow tie. The holy grail of good coffee was not entirely attained – one hotel not even offering tea or coffee for breakfast. But there were many excellent breakfasts including fresh fruit and an assortment of cakes. There is scope for a business enterprise in hotel toasters if anyone is interested.

Our last hotel at Fuzhou was excellent, with the breakfast room view of the city coming to life in the morning rush hour, with local dogs going about their busy trots and workers hiring bicycles – all yellow with accompanying baskets – from the bike racks on the footpath.

The ‘Happy Rooms’ – a favourite Chinese euphemism for the toilets – varied in their style and availability of paper. You know, squat loos are probably much healthier in such a vast population. One facility near some restaurant tables had no doors at all, and that was just a tad testing to some sensibilities. We patronised palatial hotel restrooms to porta loos, all in a day’s journey.

Cuisine & Cutlery

We were treated to a range of local cuisine, specially ordered by tour leader Christine to complement the colourful scenery. Some of the dishes were themselves scenic, such as the presentation of the many local fish we enjoyed. There were many and varied fungus/mushrooms and frog legs and pork and omelette with stone fish [not like the poisonous Queensland ones], white bait and eels, mussels and assorted local green vegetables. There was pork and there were pickled vegetable and peppers. We ate no chicken because of the ongoing bird flu. Of course there were noodles and rice and even the occasional attempt at potato chips. The tiny mangoes from day one were a treat, and the pineapples were delicious.

There were occasions when the beer did not meet an Aussie standard for either strength or coolness; but as was pointed out, the beer was a chaser to a bottle of wine.

There were even gifted cucumbers, which two of the party encountered on one of our flights, in what had to be one of the more delightful cultural exchanges of the tour with a fellow passenger bestowing fresh cucumber with a smile.

Chopsticks were bravely embraced, but forks and spoons were often resorted to.

Some evening meals were local specialties. There was a seemingly endless serving of Dim Sum at Nanjing, accompanied by musicians coming into our dining room and playing lovely music on traditional Chinese instruments. At Suzhou we had Water Town Special Cuisine. On our last night at Fuzhou we tasted the Fotiaoqiang {Buddha Jump}. Legend has it that the many traditional ingredients tempted a monk during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to jump the wall between the temple and a restaurant, for a feast. The dish is like a thick soup with ingredients including sea cucumber, duck meat, tendons of pork, mushrooms and abalone and dive eggs. Unhappily it usually includes shark’s fin.

Mountains & Mist

When travelling, one must always accept that the weather is never under one’s control. So our mountain views were often shrouded in mist. But what a glory one can see when the veil of mist lifts, even for a brief moment; and it needs no imaginings to understand why poets and painters have been so attracted to the scenery. Yellow Mountain is spectacular. From the cable car ride over the bamboo forests and the ever increasing rocks, to the promontories on which one can stand and look over the scenes of traditional Chinese paintings coming to life; this experience will stay with you. While the cable car was a concession to modernity is accessing Yellow Mountain, the images of tradition were impressed by porters carrying many kilos of goods, swinging rhythmically on bamboo poles, as they ascended the mountain by many, many stone steps.

Our visit to Mt Lushan did not fare much better in regard to limited views and foggy surrounds; and the intrepid members of the group who descended into a valley became engulfed in a shroud of mist as they set off on the forest pathway.

Simple Sights & Sounds

There were the little things that make memories beyond anything a camera can capture. Sometimes they are fleeting like the brief bus window views of fields being hand sown and burnt and harvested in areas still rural in an ever industrialised and citified China of today. There were the geometric patterns of the hillside tea bushes making green horizontal stripes across the landscape. There were the burial mounds and tombs tucked into the hillside looking out to streams and fishponds, and other water; many still decorated from recent Ching Ming festival days when family honour the ancestors.

A special treat was seeing some of the remaining outposts of the Great Wall standing against time and the elements, on hillsides now parallel to motorways weaving through the dry, dusty, remote regions.

Some of the roadside scenes were a delight on a long trip. There were the animal statues of zebras and elephants standing between the newly planted trees and looking quite incongruous. Our friendly roadside sculptor fooled me with a herd of black and white cattle – until we drove closer. We did see a couple of dairy farms up in the north; but nearly all our breakfast butter came from New Zealand.

Some of the scenery we passed on our bus trips was truly glorious; with lush mountains and forests of bamboo; and the gardens and ponds and villages looking like a slide show of fleeting images.

Then there was the frog that emerged from a length of bamboo being used to make scaffolding outside the jade factory at Nanjing. While watching the bamboo being cut and erected, the group cheered on the little frog’s efforts to make it across the paving stones to the cool of the leaf litter.

Much less enjoyable at many sites, was the noise of collar microphones coming from Chinese guides, who are hurrying their large groups along the same path. One longed for quiet, and only the sound of the birds in the park or forest trees.

Silks and Side Streets

There was the shopping, which a few embraced with enthusiasm; from pearls to paint brushes, from porcelain to Chinese peanut brittle.

We encountered only a few peddlers at busy sites.

The silk factory at Suzhou with its production line of now famous silk doonas was enjoyable. The jade factory at Nanjing felt like a bit of an ambush with the group confined to a sales room. We were, however, served tea. I must say though, that some of the carved jade figures on display were breathtaking in their craftsmanship.

The bamboo factory and accompanying supermarket at Xiamen induced great hilarity with its display of bamboo underwear and all-purpose creams. Probably the most enjoyable and bestselling visit was to the tea rooms, on the afternoon we arrived at Xiamen. The tea tasting was delicious and the ‘pee – pee boys’ are coming home with assorted premium teas from Oolong to Litchi to Jasmine. ‘Pee – pee boys’ are ceramic figurines kept in cold water, who test the heat level of the water going onto the tea by peeing it out copiously if too hot.

We were treated to some wanderings along ancient market streets where locals shopped; and everything from thousand year eggs to live fish and fresh vegetables were on sale. These were interesting insights to everyday town life in China, always bustling, always noisy, ever colourful.

History & Heritage

The knowledge of local guides enhanced our enjoyment of many sites. The lack of detailed historical knowledge of our guide at Xiamen and Fuzhou was frustrating. Generally our guides showed enthusiasm for a group who asked questions about all manner of things from politics to plants, and showed more than a passing interest in China’s History and Heritage. The best of our guides gave us an insight onto China today, as well as the past. They expressed pride in a China’s history, enthusiasm for the nation’s emergence as a new world of trade and industry, and an ongoing dislike for Japan. Generations on from what was frequently expressed as Japan’s aggression and invasion of China in the 1930s, an enduring legacy of distrust continues.

The sites visited ranged from millennia old monuments to modern reconstructions, even of whole towns, that are attempting to blend the artefact and artifice; almost turning some places into theme parks of cultural heritage.

It was disturbing to learn that many residents of Datong will be rehoused in apartments and the ancient city reconstructed to be taken over only by tourists. I think this is a mistake. Let the locals live on so that a restored city is really culturally alive. A walk around the old streets one morning gave lovely sights of women doing tai chi and old men sitting in the sun with their song birds.

Our visit to the Wooden Tower in Yingxian County was an insight into the old and the new side by side. The tower itself is an architectural marvel of wood and no nails in its construction. Built in 1056 and having withstood seven earthquakes, one in 1328 lasting seven days, the tower is about to be closed for ten years, for restoration. The nearby temples are only decades old and the township that has been built to ‘feature’ the tower is only four years old. The township looks like an ancient city but is not. You need to know the real history of the place or else the new could make you believe you are in the presence of the ancient.

One of the tangible reminders of ‘foreign’ presences in China in the 19th century is Gulangyu Islet, just five minutes ferry ride out of present day Xiamen. The area, once known as Amoy, was one of the five treaty ports open to foreign powers after the First Opium War by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The Victorian architecture of consulates, churches and hospitals on the 2 kilometre square cool and leafy islet, gives away its history as a foreign concession. Britain, France and Japan all had consulates there, and in 1903 it was officially designated as an international settlement. The Japanese occupied the islet in 1942. The place name ‘gulang’ means drum, from the sound of the waves hitting the reef; and ‘yu’ means islet. The narrow winding streets, colourful sub-tropical gardens, fish and sea food restaurants and many street vendors, today give a holiday air. No doubt that is one of the attractions for the very many Chinese visitors who crowd the ferry for a day on the islet. There is an extraordinary piano museum atop one of the hilly streets. I thought about our group being the only ones there for a while; especially given that forty million Chinese children supposedly took up piano playing after Lang Lang appeared at the Beijing Olympics. The islet is car free, but today one can catch an extended golf cart to be driven around the narrow winding streets.

I was particularly impressed with Nanjing, once the southern capital of China. A visit to the Presidential Residence reveals a story leading to recent Chinese politics from Taiping rulers to Dr Sun Yat-Sen who was there in 1911 and Chiang Kai-Shek who left there in 1949, as Communist Party leader Mao Zedong founded the Peoples’ Republic of China. The beautiful park containing Dr Sun Yat Sun’s Mausoleum is a fitting location for one of the signature figures in twentieth century Chinese politics and revolution.

China is known to have a continuous civilization of more than 5,000 years. Our travels revealed a rich and fascinating cultural heritage, just how vast the country is, and how much contrast there is between countryside and city. Today the migration of workers to the cities has visibly diminished rural areas where older people, women and children are tending the farms. Our guides talked openly about this shift in the everyday life of China.

The Nine

Many times we hear the talk that the number 9 is The Emperor’s Number, because no single number is greater than it. So I thought I would choose just 9 highlights of this ACFS (NSW) Colourful Scenery Tour of China 2013; which, as the time to leave drew near, gave me reason to be satisfied I had made the journey.

  • The Buddhas of Yungang Grottoes, one of the three major cave clusters in China. Sculpted into the north cliff of Wuzhou Mountain, Datong, the site is vast, extending 1 km (0.62 miles) from east to west. There are 53 caves and over 51,000 stone statues. The complex is a relic of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). Story has it that the caves were sealed with protective mud by the local villagers at the time of the Japanese invasions. Ironically a Japanese engineer exploring for coal in the 1970s rediscovered them.

The site is an impressive blending of art and religion; and one cannot but feel respect and admiration for the artists and believers in creating such a spectacle.

  • Hongcun Village, almost unbearable picturesque, with art students sketching on the bank of a lake, looks like the ideal location for a film; which of course it is. This exquisitely preserved, centuries old village, featured in Ang Lee’s sublime “wuxia” (martial arts) film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from year 2000. The UNESCO World Heritage listed site in Anhui Province, has about 400-500 years of history. The houses, former school, official buildings and labyrinth of laneways make for a fascinating visit. It has about 137 Ming and Qing style residences. Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], Qing Dynasty [1644-1911]

There are several imposing public buildings, such as the South Lake Academy (1814), the Hall of Meritorious Deeds (1888), the Hall of Virtuousness (1890) and the Hall of Aspiration (1855, rebuilt 1911). The resident villagers sweep around the visitors, and no doubt enjoy the evening when they can have their homes back to themselves. Apparently the locals share in the income from visitors.

The village faces south, with its centre lying at a point central to the flanking mountains and rivers. The open watercourse runs through all the houses in the entire village and forms two ponds, one in the centre (Moon Pond) and the other to the south of the village (South Lake). The chequer board pattern of streets and lanes follow the watercourse, giving the village a unique overall appearance.

The village is built in the shape of an ox. The locals liken their Leigang Hill as the ‘head’, two huge trees on the hill as the ‘horns’, the residences in it as the ‘body’, a winding stream as the ‘intestines’, a crescent pond as the ‘stomach’ and the four bridges as the ‘four feet’.

  • Mt Huangshan – Yellow Mountain – magnificent when shrouded in mist and mystical in mood, with its distinctive pines {pinus huangshanensis} growing precariously out of the rock faces, and with shapes that inspire the imagination.

One of the great symbols of China, Yellow Mountain is Chinese painting come to life.

Rising over 1,864 metres in the south of Anhui province, it was originally known as Mt.Yishan. It was renamed Mt. Huangshan in 747 AD in recognition of the legendary Huang Di, who was the reputed ancestor of the Chinese people and who made magic pills for immortality here.

The mountains rocks and peaks were uplifted from an ancient sea during the Mesozoic Era, 100 million years ago.

Stand quietly on the tracks and listen to the birds, while waiting for the veils of mist to momentarily float away and reveal the stunning vision of peaks and pines. If the ‘Summit of Brightness’ does not entirely reveal itself, you may be lucky to glimpse the ‘Beginning – to – Believe’ Peak.

  • The Master of Nets Garden is one of the many classical Chinese Gardens in Suzhou, the canal city. A small but elegant garden ideal for contemplation and offering all of the elements of Chinese gardens at their best: the water features and fish, the rocks, the pavilions and the plants. Azaleas and peonies were in bloom.

The garden combines both living quarters and landscape garden. The Hall of 10,000 Volumes, The Meditation Study, The Leading to Quietude Bridge, The Moon Comes with Breeze Pavilion and The Watching Pines and Appreciating Paintings Studio, are wonderfully named and suitably atmospheric, to contemplate such a splendid garden. Originally known as Fisherman’s Retreat, the garden was laid out under the Southern Song Dynasty [960 – 1279]. Today there is a lovely courtyard adorned with Penjing, miniature potted trees and rockeries in landscape forms. The shop serves ‘real’ coffee.

My only regret here was that we did not return in the evening to enjoy the music and opera that is performed in the garden.

  • The Hanging Monastery (Xuankong Si) is built onto the west cliff of Jinxie Gorge, about 65 kilometres from Datong City. This stunning construction seems to be suspended in time and space, hanging 50 metres above the ground. First built in 491, it was later rebuilt and maintained during the Ming [1368-1644] and Qing [1644-1911] Dynasties. To reach the temple itself, one walks across a watercourse and up and up many narrow winding wooden stairs.

The Travel China Guide website gave a fine description of the temple’s religions and reasons for building: “The second attraction of Hanging Monastery is that it includes Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Inside the monastery, the sculptures of Sakyamuni, Confucius and Laotzu appear together, which is unusual. There are 40 halls and cabinets, which contain about 80 sculptures made of copper, iron, terracotta, and stone. The features are vividly carved.
Why build a monastery like this? Location is the first reason; building a monastery on the cliff could shield it from floods. In addition, the mountain peak protects it from rain and snow; and the mountain around it also diminishes damage from long-time sunshine. The second reason is that the builders followed a principle in Taoism: no noises, including those from rooster crowing and dog baying; so from the upper ground, all noises drop away.”

*[Guides frequently refer to Buddha as Sakyamuni. Lao Tzu is the 6th century BCE founder of Taoism. Confucius 551-479BCE]

The entrance to the site has a wonderful list of 9 guides for travellers; including a request to protect cultural relics and historical sites; and protect the green environment by not cutting trees, picking flowers or fruits, or trampling the grass. The first two requests on the list are “Please be moral, in order and cultivated.” and “Please maintain the sanitation. DO NOT spit, relieve yourself or litter anywhere.”

Just keeping a footing on the narrow stairs of the structure, and looking over the edge of the landings does tend to keep any other misdemeanours at bay.

  • Fuzhou: Places of Peace & Contemplation – West Lake Park & Yongquan Temple on Gu Shan Mountain seem to go together. There is a comparable peacefulness about both of them. The park is really a 43 hectare garden comprising 30 hectares of water. It was first built in the Jin Dynasty c.282. Today it’s a favourite spot for locals to dance, sing, play with children and just walk quietly around the lovely grounds. The day we were there, a lone dragon boat was quietly resting in the water waiting for the next Dragon Boat Races which are held in West Lake during the Dragon Boat Festival every year. The eucalyptus trees growing beside the waterways were strong and tall. Poet of the Song Dynasty [960 -1279] Xin Qiju, is reputed to have compared West Lake with the unmarried Xi Shi, one of the four beauties of ancient China.

Serving a different but complementary purpose Mt.Gu (meaning drum hill in Chinese) is 17 kilometres (about 10.6 miles) from the downtown area. It gained its name from a large rock on the mountaintop shaped like a drum, and during thunderstorms, thunder appeared to emanate from atop the mountain-‘drum’, hence the name Mt. Gu. It’s lush and cool and beautiful. The Yongquan Temple is a stunning complex of halls with decorated buildings topped by dragons. Most of the halls are Ming and Qing Dynasty. The ‘Setting Free Pool’ dates from the Song Dynasty. In the centre of the pool is a large statue of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. The pool is home to many many tortoises and carps; all bought and set free by those visiting the temple. What was so special during our visit was that we were privileged to watch and listen to a Buddhist ceremony in the Drum Hall. The chanting and music, the devout at prayer, the incense burning in offerings, and the whole ambience of the place, made it a special visit.

  • The Lin Zexu Memorial Hall is quietly tucked away off a busy street in Fu Zhou, the capital of Fujian Province. It’s a splendid and informative museum, telling a story of one of the most significant episodes in what is known as the ‘opening up of China to the West’. In fact it deals with the colonial, especially British, imposition of the opium trade on a weak and corrupt final Imperial Dynasty – the Qing – in the 19th century and the resultant opium Wars that gave treaty port concessions to foreign powers.

Lin Zexu, [1785-1850] is presented as a folk hero and patriot of China, in his attempts to halt the opium trade when he was an imperial official. He destroyed about 1,188,127 kilograms (2,619,372 pounds) of opium at Humen Beach in 1839. The so called first Opium War ended with the unequal Treaty of Nanjing, Aug. 29, 1842, opening up five treaty ports at Shanghi, Canton, Ningpo, Fuchou and Amoy. Britain was also ceded Hong Kong. The consequences of the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) and China’s subjugation to the western concessions are brilliantly curated. Lin Zexu’s other endeavours including flood mitigation and ethnic harmonies are also explored. The museum needs more time than we had. It is deservedly regarded as a National AAAA Tourist Attraction, as well as one of the one hundred National Patriotism Education Base Models.

  • Mt Lushan has a history dating back to Neolithic times. The flourishing of so many different religions in the area makes it of special interest: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity were all practiced over the centuries. A favourite of poets and politicians, it was a summer retreat in the cool of the mountains. More than two hundred villas representing different architectural styles, from European to traditional Chinese, are on this site. Most of the villas were built in the last century and were used by many famous people, such as the former leader of CCP Mao Zedong and first President of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, and the former leader of Kuomintang Chiang Kai-shek, the former King of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk and the former Chairman of Vietnam Ho Chi Minh. Now the previous residences are open to visitors.

Of special interest is the Villa Meilu once occupied by General Chiang Kai-shek [Jiang Kai-shek], and his wife Soong Mei-ling. The house has original furniture, a kerosene fridge imported from the USA, some of Madame Chiang’s paintings; and a nice garden with a beautiful strand of bamboo, a very small pool and an air raid shelter. The narrative boards throughout the villa tell of both domestic living and political and military planning. The only jarring note to this significant artefact of China’s modern history is the dress up like famous people and pay for a photo, on the open balcony, amid the souvenirs.

  • The Trees, Flowers and Plants gave definition to the title of this tour as Colourful Scenery. China is making a concerted effort to offset the haze and smog of the rushing industrialization by planting millions of trees. In Nanjing there have been 10 trees planted for each of the 8 million residents. Purple Mountain in the centre of the city is a beautiful park of trees and shrubs and dynasty monuments. What is so lovely is the mountain park itself with plantings of sycamore trees and with remains of a centuries old city wall standing amid the greenery, the stones still firmly bonded together with rice mortar.

The array of trees on our many kilometres of travel included Camphor at Suzhou, magnificent Banyans at Fuzhou {the ancient ones decorated with lanterns in the streets}, mango trees in blossom in busy cities, banana trees in roadside fields next to new industrial sites, sandalwood, mahogany, the swaying forests of bamboo, and all the fresh plantings. Often these trees were six deep and stretched for miles along the new motorways.

There were flowering bauhinias, bougainvillea, hibiscus, pansies, peonies, snapdragons {seemingly only in colours of yellow or pink}; and of course marigolds, and chrysanthemums drying in large bins waiting for tea drinkers.

The birds were lovely, and tuneful, even the sparrows. The most colourful bird I saw was a red beaked, long tailed Chinese magpie. They were even singing in the mist at Mt Lushun.

The neatness of the tea trees on the hills and mountains, line after parallel line of them, was a master class in cultivation. They were a brilliant sight in the landscape.

The gardens were scented with shrubs and flowering trees.

It was a nice time to visit.

© Marilyn Sue Dooley May 2013