31 Oct 2007 THREE WEEKS IN CHINA
On the first of November I returned from a three-week trip to China, which provided one highlight after another – scenery, flora and fauna, some memorable human encounters and one or two outstanding meals. Read about the highlights.
THREE WEEKS IN CHINA
I traveled with a friend from the Mountain. My main purpose in visiting China was to see Tiger Leaping Gorge. My friend’s main purpose was to see the terracotta warriors in Xian.
Though only about 30km long, the gorge, at 3700m, is reputedly the deepest chasm on the planet. We joined a small group of 15 people for a seven-day tour of Yunnan, flying into its capital Kunming, considered a bit on the small side with a population of 3,000,000, at an altitude of 1800m and predictably beset by pollution.
Our first day schedule did not allow us to breakfast at our hotel. We had to take an early flight to Dali, roughly the same altitude as Kunming. The cloud cover descended to 3,000 or so metres, concealing the mountaintops. At Dali we first glimpsed a quintessential Chinese scene; numerous figures in a landscape of small fields or large veggie patches, devotedly tilling the soil and tending their crops, blade by blade it seemed. There was little evidence of stock except in the local market. In this part of the Himalayan foothills there is a sequence of broad upland valleys. All the places we stayed in were in such valleys, the highest was well over 3000m.
As we were driven around Dali in the comfortable 24-seater bus, which was to be our means of transport until we flew back to Kunming to conclude our tour, I noticed clusters of golden orb spiders which perfectly mirrored those I encounter on the Mountain, although the species was different. It was autumn in the northern hemisphere and the Mountain spiders cluster during autumn, although not in quite the numbers I saw in certain parts of Dali and elsewhere in Yunnan. In Dali we took a ski lift to a monastery on the side of a hill towering above the town. I loved the vegetation, which was lush and dense and almost within touching distance.
From Dali we drove to Lijiang on an up and down route which left us at about the same elevation as when we set out. The cloud cover persisted, obliterating the celebrated Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which is higher than Mont Blanc. The next day we visited a small Ming dynasty temple with original murals dating from the fourteenth century, of timber construction eschewing the use of nails, the roof elements intricately and elegantly counterbalanced to provide stability. We visited Dr Ho, famous from Michael Palin’s ‘Himalaya’ TV series, who lived nearby. I can confirm Michael Palin’s uncomplimentary view of Dr Ho’s personal hygiene, though his knowledge of herbs appears to be vast. He offered us an agreeable tasting and refreshing tea.
As we left the broad valley in which Lijiang lay, via a steep mountain road – the main route to Tibet from the south – we were at last on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge. We climbed for long periods and descended for equally long periods. On one of our descents we made a toilet stop. By crossing the road and standing in the gateway of a monastery one could catch a first glimpse of the Yangtze far below. To enjoy the full majesty of the view I had to climb down a path and walk around the outside of a small pavilion. There I found a large wooden bench on which I sat, quietly taking in the immense scale of the Himalayan foothills stretched out before me, which the clouds, still obscuring the snow-capped peaks, did not seem to diminish. No bench in my experience was better placed and for that reason, more appreciated.
Our descent next brought us to the ‘first bend of the Yangtze’, which, at 1600m was the lowest point of our stay in Yunnan. The river here is over 1000km from its source. Instead of flowing south to Laos or Vietnam at this point, it flows east through China’s heartland and history.
We were now a short drive from the gorge. In intermittent rain, we took the low road into the gorge, or more correctly, the low path which extends about 3km to the narrowest point, the renowned Tiger Leap. The width of water here is 25m, extended by the presence of a large rock midstream which allowed the legendary tiger to successfully leap over the torrent. The sides of the gorge below the clouds rose at least 1000m above the river. The depth of water at this point is 40m, the current is violently swift and menacing. The path leads to a series of viewing platforms, the lowest only a few metres above the foaming water. I was surprised by the number of tunnels I had to walk through, built to protect tourists from falling rock. On the opposite side, 100m above the river, was the road through the gorge. I learned later that it was liable to regular landslips. On my way out of the gorge I caught a magical glimpse of a small patch of snow in a fleeting break in the clouds.
Our final destination on the tour was Zhongdian at 3,300m, which we reached after an amazing four-hour drive up the mountains. En route we saw herds of yaks. At night it was bitterly cold at that altitude.
The city parks we saw in China were immensely enjoyable places. Kunming’s had extensive water features, including boating lakes and ponds swarming with decorative coy carp, many pavilions, shaded walks, lawns, planted areas and groups of people large and small self-expressing through music, dance and theatre, watched by an appreciative audience, or exercising in a reposeful Chinese way. A few musicians would sit beside an ornamental canal and play traditional instruments, largely unnoticed and undisturbed by passers-by.
At a bandstand many elderly men and women would gather, variously forming a choir and an orchestra, combining with a lone male dancer to render patriotic songs harking back to revolutionary times, watched by a large crowd of mainly young people. In a pavilion two or three musicians played for a middle-aged woman who gave a most expressive performance of classical dance, her face serene yet full of passion for her art. The musicians at the bandstand and the pavilion had brought sound systems with them, not in a vehicle, but on bicycles. In yet another pavilion I was utterly enchanted by a theatre performance entirely acted by women.
In Xian’s park, occupying the narrow space between a canal and the massive Ming Dynasty wall, I gave myself a foot massage by walking barefoot on a meandering pebble path, laid out for that purpose, the stones all similar in size, set a couple of centimetres apart in cement.
Xian, our next stop, and Chengdu, our last stop, which we visited after our upstream Yangtze river cruise, had broad boulevards with service roads on either side, planted with no less than four rows of trees. The Chinese seemed to make a great effort to plant trees in their cities, even in side streets, which I found endearing, given the absence of private gardens
The pollution became more pronounced after our stay in Yunnan and gave a different meaning to the term ‘atmospheric’ when taking in the view. Xian, the Yangtze and Chengdu were all shrouded in haze. You would not have known that there was a range of mountains near the site of the terra cotta warrior display, until the haze thinned sufficiently to hint at their presence early in the afternoon. The effect of the pollution on the river cruise was to limit the view ahead, but not the vertical view in the gorges. Miraculously, the sun appeared on the day we visited the lesser three gorges on a tributary of the Yangtze. We had to trans-ship to a smaller vessel. The mountains were as high as those on the main stream, but far nearer the boat, so that we could easily see golden monkeys on the riverbank as we floated by.
From the cruise-boat we proceeded to Chengdu where we spent an enjoyable morning at the Panda Research Centre. Not only did we see giant pandas of all ages, we saw the much smaller but just as beautiful red pandas.
The Chengdu tour included a night’s stay at Mount Emai, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains, which we reached after stopping at Leshan to view the giant seated Buddha. Begun by a monk in 713 AD, it is 71m high. One of the pleasures of travel is to encounter the quintessential. We began to see tea gardens on the road between Leshan and Mount Emai.
Our various tours all included visits to Buddhist temples. Buddhism seems to be a well-supported religion in the parts of China we saw, and Mount Emai is generously endowed with temples.
Having had our fill of temples we determined to vary our itinerary and instead of walking to the foot of the mountain from a temple midway to its summit in order to see yet more temples, we decided to take the bus to the top, or at least to the end of the road at about 2800m. We had delighted in the bamboo rainforest, which shared the lower slopes with the occasional tea garden. We wanted to see more and wondered whether we might be able to go above the clouds, which as ever on this trip obscured the peaks.
After a twenty-minute wait the bus arrived and impatient to continue my journey, I ran to board it. I had one foot on the bottom step when I was figuratively knocked backwards by the stench of four pilgrims of indeterminate age from (according to our guide) Inner Mongolia, who, it seemed, had never washed themselves or their clothes. We were destined to spend the next hour and a half in their fetid company.
After about an hour we entered the cloud band and the temperature dropped dramatically. We saw rhododendron and azalea bushes, not in flower, but evocative nonetheless because they are native to this part of the world. We were still deep in cloud when the bus arrived at its destination. So we took the next bus down the mountain, thankful that, cold though we were, we no longer had to put up with our malodorous, erstwhile fellow passengers . . .