……and Culture Vultures.
The highlights of China, apart from the food, was all the other stuff!! The following is just a taste from the cultural smorgasbord of delights that were on offer.
SHANGHAI: from bamboo to boom town, Shanghai is the largest city by population in China with a total of over 23 million (as of 2010). Frighteningly fast development over the last two decades has made Shanghai influential in the world – in commerce, culture, finance, media, fashion, technology and transport. From some high kitch architecture to some cultural gems (both old and new) Shanghai was once a fishing and textiles town, and grew in importance when it opened to foreign trade in 1842, flourishing as a center of commerce between east and west, and becoming the undisputed financial hub of the Asia Pacific in the 1930s. The Communist Party takeover in 1949, saw the city’s international influence decline – to be re-instated by the 1990s by Deng Xiaoping that resulted in the return of finance and foreign investment to the city.
SUZHOU: From Shanghai to Suzhou, one of the oldest towns in the Yangzi Basin, with the completion of the Grand Canal during the Sui dynasty (589-618 Common Era). By the 14th century, Suzhou had become China’s leading silk producing venue and home to artisans, scholars, writers and actors. Much of its historical past was obliterated by insensitive development and the Cultural Revolution.
HANGZHOU: Renowned for its picturesque greenery (some of the best teas are grown here), West Lake (that inspired poets and painters alike) and Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou’s most famous Buddhist temple – destroyed and restored no fewer than 16 times.WUZHEN: situated in the Zhejiang Province, Wuzhen (pronounced ooochen) originated in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907). Wuzhen – a living fossil of history and culture, a graceful water town inhabited by locals who carry on with their lives ignoring the hoards of local and foreign tourists. A unique combination of real homes, museum collections and living craft traditions.
GUILIN: Situated in far southern China on the west bank of the Li River. Guilin means “forest of Sweet Osmanthus’. The Osmanthus trees in the city, along with the karsts (conical limestone hills that dot the terrain) form a unique feature of Guilin.
From Guilin, a leisurely 4 hour cruise down the Li River to Yangshou.
YANGSHOU: A popular haunt for backpackers and outdoor adventurers. One of the highlights here was the outdoor performance of Impression Sanjie Liu produced by Zhang Yi mou. Performed in the world’s largest natural theater which utilizes the waters of the Li River as its stage, with twelve karsts as a backdrop and 600 performers.
Above, hundreds of bamboo rafts and their fisherman, and below, over 200 Zhuang girls form a long column across the bridge over the Li River. Their silver dresses are illuminated in different colours, and the sound of their jewelery is heard clearly across the water – breathtaking.
KUNMING: Capital of Yunnan, (population 3.75 million) and known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ because of its all year round temperate climate. Yunnan has the most ethnic minorities in China, which make up about 1/3 of the province’s population. Their customs are rich and colourful, and this was highlighted in spectacular form in the performance produced by Yang Liping, China’s most famous dancer. In Shangrila: Dynamic Yunnan costumes, songs and dance are all brought together, with a fabulous finale by Yang herself in the Peacock dance.CHONGQING: Centrally located at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers, Chongqing is one of the major industrial centres of south western China. Reshaped by the Three Gorges Dam Project, large sea going vessels can now sail further upriver to Chongqing. Despite the advances, the city still depends on its Bang Bang Army, or city porters. Most of them are migrant farmers, marginalized in this metropolis only finding jobs carrying goods for others. And the hotpot – traditionally, poor man’s fare of internal organs (hearts, lung, etc) with lots of chili – now high class restaurant fare. DAZU: Dazu County in the municipality of Chongqing, renown for its rock carvings dating from the 9th (Tang dynasty) to the 13th (Song dynasty) century. The carvings at Baoding show a rich diversity of subject matter, both secular and religious, that shed light on everyday life in China during this period. Reflecting the harmonious synthesis of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.CHENGDU: Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, home of the pepper, Shu brocade and the Giant Panda.XI’AN: starting point of the Silk Road trade route, Xi’an is one of the most ancient capitals of the world. Famous for the Terracotta Warriors, the Forbidden City, the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, its City Walls and the gastronomical Muslim Quarter.The reproductions…………warrior parts in the coal fired kiln and freshly press-moulded torsos with joined limbs.And the real thing – quite stunning……… Only one lone archer was ever found in a complete state, all the remaining warriors were badly damaged and all have been restored – piece by piece – a mind numbing thought.
The Muslim Quarter, situated behind the Drum Tower – also called Islamic Street. The starting point of the famous Silk Road, Xi’an attracted traders from West since 1st century BC. During the 8th century AD it became the largest city in the world with over one million inhabitants, among which one third of them were foreigners. The ancestors of these Muslims have dwelled in Xi’an with the Han people harmoniously ever since.XI’AN to BEIJING: soft sleeper to Beijing…………BEIJING: old Peking, the fabulous Forbidden City that we know through The Curse of the Golden Flower set in the Tang dynasty: The Last Emperor and the opening scenes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The details of the Forbidden City provided a rich tapestry of colour and texture.
Away from the mass of seething humanity struggling to get to the top of the Wall, we find a quiet Daoist Temple complex with these crazy paintings – looking for all the world like animated film material.
The old way of life in Beiing – the Hutongs – where the locals lived and worked, were given away for the Olympic buildings. Thank goodness for tourism, as the government now realise what goldmines they have become in leaving them as they were
Behind the closed doors, a courtyard of hanging squash and a sense of calm – this hutong houses several generations of the one family. The destruction of Beijing’s hutongs in advance of the 2008 Olympics had many consequences for China’s cultural heritage. The Water Cube (swimming pool) by PTW Architects and the main stadium, the Bird’s Nest, by Herog and de Meuron.
The Summer Palace is the largest and best-preserved Imperial garden in China, its Chinese name YiHeYuan translating into ‘Garden of Nurtured Harmony’.
Our final visit – the Summer Palace. This served as the summer residence for the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, said to be originally designated for the Chinese navy into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace grounds.The chrysanthemum, which was blooming during those last days of autumn and early winter, are important in Chinese culure in their representation of nobility and elegance. From ancient times, its praises have been sung by Chinese scholars.