Trawling the internet throws up several nicknames for China. Perhaps most common is the “Middle Kingdom”. The Chinese believed that China was the centre of the world, surrounded by inferior cultures and civilizations. But the name “Land of Dragons”, also emerges. The Chinese believed that dragons are sacred creatures, symbols of power, strength, and good luck. The dragon also represented the emperor, who was believed to be a descendant of the mythical creature. Closely related is the alternative epithet,“ Land of the Red Dragon”. (Though Wales also lays claim to this one.) Red is considered lucky in Chinese culture. Finally, China is sometimes referred to as the “Celestial Empire”. The emperor was seen as the son of heaven, related to the divine beings who were in charge and gave rise to divine culture.
If you’re a traveller, there can be few words more evocative than China. It's not the easiest or most welcoming of places to visit and it's huge. But solo travel is much more possible than it was. The choice of sights, both cultural and scenic, is exciting and overwhelming. The food is a gastronomic experience too. It varies widely across the country (you'll need to practice with chopsticks or you'll go hungry in some places), but in essence the Chinese eat everything. Rats, snakes, dogs, and many other less-consumed animals (pangolin anyone?) form some of the iconic Chinese dishes. Mostly with rice, of course. (N.B. Fortune cookies originated in San Francisco).
My first Chinese visits were to Hong Kong, then a British Overseas Territory. But you can read about my other trips:
My first trip to China (if you don’t count Hong Kong) was in the nineties. This was pre-digital camera when the images are scanned from old prints, so they are a little grey and dull. That’s pretty well how the weather was when I was there- and the smog. It was a really good route, right up through the middle of China, (with a wiggle to the west and Sichuan/Yunnan), taking in all the major tourist sights. In those days touring was still very controlled and there was a lot of army surveillance. Hotels were dubious and the many diverse sights amazing.
The visit starts in Hong Kong and we catch the train over the border. Hong Kong. (Click for more recent trips.)
The city of Guangzhou, which the British used to call Canton, is our first stop. It's just 75 miles north of Hong Kong. Guangzhou, a city port on the Pearl River is one of China's largest cities. That makes it huge enough. But it's at the centre of the Guangdong–Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, which is the most-populous built-up metropolitan area in the world. Approximately 65,594,622 residents. That's about the same as the population of the UK.
Many of the Cantonese temples' contents were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but some Chines and Buddhist temples remain here. Perhaps the most famous is the The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, which dates back as as far as AD 537. The Flower Pagoda, the main structure of the temple, was built in 1097, rebuilt again in 1373 after a fire and restored in 1900.
Another landmark is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, on the site of Guangzhou's Presidential Palace. It was used when the Nationalists operated a rival "Chinese" government to the Zhili Clique's Beijing regime. The instigator of the Chinese Revolution remains the only relatively recent Chinese leader to be revered by both the Chinese and the Taiwanese.
But, my most distinct memories are of the amazing market. Just about anything that lives (or has lived) is for sale. Snakes, preserved in jars, dried bats and seahorses. The cutest of puppies. eat them or take them home for a pet. You choose.
A cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of China's must dos. The boat passes through some of China's most spectacular scenery as the shallow water winds through the wobbly karst peaks. They've all been named, of course, like stalactites. "Five Fingers Hill", "Penholder Peak" or "Dragon Head Hill". The misty pinkish sky frames the the water buffalo and fishermen wafting past on their low bamboo rafts. You can see where so many Chines painters have got their inspiration.
"By water, by mountains, most lovely, Guilin". says the tourist board. But they are right.
Some of the fishermen still use cormorants to catch their fish. The cormorants perch on the ends of their rafts, attached by a line. If a net has been deployed then they bring in the fish in their beak and are rewarded with smaller ones. Rings round their necks prevent them swallowing the larger catch. At night, the fishermen use lights to attract the fish and guide the birds. It's apractice dating back over 1,000 years, but it doesn't seem very kind to me.
East to Kunming. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, located on the shores of Lake Dian. The tourist attraction in this area is the Petrified Forest, about 60 miles south east. Here are more karst formations: rock caves, arches, pinnacles and pavilions. I would have thought it scenic if I hadn't seen Guilin first.
Kunming also has markets, temples and mountains. and incidentally, some horrible toilets. China has to have the worst toilets in the world. Open trenches round the back of the markets where you squat along with everyone else. amongst all the ordure already deposited. Ugh.
Back to the mountains. Yuantong Mountain, in the northeast corner of Kunming, has a popular urban 'Green Park'. It boasts cherry blossom, which comes earlier than in Japan and a zoo. Sitting at the foot of the mountain, is the Yuantong Temple, a series of Buddhist shrines, which have been expanded, but date back to the late eighth and early ninth century,
Now onto Leshan, picking up the Min River, a major tributary of the Yangtze, and following it north to its confluence with the Dadu river, just outside the city. There's a Buddha here, carved out of the red sandstone cliffs. It's 71 metres tall and dates to between 713 and 803 (during the Tang dynasty). That makes it the largest stone Buddha in the world and the tallest pre modern statue.
It's astonishing to find this scene so close to major road networks and conurbations. The river washes its feet and the Buddha faces Mount Emei, You can look down from the top, or descend ladders to the bottom. It is huge and horribly vertigo inducing. It's in the UNESCO recognised Mount Emei National Park.
Emei is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, an hour's drive west of Leshan. It is the site of the first Buddhist temple built in China, in the 1st century AD. There are seventy-six Buddhist monasteries now, altogether, most of them of the Ming and Qing dynasties, most of them built near the top of the mountain, which is over 3,000 metres high. it's not very warm either, even in August. You can visit them all on a winding 31 mile path, which takes several days to hike. Or you can cheat and take a cable car partway. The monkeys are another deterrent. They bite your fingers if you have food.
We are well into Sichuan province now. Spicy food - liberal use of chilli, garlic and Sichuan pepper, of course. I love the beef, but other dishes such as Kung Pao chicken and Yuxiang shredded pork have become increasingly known in the UK. This is also one of the main tea growing areas in China.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan. It's also famous for giant pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was founded in 1987. with six giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. These gorgeous black and white bears are endemic to China and live almost exclusively on bamboo. It takes a lot of bamboo to provide enough nutrition, so the bears spend a great deal of time eating. For many years they were endangered, as deforestation drove them out of their natural habitats. They are now classified as vulnerable. China sends other countries pandas - zoos love them, due to their audience appeal, so they make good bargaining tools. But they are never given, always loaned.
I'm sure the centre does a good job in breeding giant pandas, but viewing is more than a little frustrating. They're nibbling away at their bamboo behind plate glass. Even photography is difficult, because of the reflections.
We fly north to Xi'an, as it's a very long drive. Our first journey on internal Chinese airlines. I've been lugging my fat Lonely Planet guide to China round with me. There's a long section describing the poor accident records, and detailing horror stories. They use their own manufactured parts in their Russian fleet to test them out. Both pilots got locked out of the cockpit on one instance and had to use a fire axe to hack their way back in. A kind member of our group goes to great lengths to point this out, as the plane is taking off. In the event, I survive and we are given ice cream for our in flight meal.
Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. It has historical ties with several of China's ruling dynasties, but it's mostly famous for the Bingmayong (Terra Cotta Army), thousands of life-size, hand-moulded figures buried with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. They date back to 209-210 BC and were placed there to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. I'm lost for words. (Cameras were banned in those days!)
Also in Xi'an, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. This enormous Buddhist pagoda (64 metres) was built in 648/649 (Tang dynasty) to store the translations of Buddhist sutras obtained from India. An earthquake in 1556 Shaanxi reduced its height to 43 metres. The other tourist must-see is the Bell Tower. It's comparatively young, only built in 1384 (Ming Dynasty), but it's said to be one of the grandest in China.
A final flight, even further north, to Beijing. Aaargh, but more ice cream. And we take a day trip to the Great Wall, 'one of the most impressive architectural feats in history'.
Sadly, it's not true that The Great Wall can be seen from the moon. It's debateable whether it can even be seen from space. And it's not just one wall, its several, built at different times, starting in the seventh century BC. Some pieces run parallel, most were eventually conjoined. The best-known parts of the wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Watchtowers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signalling capabilities (through smoke or fire) were all incorporated. Collectively, the wall sections stretch from Liaodong in the east, to Lop Lake in the west and from the present-day Sino–Russian border in the north to Tao River (Taohe) in the south. It spans an astonishing 13,170.70 miles in total.
The purposes of the Great Wall, all too familiar: to control immigration, keep out invaders and ensure that those travelling the Silk Road paid their taxes. It also served as a very useful transportation corridor. Some sections have fallen so badly into disrepair that they have disappeared altogether. The stones are only too handy for building houses. Attempts have been made at restoration in the areas where the tourists are taken. And here, it's thronging.
In the capital city we visit the major sites, fly kites in Tianaman Square and hit the McDonald's close by. We've been eating a lot of Chinese food.
Read more about my visits to Beijing here.
Read more about China here.
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