China’s Communist Party decided to open the country to the outside world in 1978. By the early 1990s, there were only very limited observable results for a foreign visitor. To my Australian eyes, even as a reasonably seasoned Asian traveller, the country was resoundingly exotic.
I visited China in 1993 as a member of an Australian university delegation hosted by the All-China Youth Federation (the young Communist Party). My friend and fellow delegate, Peter Snowdon, took the photo of street sweepers in Xi’an, and kindly agreed to allow me to use it in this post.
Xi’an was once the capital of China, and is now most famous for the Terracotta Warriors, constructed around 246–206 BC as a memorial for First Emperor Qin so as he could be represented in the afterlife in the same way as in life.
Of many memorable events I recollect from that first visit to China, one particularly astonished me. In Guangzhou, our delegation was hosted to yet another banquet, at a restaurant tucked away in the suburbs, and away from areas frequented by foreigners. The restaurant band provided backing for local patrons who wished to sing. As their consumption of Maotai (China’s famous hard liquor) increased into early afternoon, the accompanying toasts of ‘Maotai’ became louder, as did their singing.
Eventually, one of my fellow delegates decided to ask the band whether they knew a particular song, to which the band leader replied, in effect, ‘of course’. The band then played an excellent and note perfect version of the old Australian bush ballad Click go theShears, a song about shearing sheep, accompanied less well by my colleague’s vocals.
Nestled by the Jialing River, Langzhong is a relaxed small city in Sichuan Province, about 300 kilometres east of the province’s capital, Chengdu. With beautiful traditional architecture, towers, temples, an ancient examination hall where candidates for government jobs were tested on their knowledge of Confucian texts, swooping tiled roof lines, and narrow streets, there is an intact link with its 2,300 year old history.
The old part of the city is pedestrianised, and is especially appealing on a summer night as people enjoy the cooler air, promenading, exercising, relaxing on stools, playing cards, the young ones enjoying soccer and other games, always in the half light of old buildings, with glimpses of enticing courtyards and exotic wares for sale.
Many courtyards are invitingly open. Stay in a courtyard guesthouse to enhance the sense of history, stroll through the multiple courtyards of a wealthy merchant’s home from the Tang Dynasty, visit the memorial courtyard home where Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai stayed during the Long March in 1935 as leaders of the Red Army, later destined to be leaders of China after the revolution in 1949.
Hong Kong is an orphan in many ways, disconnected from China by colonisation and the culture of colonial rule. It was a British prize of the Opium Wars in 1841, that disgraceful era when government trading in human misery, including drugs and slavery, was a feature of many of the then most advanced and richest countries in the world.
My Hong Kong visits have usually been on the way to or from mainland China, with a resulting impression that Hong Kong is Asia Lite, an unchallenging place where westerners can experience a touch of the foreign but always be comfortable and close to their needs and desires.
Hong Kong is renowned for shopping. I always prefer a local market to the up-market marbled air-conditioned shopping malls that breed in capital cities throughout the world and feed off the modern fetish for brand names. The photo was taken at an unheralded and unfashionable neighbourhood market on Hong Kong island amongst the jumble of local housing.
While publicity about Hong Kong frequently highlights examples of economic dynamism, the extremely wealthy, and expensive house prices, less focus is on the gap between the rich and poor, which is one of the widest in the world. This inequality was a major motivation behind the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the year I last visited.
I encountered the market in the photo while using the Central-Mid Levels escalator and walkway system, a free and excellent way to explore and enjoy the views as you ascend the sometimes steep slopes to 135 metres above the harbour. The economical and efficient ferries, trains and buses add to the ease of travel, essential for locating the best food and places of interest.
Emei Shan (Mount Emei) is one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains, a place of pilgrimage for nearly two thousand years, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Traditionally, pilgrims hiked to the top of the mountain, a distance of about 30 kilometres, while stopping off at temples and monasteries on the way. Many monasteries still provide overnight accommodation. Modern pilgrims can take the easier option of ascending by bus and cable car, and staying in hotels.
Like important pilgrimage sites elsewhere, many now visit Emei Shan for reasons other than religion. The walk up the mountain is the pinnacle of the experience, and is reputedly a place of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition. Pilgrims and hikers often use thick bamboo poles to assist their climb, a reminder of the wooden ‘Pilgrim’s Staff” traditionally used for the Camino de Santiago, the long walk to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.
Emei Shan is 3099 metres high (10,167 ft), providing superb views of misty mountain slopes reminiscent of classic Chinese landscape paintings, lush forests, mirror like lakes, waterfalls and rushing streams. The temples and monasteries, of which there are more than one hundred, vary in age and style, and are often constructed to best fit into the landscape and exploit the views. Those interested in temples, Buddhism and Chinese history will find Emei Shan very rewarding, while hikers can enjoy the natural world and challenging walks.
Our friends from Chengdu observed that the admission fees paid to each temple or monastery, given the numbers of visitors, indicated a substantial source of income. An interesting point. Religious institutions often do have a very successful business model, whether in China or elsewhere, one that supplies more revenue than required to simply meet the spiritual needs of their devotees.
Before arriving at Emei Shan, our friends mentioned that on the return journey of a couple of hours to Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital city, they could take us on the ‘Narrow Road.’ Not quite understanding the meaning of this option, we agreed. During our several days on the mountain, they kept us informed about weather conditions, eventually explaining that the absence of rain meant that we could undertake the trip as there would be no landslides, and the road would not be too slippery. Should we have been more alert and a little alarmed? This road was not one of China’s modern tollways, or even a modest country road. It was something much more challenging. But that is another story.
Two decades ago, I visited the ancient walled city of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province and left with vivid and fond memories. I returned last year, curious to see whether the city and its surrounds had changed, and a little apprehensive that my recollections would not be matched by the reality.
Then, transport to and from Dali was uncomfortable. The sleeper bus from Kunming offered a coffin-like bed on bumpy roads, so that sleep was virtually impossible. The return trip by day bus was even more challenging; no leg room, and no toilet stop for many, many hours. This time, the train from Kunming in Soft Sleeper class (the best train class in China) and then onwards to Lijiang was bliss. Mrs Nomadic gave this mode of travel her unqualified approval.
Dali is picturesque, wedged between the impressive Cangshan mountain range (reaching 4122 metres high), and forty kilometre long Lake Erhei. Like much of Yunnan province, Dali and surrounds is famous for its ethnic minorities, and their distinctive cultures, traditions and attire.
One of the highlights of my earlier trip was to journey by boat to a village market across Erhai Lake, enjoying the reflections of the mountains in the water, seeing the old Buddhist temple located on an island, small fishing boats, and traditional cormorant fishing. The most memorable images are of the village market: the women and girls all dressed in strikingly colourful outfits.
Twenty years ago, Dali was a popular place for backpackers. A couple of main streets had numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops catering for their interests, including the quaintly named Salvador Dali Cafe. Besides boat trips on the lake, and opportunities to see traditional village life nearby, there were, and are, many outdoor activities like cycling, walking, hiking and climbing pursuits available.
In two decades, much has changed in Dali, as in China. One of the most striking differences in Dali is the level of domestic tourism. Even in the couple of streets where westerners were so visible 20 years ago, they are now relatively rare in a sea of Chinese faces. I like seeing this change, as part of China recovering its identity.
The old town has spread, but rather well generally, in a manner reflecting increasing prosperity. A short walk of a few hundred metres outside the city walls two decades ago took you into the town’s rural fringes, up the hill to catch the view to Lake Erhei with the town in the foreground, or looking in the other direction, to the peaks of the Cangshan mountain range. A slightly longer walk allowed you to stroll around Dali’s famous 3 pagodas. Now the 3 pagodas are enclosed, with a large park for buses and cars, and access by paid admission only.
On my latest visit, I initially wondered whether the traditional dress worn by the women in Dali was part of a tourist thing. Generally this was not so, as traditional dress is still worn in the locals-only markets, both in Dali itself and in the outlying villages, whether the women and girls are working or not.
How true are recollections from twenty years ago? The lake now has a road right around it (something new, I think), the water doesn’t seem as crystal clear, cormorant fishing is now an event to see on a day tour, and motors and pulleys located on the side of the lake haul in large fishing nets dropped out far into the water by boat. Not quite so romantic and quaint, but life evolves.
Chengdu is large, with a population of 20 million people including the surrounding suburbs.
It follows other Chinese cities in attempting to balance the old and new in a world of rapid industralisation, population growth, and modernisation.
Just around the corner from this lane, the Narrow Lane in Central Chengdu, stands a brick wall from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Nearby is a memorial to the Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu (712-770), one of China and Japan’s most revered poets. He is honoured by the preservation of his cottage and its surrounds. There are numerous other historic sites around the city including Buddhist and Taoist temples, and traditional gardens. They are refuges from modernity.
Chengdu is many things, like all cities. As the capital of Sichuan Province, it’s the home of Sichuanese cuisine, claims to have the best tea houses in China, is best place to see pandas, and has an unexpectedly relaxed outlook on life.