In May 2009 we persuaded Paul, our second son, to take us up to North West China. This is his side of the story.
Seven People, Six Cities, Four Provinces, One Autonomous Region...
and a Uyghur called Patti.
Having lived in China for the past eight years but never having traveled around the country, the two-week round-trip journey from Hong Kong via Yangshuo (Guangxi), Chengdu (Sichuan), Kashgar, Turpan (Xinjiang), Dunhuang, Jiayuguan (Gansu) and Xi’an (Shaanxi) was probably the closest I was going to get to what might be described as the “China Experience”. This is a term thrown about by pseudo China commentators regularly; what qualifies as an “experience” anyway? Is it something cultural and rather esoteric, or can that prolonged and awkward visit to the bathroom after a particularly potent hot-pot also be termed a “China Experience”?
I went to China in 2001 to study the language. Not because I had a deep seated desire to immerse myself in Chinese culture, nor because I wanted to report on the living conditions of China’s mega-population of peasants. The BBC’s regular misrepresentative and painful to watch “exposé’s” do just fine in that regard. It was simply because I recognised that a working knowledge of Mandarin might come in useful in the future.
It is not my place to comment on Chinese society in comparison to Western society. They are so different that you cannot objectively compare the two without sounding either smug or trite. I am staggered by the number of people who write books about life in China after spending just a few months (and sometimes only weeks) in the country. I am simply a man who moved to Beijing for my own reasons, was delighted that I enjoyed living in the city, and ultimately set up shop there for most of the next decade. Having said that, as I had only previously travelled to Shanghai, Qingdao, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Shenyang, I was very much looking forward to the trip around the People’s Republic if only because from what I’d seen and read, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was the closest thing you’d get to a Central Asian experience without needing another visa. That I was going to be able to strut in front of my parents, godparents and family friends like a peacock in full bloom using what I’d learned in the Northern Capital was a boon. You see, I’m a bit of a show off as anyone will tell you who ventured into The Bookworm in Beijing on a Monday night for our weekly (award winning) pub quiz, or on the second Thursday of the month for our equally popular Basically Beethoven classical music open-mic evening. After each leg of the journey I shall rate each place on a “China Experience” scale of 1-10 with 1 being as Chinese as cheddar cheese and 10 Modern Communist China in all its red glory. (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!)
So, to the trip.
We began our mini adventure on a Sunday morning as the retired population of Hong Kong set out to do their morning Tai Chi. We were to take the train into Guangzhou, fly to Guilin and then transfer by bus to Yangshuo. All up it took us the better part of a day but the distance we had traveled? Hardly anywhere. China is a vast country and, if we’re simply using climate as our guide, we might as well have been in Hong Kong’s New Territories. But unlike the New Territories, the topography of Guangxi is, simply, breathtaking. If you think about classical Chinese painting you either get the Taoist mountains of Shandong coming to mind, or the rugged and rippling terrain of Guangxi. Indeed, near Yangshuo in the village of Xingping the picture used for the reverse of the ¥20 RMB note was taken. Friends of mine who have been in China since the early 1990s tell me of a time when Yangshuo was a quiet fishing village with a couple of restaurants and maybe one or two places to stay. Not so today.
We stayed at a nice little place - The Rosewood Inn (which I’ll give 3 stars to for their rooms but 1 star for their breakfast), a semi-boutique style hotel and one of a small handful in the village. The hotel’s manager, named by the Group as “10% Sam” is a businessman originally from Hong Kong but who has lived in Yangshuo for the better part of the last 10 years. Never let it be said that Hong Kong businessmen can’t spot a good deal when they see one because dear Sam now runs an entire strip of restaurants on one of the busiest streets in the village. Yangshuo still has a romantic feel to it, helped along by the mist, the mountains and the cormorant fishers, but make no mistake – this is a tourist destination and the irritating “guides” pressing you every waking minute to go with them to see the “real” countryside, or sell you goods and services “very cheap” can get tiresome.
The Group ventured out on its own on long bicycle rides, into the food market and down the river on bamboo rafts. We included a visit to the extraordinary sound and light show held twice nightly on the outskirts of the village. Zhang Yi Mou (director of the excellent film Raise The Red Lantern – one of the first foreign language films I saw and one of my all-time favourites, and Artistic Director for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games) has come up with a huge spectacle using the surrounding scenery as his stage and about 300,000 people and a similar number of light bulbs to create, at least in my opinion, a vulgar and thoroughly dull 60 minute show. Some people like it. I didn’t. (I didn’t really like the opening ceremony either but, as you will have read in an earlier post on this blog, for those who were actually there on the night it was a quite different experience to watching it on television).
“China Experience” Rating: 8/10
It’s China alright, from the picture postcard scenery and interesting dining (Pijiu Yu or “Beer Fish” is a local speciality) to all the bells and whistles of a country tourist destination.