There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Xi'an: Part 1 of The Chinese Silk Road

Central Xi’an still sits contentedly within its massive fourteenth century walls, and it is this rather than the population – variously quoted at 3, 6 or 10 million - that makes it seem far less of a mega-city than Shanghai.

The airport is thirty kilometres from town. Four years ago we arrived in the evening and took a taxi along brand new motorways, deserted except for an army of toll collectors. We drove into the outer suburbs down a long straight road lined with low buildings. Outside every one was a group of snooker tables where young men practised potting in pools of orange light. This time we arrived just after lunch, an hour ahead of schedule, so we were pleased that Zhou Li, who would be our guide for the next day’s trip to the mountains, was already there to greet us. This time the roads were busier, but the tollbooths no less numerous. Zhou Li happily demonstrated that, had talking been an Olympic sport, she would easily have made the Chinese team and we had absorbed a long and informative lecture by the time we reached the city walls.

The walls form a perfect rectangle some 4km by 2km. The longer sides are orientated east-west, the shorter north-south, and the streets inside are laid out on a rigid grid. Here, if ever there was one, is a mathematician’s city. Built originally in 1370 of rammed earth, the walls were faced with brick in 1568. Being 12 metres high and 18 metres thick, the chances of not noticing them are minimal. A watchtower guards each corner and a fortress-like gate adorns each side. There were also drawbridges over a moat. The drawbridges have long gone but sections of the moat remain, their banks dotted with anglers. The state of the water would not encourage me to eat their catch.
Fishing in the moat, Xian 2004
The demands of modern traffic have created far more than the four original perforations in the wall, but it remains a formidable barrier, and getting into or out of the city at peak time demands more patience than most Chinese drivers want to show. Inside there is often gridlock, but building restrictions mean you do not feel lost at the bottom of a vast canyon.

The South Gate, Xian City Walls, 2004
It was on this site, a millennium and a half before the walls were built, that Qin Shi Huang established Changan, the first capital of his newly united China. The Emperor Qin is not an easy man to like. He was ruthless, as any successful warlord must be; he drove his people hard to build version one of the Great Wall, and when that was done, he drove them harder to build a vast army of terracotta figures to guard his tomb. We had seen the Terracotta Army on our earlier visit, but it is impossible to write about Xi’an without mentioning it. What is, perhaps, most remarkable is that you can see many examples of similar grave goods in the city’s Shaanxi Regional Museum. Men of power and influence were in the habit of taking small armies, their house and servants, even farmyards, complete with strutting cockerels and snuffling pigs, to their graves with them. But the others are dolls’ house size. Only Qin had an army of full sized soldiers, horses and chariots; only Qin had as many soldiers as a real army. What an ego!

Terracotta Warriors, Xian
Like many such monsters, he cowed not only his enemies but also his descendants, and soon after his death in 210 BC, the provinces rose in revolt. By 206, his heirs had been swept aside and the Han dynasty established. It was under the Han that Changan, became one of the world’s great metropolises.

The city was as large and powerful as contemporary Rome, and it was hardly surprising that these two great empires bracketing either end of the Eurasian landmass should establish trading links. Unlike Rome, the Chinese empire did not fall to barbarians and whilst Europe had its dark ages, Changan had its golden period. A Tang dynasty census in the eighth century recorded almost two million inhabitants, making it by far the world’s largest city.

Changan lost its status as China’s capital in the disunity that followed the fall of the Tang around 960. Under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) its name was changed from Changan (Perpetual Peace) to Xi’an (Western Peace). Given the warlike nature of some its rulers there is irony in the names, though today the main threat to peace comes from the incessant and unruly traffic.

The one major site we missed on our previous visit was the Bell Tower, not because we could not find it - it defines the centre of the city - but because it was covered in scaffolding and boarded up. This time it was open, so we paid our fee and climbed the steps from the underground shopping mall into the ancient tower.

The Bell Tower, Xian

The Bell Tower is a typical wooden construction of the Ming period, standing on a brick platform in the middle of a traffic island. It was built around the same time as the city walls were faced with brick. The tower’s original purpose was to hold a bell that was clanged at dawn, telling the citizens to rise. Facing it, two hundred metres across a paved park, is the Drum Tower. Here a drum was beaten to inform everybody that it was dusk and time to go home. Having two different towers with their two different sounds suggests that either Ming dynasty citizens could not tell dawn from dusk, or that somebody was interested in prestige building projects.

The Drum Tower, just across the 'park'
The walkway round the platform provides impressive views down the main traffic arteries of the city.

There is also a large bell, where Chinese children were queuing up to dress in Ming costume and pretending to hit it.
The Bell after the children had gone away
The Bell Tower, Xian
Inside, the carillon is impressive, though a modern copy of the original. The large bells are recognisably bell-shaped but the small ones could only be Chinese. After a glance at the exhibition upstairs we returned to the carillon for the hourly performance.

Two energetic young ladies struck the smaller bells whilst an older woman with a large stick strode around poking the larger bells at appropriate moments. Three more musicians played assorted stringed and wind instruments, one of them blowing into a complex array of pipes like a miniature church organ held in two hands. Finally, a couple of dancers arrived to add to the scene. To western ears, the sounds were strange, but pleasant, though the finale, a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, seemed deeply weird.

Blowing into a miniature church organ
The Bell Tower, Xian
For dinner we set off to eat Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji (Fragrant, Fragrant Big Plate Chicken). The eponymous restaurant specialises in a dish involving a whole chicken chopped, roasted, placed on a bed of noodles and then covered in an aromatic sauce. It was mentioned in our guidebook and, more significantly, thoroughly recommended by our daughter and son-in-law, whose judgement I hold in high regard.

We jumped in a taxi and showed the Chinese characters to the driver. He thought for a moment, then shrugged and shook his head. ‘Changan Nan Lu’ I said, telling him the street. Unfortunately, it helps to be English to understand my Mandarin.

We returned to the hotel and asked the receptionist to write the street name in Chinese. ‘I don’t know this restaurant’ she said as she wrote.

Undaunted – well, partially daunted - we returned to the street and found another taxi. The driver looked no less perplexed than the first, but he set off heading purposefully south. Unfortunately, Changan Nan Lu is the main street heading out from the south gate and is several miles long. As an address, it was less than pinpoint.

After driving a decent distance beyond the gate, he slowed so that he could inspect the signs over the many shops and restaurants. Then he stopped and phoned his office. Apparently, nobody there knew this restaurant either. We drove on a bit more and then he phoned somebody else.

The driver was becoming distinctly uneasy. Deciding to put him out of his misery and cut our losses, we paid him off and clambered from the taxi. He felt under an obligation to complete the journey and by baling out we were making him lose face, but I could think of nothing else to do.

Changan Nan Lu is a wide thoroughfare and there were plenty of people about. Beside the road was a large open area, recently cleared of buildings, where an impromptu market was establishing itself. We had seen frequent excavations along the roadside and some considerable piles of rubble.

Changan Nan Lu, from the Bell Tower to the distant South Gate
We walked to the next corner where there was another line of restaurants, none of them called Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji. A friendly local accosted us, asking what we were looking for. She too had never heard of the restaurant. She spoke to a couple of street traders and then a passer-by, but by now it was clear we were wasting our time. ‘Perhaps’ she said in impressive English, ‘it has gone.’ She gestured at the excavations and piles of rubble, ‘they are building a new metro line and many buildings have been demolished.’

We crossed a footbridge and walked a couple of blocks back north, but without much hope. There were plenty of restaurants, some looked inviting, but none were Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji. We debated choosing one at random, but in the end took another taxi back to the centre.

On our first trip to China in 2004, we were fascinated by the way we found ourselves stepping from First World to Third and back again just by turning a corner or crossing a road. There was no better example than the 200 metre walk from the chic consumerism of the Century Ginwa Centre underneath the Bell Tower, to Xi’an’s Muslim quarter. That this brief stroll also involved passing the Ming elegance of the Drum Tower and a branch of McDonalds just added to the bizarre richness.

We took this walk again. In the evening the main street of the Muslim quarter offers an array of kebab stalls and other eateries, and if Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji was off the menu, we would have a kebab.

Rounding the corner by McDonalds, we found ourselves confronted with a brand new brightly lit arch bearing the words ‘Welcome to Xi’an Islamic Street’. The Third World had receded since our last visit.

The rather tarted up Muslim  Quarter, Xian
There are Hui communities in most Chinese cities. Allegedly descended from Arab soldiers, they look much like any other Chinese except the men wear small white cylindrical hats and some of the women wear headscarves. There are thirty thousand Hui in Xi’an, living mainly in the tightly packed streets of the Muslim quarter and worshipping at the Great Mosque, a building Islamic in function but entirely Chinese in design.

Just as ‘Steak’ on a British menu implies ‘beef steak’, ‘meat’ in a Chinese menu implies pork. The Hui are not always the most observant of Muslims, but eating pork would be a step too far, and the default meat in the Muslim quarter is mutton. The scruffy street of grubby kebabis where we had eaten four years ago is now a brightly lit bazaar, with neat little kebab shops jostling for space with bigger, smarter, air-conditioned restaurants.

Eating kebabs in the Muslim quarter
Xian 2004
We pulled the meat from the scimitar-like skewers and ate it with flat Muslim bread at a table set up in the road – they did not want us in their little restaurant, they wanted us prominently displayed outside. The meat was tender and flavoursome and the Hui are relaxed enough about their religion to sell the beer needed to wash it down. We ate well, but it I was not Xiang Xiang Da Pan Ji.

The Bell Tower at night as we strolled back from the Muslim Quarter

Zhou Li arrived next morning to take us on our expedition to Hua Shan (Flower Mountain) one of China’s five sacred mountains. Hua Shan is 120km east of Xi’an and we set off along a motorway which could have taken us the whole 900km to the coast.

The land was remarkably flat, but we were expecting to find ourselves entering a more mountainous region soon. After 40km we by-passed a substantial city. ‘Where’s that?’ I asked Zhou Li. ‘Weinan,’ she replied, ‘it belongs to Xi’an’. Population figures quoted for Xi’an vary considerably this explained why. The city has, I think, 3 million people, then there is the metropolitan area and finally, to achieve the 10 million figure, they include the surrounding counties. Calling Weinan part of Xi’an is like calling Worcester part of Birmingham.

Over a 100Km into the journey, we were still in a broad, flat, plain. Hua Shan has five peaks shaped, if you have enough imagination, like the petals of a flower. All the peaks are around 2000m, rather too big, I thought, to hide in a heat haze.

We had left the motorway and almost reached the park area before a mountain loomed out of the mist.

There were plenty of places in the official car park and as many spaces at the official restaurant where we went for an early lunch. Zhou Li ordered for us after only the briefest consultation. The food was good, although her choices were a touch bland. There was also enough for six. She and the driver ate separately so we did our duty by polishing off a generous third of what was on the table but still felt uneasy about the quantity wasted. This is, however, the Chinese way. If guests eat all the food offered, then clearly they have not been given enough, so to avoid losing face the host must grossly over-provide. Being brought up in the aftermath of wartime rationing with the phrase ‘nice clean plate’ ringing in our ears, we had some cultural adapting to do.

Hua Shan, definitely the official place to start
The shuttle bus from the visitor centre wound up a narrow defile into what felt like the heart of the mountain. We all decamped at a small square and bought some more tickets, this time for the cable car. We joined a long queue of cheery Chinese in baseball caps and cowboy hats snaking their way through the metal barriers with encouraging speed.

The journey was spectacular. We swung over no huge spaces as you can in the Alps, but travelled up a rocky funnel and past huge vertical slabs of bare stone where the occasional tree had forced its way through a gap and was hanging on for dear life. We were among the precipitous faces and strange vegetation of Chinese landscape painting.
p through a rocky funel

I decided to speak to Zhou Li on the subject of food: ‘Is it true that the Chinese think all westerners hate chillies?’ I asked, realising as I spoke that by asking about perceptions rather than the truth of those perceptions I was burying a linguistic land mine under the conversation.

‘Yes,’ she answered, stamping firmly on the firing mechanism. Most Chinese tour guides speak excellent English and Zhou Li was one of the best. However, as very few have the opportunity to travel and mix freely with native speakers, their listening skills are often far less developed. This counts double when you are trying to explain something entirely contrary to all received wisdom.

Mountain Dwelling on a Summer's Day
by Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715)
National Palace Museum, Taipei

From the top of the cable car a series of paths led off in various directions, most of which could be described us ‘up’.

From the top all paths lead up
None of the signs meant anything to us, so we chose a path at random and strolled along it. After a while the way narrowed into a groove cut into the rock face with a chains on the outer edge; the stream of people going our way negotiating passing places with the stream coming the other. After this the path widened until we reached a broad rock platform. The only way forward now was up a vertical face into which had been carved a set of a dozen steps, each 50cm high and the width one’s toes. Chains had been draped down the cliff and every man in China, his wife, children and grandmother was shinning up and down as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Lynne did not look at the obstacle for long. ‘No chance!’ she said, which conveniently let me off the hook.

We retraced our steps and tried another route. This soon involved an airy ridge of bare rock guarded by low chains on either side. Although exposed it was wide enough to be completely safe, though not quite wide enough to feel completely safe. ‘No chance!’ said Lynne again with a tone of absolute certainty.

An airy ridge of bare rock
We did, however, get an excellent view of the ‘Heavenward Ladder’ over the intervening gorge. This kilometre long ladder is tacked onto a bare spine of rock leading to the North Peak. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people were swarming up and down what looked from our distance to be a totally exposed, near vertical, set of wooden steps.
The Heavenward Ladder, Huashan

We never made it to any of the peaks, but we did enjoy wandering around, looking at the views and peering into the precipitous depths. We came across several stalls selling cold drinks and pieces of watermelon and a few old men staggering round under carry-poles transporting the goods to the stalls. To minimise costs some of them carry these loads all the way from the villages at the foot of the mountain - a very hard way to earn a very meagre living.

We rejoined Zhou Li at the cable car terminal where an old man was leaning on his carry-poles singing Chinese folk songs. He had a strong, clear voice and we stayed to listen. Doubtless, he made more from his singing than his carrying, although when it came to collecting money he looked almost embarrassed.

On the way down we were joined in our car by four young men who had been up the mountain early and had done all five peaks. Though obviously full of youth and vigour, they had no special clothing or equipment. They told us they had heard of a fatal fall from one of the paths earlier in the day. Maybe the rumour was not true, but it probably was. I hoped the cable car engineers took safety a little more seriously than their clients.

Just one of the five peaks, Huashan
At the bottom, the queue for the cable car was several times bigger than when we went up, though still boisterous and cheerful.

From the point of view of conquering peaks, our day had been a failure, but it had been an enjoyable and very typically Chinese day out. Of course, Chinese people do go to see the Terracotta Warriors and the other major sites, but they are on the itinerary of every tour group, so European and American visitors usually outnumber the locals. This concentration of wealth attracts the most desperate street traders who see tourists only as walking wallets. The combination of aggressive traders and rich people pathologically frightened of being ripped off brings out the worst in both cultures. It also generates an army of tour managers dedicated to shielding foreigners from unwanted attentions and effectively keeping them in tourist ghettoes. Hua Shan, on the other hand, attracts few westerners and no rip-off merchants. Travelling as ordinary people among ordinary people, we met only cheerfulness, helpfulness and courtesy – not to mention a frightening disregard for personal safety.

More ropcks like a lanscape painting
Xi’an railway station occupies what should be a section of the wall, but at a time when the walls represented nothing but the bad old imperial days, 500m were removed to make way for the trains. Today this looks a poor decision but there is no way back. Next morning our cases passed through the X-ray machines without question and, with a little help from Zhou Li, we found our way to the soft sleeper waiting room and then, but only after the train had arrived, onto the platform. The Chinese, often so cavalier about health and safety, never let a passenger onto a platform when a train is coming in or going out.

We settled into our four-berth compartment and waited to see who our travelling companions would be. Having travelled this way throughout China, Russia and Mongolia, we have had some pleasant and interesting companions, and, so far, no bad experiences.

A few minutes before departure time we were joined by a respectable looking middle-aged couple.

‘Ni hao,’ we said.

‘Not Ni hao,’ the man replied, ‘we are Japanese.’

Sadly, they spoke little English and after ‘sayonara’, my only Japanese consisted of unhelpful words like ‘kamikaze’ and ‘hara-kiri’. International relations were, however, maintained by a great deal of smiling and the exchange of English biscuits and Japanese raisins.

After a while, the man got out his map and told us they were going to Zhangye. I pointed out Jiayuguan, the next town on the line, as our destination.

‘You know Tunku?’ he asked.

I shook my head, the name was unfamiliar. He rifled in his bag, produced a Japanese guidebook and showed me pictures of huge sand dunes. It looked suspiciously like Dunhuang. I suggested this, but it meant no more to him than ‘Tunku’ had to me.

He returned to the map. ‘Tunku’ he said, pointing out a small town. Underneath the Chinese characters he was reading as ‘Tunku’ was the pinyin word ‘Dunhuang’. I told him we were going to ‘Tunku’ after Jiayuguan and it looked very interesting. They had obviously been discussing this earlier, and after a little more debate they decided to skip Zhangye and go straight to Dunhuang.

I was unsure if you could change a ticket once you were on the train, but he called the carriage attendant and opened negotiations. It became clear that his Mandarin was no better than his English, but he was not prepared to give up easily. Pulling out a pad, he wrote some characters on it. The carriage attendant nodded and wrote an answer. A written conversation followed, as if between two deaf people.

I was unsure of how conclusive the negotiation had been, but I was impressed that it had happened at all.

‘You cannot speak Chinese, but you can write it?’ I asked. ‘Yes, a little,’ he said ‘is similar Japanese.’

I have always found it amazing that Mandarin and Cantonese, two completely distinct languages, are identical when written. The same is true of the various, quite different, dialects spoken across China, which explains why all television programmes are subtitled. Although my Japanese friend read two symbols as ‘Tunku’ and the Chinese carriage attendant read them as ‘Dunhuang’ that did not indicate they had different meanings. Chinese and Japanese, it seems, share enough characters to enable some limited communication; and communication there had surely been as for the next few hours our companions were visited by a succession of self-important people with peaked caps - a type never in short supply on a Chinese train.



Monday, 28 July 2008

Shanghai: Prelude to The Chinese Silk Road

The Silk Road starts in Xi’an not Shanghai, but we had to arrive in China somewhere, and there are no direct flights to Xi’an.

Shanghai is a gargantuan city. Until the 1980s it was largely confined to a corner of land between the western bank of the Huangpu River and the broad mouth of the Yangzi. In those days it was merely huge. Then it jumped the river and tower blocks played leapfrog with ring roads until they reached the East China Sea and what is now the site of Pudong International Airport.

Celebrating a wedding anniversary with an overnight flight to Shanghai may sound romantic but spending the night in over-close proximity to three hundred strangers inside a metal tube is anything but. We emerged, blinking and dozy, into the hot moist air and blinding hazy light of a Pudong morning and, dragging our cases behind us, followed signs to the maglev railway.

The maglev is one of the several wonders of modern Shanghai, but at first sight we could have just entered any metro system in the world. The carriage was new and clean and the seats seemed very blue. An LCD on the bulkhead told us the time, and, perhaps a little unusually, the speed. It read 0 km/hr.

Lynne on the maglev, bleary-eyed but ready to fly
We moved off soundlessly, the acceleration pushing us gently into our seats. At 100 km/hr we were keeping pace with the cars on the urban motorway beneath. At 200 km/hr they appeared to be dawdling. At 300 km/hr we rounded a bend, the tilt of the train sweeping us breathlessly over the roofs of the now apparently stationary cars. At 400 km/hr we passed a train going in the opposite direction. It was gone before we realised it was arriving. At 430 km/hr the numbers stopped changing and we were cruising. Shanghai may be vast, but the Maglev goes only half way to the centre so even here the cruise was brief and soon we were watching the numbers fall back as the rest of Shanghai re-emerged from slow motion.

The Shanghai maglev reaches cruising speed
The terminal is above Long Yang Lu metro station but, burdened with cases, we decided to take a taxi. There was one taxi waiting, no queue and a policeman to marshal it. He asked our destination, scribbled something on a pad and ushered us into the cab. Tearing off the top sheet, he pushed it through the window. He had ringed a section which said, in English, ‘The Bund, pay no more than 40 Yuan’. In our experience Chinese taxi drivers are reliable and generally honest, but it was nice to know the city government was looking after us. 37 Yuan showed on the meter when we arrived, so 37 we paid. It is not customary to tip Chinese taxi drivers.

Once checked in and showered there is only one thing a first time visitor to Shanghai should do and that is take a walk along the Bund.

‘Bund’ is derived from the Hindi ‘band’ meaning ‘embankment’. The Huangpu river frontage was the site of the original British Settlement which, by the 19th century, had developed into the International Settlement and become the financial hub of East Asia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a series of fine buildings were erected along what is still signed in English as ‘The Bund’ though it is known as Zhongshan Lu in Chinese. These temples to commerce faced a road, some parkland and a vast area of wharfs and jetties. The riverfront has long been cleared and the embankment raised as a flood defence. The widening of Zhongshan Lu to ten lanes in the 1990s, finished the parkland and the high rises of modern Shanghai have rather diminished the Bund, despite height restrictions in the immediate area. Plans are afoot to restore the gardens, and somehow allow for even more traffic, but work is just starting and the area is littered with roadworks and scaffolding.


Lynne on The Bund
The Bund may have lost its former glory, but it is still pleasant to walk along the embankment, dodging the traders offering trinkets and cyclists peddling chilled water, and looking at a waterfront resembling some strangely misplaced Liverpool. It seemed important to several passers-by that we should accompany them to purchase Rolex watches and Gucci handbags, but we preferred to stroll. On the other side of the embankment the river sparkled in the sun and trains of heavily laden barges slipped down or laboured up the broad Huangpu. Beyond the river, where there was once only slums and marshland, the Oriental Pearl TV tower and several more of Shanghai’s, indeed the world’s, tallest buildings dominated the skyline just as the neo-classical Bund had done a century before.

The Oriental Pearl Tower across the Huangpo River
In the evening, two blocks from our hotel, we found the neon splendour of Zhapu Street, a purple phantasmagoria of a thoroughfare, full of parked cars and even fuller of restaurants. Some were fronted by huge glass aquaria where items from the menu swam backwards and forwards, tempting the diners. Between the restaurants were several ‘hairdressers’ that seemed to have no basins or hairdryers – or any other equipment - but did have a small shoal of scantily clad girls lounging behind the plate glass windows. Like the fish, they too were items on a menu of sorts.

Zhapu Steet, Shanghai
Down a side street we found trestle tables of food laid out on the pavement. We stopped at one and chose a couple of dishes; one of pork, one of eel. A sweating bare-chested man took them to a wok in a lean-to shed while his side-kick set up a table rather too far out in the road – westerners need to be prominently placed as we are considered good advertisements. We dined well, if a little in danger from passing motorcycles.

'Trestle tables of food laid out on the pavement'
In the morning we travelled under the river. The bridges crossing the Huangpu carry multiple lanes of traffic, but those without cars must use the metro or, possibly, The Bund Tourist Tunnel. For a fee ten times that of a metro ticket you can be transported under the river in a glass carriage on a horizontal funicular railway. The ten minute trip is accompanied by a 1960s style light show and sonorous declarations in Mandarin and English as the carriage passes through various geological strata. Only in China.....
Inside the Bund Tourist Tunnel
We surfaced on the Pudong side like water voles after a bad trip. Finding the Oriental Pearl TV tower is easy – just look upwards - though finding the Hyatt Hotel, whose Cloud 9 bar reputably offers a great view without the expense of the Oriental Pearl was not so easy.

The Pudong new development is not built for pedestrians. Barren concrete walkways weave between, around and over building sites, high rises and multi-lane roads; the direct routes are reserved for motor vehicles. After a hot and frustrating half hour, we gave in and bought tickets for the Oriental Pearl Tower.

The long, carefully organised, queue moved steadily – the Chinese love this sort of thing – and soon we were barrelling upwards in a high-speed lift. The views over Shanghai are truly impressive. We wandered round slowly, looking at the bend in the Huangpu, the Suzhou Creek and the roof of our hotel.

Where the Suzhou Creek meets the Huangpo River
as seen from the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai
Round the other side, we were eyeball to eyeball with the 421 metre Jin Mao Tower. Behind it the even taller Shanghai World Financial Centre, its top like a huge bottle opener, is the world’s second highest building, although at 492 metres its roof is the highest in the world (the Taipei 101 cheats by having a spire.) The 632 metre Shanghai Tower will dwarf them all, but is currently a building site between the Financial Centre and the Oriental Pearl. The Hyatt’s Cloud 9 bar is, we learned later, on floor 87 of the Jin Mao Tower. On the ground we had not even spotted a Hyatt sign.

Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai
At the foot of the Oriental Pearl is a small park with a jumble of food kiosks and long wooden tables set out in the shade of some trees. Eighty pence bought us each a bowl of noodles topped with a few slices of meat and drowned in a thin soup. Food is as important to the Chinese as it is to the French, and it is impressive the way even these kiosks take such care with their spicing – you just have to be careful not to crunch up the star anise.

Back through the Bund Site Seeing Tunnel, some hot, sweaty footslogging brought us to the Old Town.

Shanghai Old Town is either a perfectly preserved Ming city or a grossly over restored Chinese Disneyland, depending on whose opinion you seek. The cleanness of the streets, the perfection of the buildings and the awful tat being sold inside them, inclined us towards the second opinion. The place was heaving with tourists, overwhelmingly Chinese, and sometimes progress could only be made by literally pushing through the crowd whilst keeping a firm grip on your wallet and brushing off the continual suggestions that you urgently needed a Rolex watch or a Gucci bag.

The Old Town, Shanghai

Everybody who is anybody that has visited Shanghai has supped a cuppa at the Huxinting teahouse. The anybodies include a certain Elizabeth Windsor, and if it is good enough for her Maj, then it must be good enough for us.

Clearly marked on the street map, the teahouse was harder to find than we expected, partly because of the crowds, but mainly because our map had misplaced it by just enough to cause confusion. Advice from a friendly local soon pointed us in the right direction, but before we set off she insisted on becoming the four thousandth person that day to attempt sell us a Rolex/Gucci. Already having our undivided attention, she was a little harder to brush off than most, but eventually we took our leave and, weaving and occasionally heaving our way through the multitude, headed in the direction she had indicated. 

The Huxinting Teahouse, Shanghai
Built as a summerhouse in the garden of a Ming dynasty mandarin, Huxinting was renovated and enlarged by cotton merchants in 1784 to serve as a brokerage hall. It became a teahouse in 1855. Its name means Heart of Lake Pavilion – or Mid-Lake Pavilion to a more prosaic translator. It is usually described as sitting in an ornamental lake and approached by a zigzag bridge, although neither are precisely true. The relative areas of building and water make it more a carp filled moat than a lake and the people-packed bridge has a series of ninety-degree corners rather than true zigzags. Demons, as everyone knows, cannot turn through right angles, so Ming builders took this elementary precaution as a matter of routine. The crowd crossing the bridge was apparently demon free – despite the Western view of the Chinese back in the good old days of the Red Guards and the Little Red Book.

We pushed open the wooden door and entered the hushed and panelled interior. For a second it was like an entering an old English pub, then we were accosted by a flunky, ushered up the creaking wooden stairs, installed at a table in an alcove and equipped with a bilingual tea list.

The quiet and calm contrasted dramatically with the frenzy outside, and we did not have to read far into the tea list before realising why. With cuppas starting at motorway service station prices and heading upwards to the Château Lafitte level, it was only the best healed of Shanghai residents who could afford to be there.

We ordered a green tea and a ‘rose scented puer’ from the cheaper end of the list. Every tea, we could see, was presented differently. Some were in small glass teapots where an appropriate flower floated, others in porcelain of greater or lesser size. Our green tea came in a cup with a lid. The ‘rose scented puer’ arrived in a tiny terracotta pot, with an even more minuscule cup for drinking out of. Along with this came a plate of tofu based nibbles.

Lynne in the Huxinting Teahouse, Shanghai

The price may have been reminiscent of a motorway service station, but nothing else was. The puer was delicately scented and amazingly refreshing, the green required skilful use of the lid to avoid a mouthful of leaves which floated as densely as pondweed, though rather more fragrantly. A young man stood by with a hot kettle, ever ready to refill our cup or pot. We watched the milling crowds through the wooden framed window as we sat among a Ming elegance enhanced beyond the dreams of the original owner by modern conveniences like air conditioning and efficient plumbing. We stayed more than an hour, cool, relaxed and, like the Mandarins of the past, detached from the struggles of the common people.

Unlike those Mandarins we decided to leave before the proletariat staged a revolution.

Nearby a restaurant promised dumplings stuffed with ‘the ovaries and digestive organs of a crad’, a dish which may have lost something in translation.

What a treat
Around the corner a large window revealed a bevy of white suited and white hatted chefs stuffing the very dumplings and placing them in steamers. It looked more appetising than it read, but it was not time to eat yet.

Stuff those dumplings
Walking back to our hotel we watched the street vendors preparing ‘squid-on-a-stick’ and promised ourselves we would try it tomorrow. Halfway back, the green uniformed staff of a small restaurant were out on the pavement going through their pre-service warm up. A bored manager was choreographing a series of half-hearted jumps and some apparently random arm waving. There is a lot of this sort of thing in China, but this shower lacked the military precision we have observed outside branches of KFC.

Half-hearted jumps and some random arm waving, Shanghai

We dined that night at a ‘hotpot’ restaurant a stone’s throw from the hotel. The hotpot is a circular metal bowl divided ying and yang style and placed on a burner set into the table. One side is filled with a light stock, the other with something richer and darker with chillies floating on top and blocks of tofu lurking below the surface. They also have a few undivided bowls and as the Chinese are convinced that all Europeans hate chillies, our first task was to persuade them we actually wanted one that offered both. Then, as usual, we were sat in the window as an advertisement. The menu was long and, thankfully, bilingual. We chose slices of pork, potatoes, taro, lotus root, a dish of mushrooms and a quantity of noodles, and cooked it in the hot pot, some in the chilli, some in the mild. An over-attentive waitress stood by to ensure the idiot foreigners did not set themselves on fire either from the equipment or the unaccustomed chillies. It was a good meal, though I would have preferred to experiment rather than be continually corrected by a fourteen year old, despite her winning smile.

Hot pot, Shanghai
After dinner, we strolled through an area of low-rise buildings, several streets of crowded and dilapidated dwellings that represent an old Shanghai – hardly to be confused with the tarted up ‘Old City’ - that is fast disappearing. We did not then realise how fast, but when we returned nearly four weeks later, the demolition men had already moved in.

Near our hotel, we encountered a man sitting on the pavement on one of those tiny chairs which in England are confined to infant schools, but in China are favoured by those old people who spend their day playing cards in the shade. He was holding a hose that snaked back into the workshop behind and wearing nothing but his y-fronts. Work over, he was taking a meticulous if somewhat public bath before going home.

Looking across the Hunagpo River at night
Next morning we headed south down Suzhou Street, parallel to the Bund, until it met Nanjing Street where we turned right towards the heart of the city.

The streets here are narrow by Chinese standards and lack the usual grid pattern so a careful watch has to be kept for cars, push bikes and mopeds emerging from side streets and alleys at all sorts of angles. The bikes and mopeds present the greatest danger as they routinely ignore traffic lights and pedestrian crossing, and use either side of the road. Most lethal are the electric mopeds; they drift silently up behind you and can run you down before you know they are there.

On Suzhou Street we made a mental note of a restaurant offering Shanghai’s traditional pot-sticker dumplings and declined several offers of Rolex watches and Gucci handbags. Pot stickers are like the ubiquitous Jiaozi (a sort of over-stuffed ravioli) but instead of being steamed they are left to fry in – and indeed stick to - wide shallow pans. Lynne is not a great fan of Jiaozis anyway, and I was to discover that I prefer the steamed version. Not only are they healthier and taste better, but you do not run the risk of carelessly biting into them and spurting hot fat up your arm, into your eye and down your shirt.

Along Nanjing Steet the clamour to sell us watches and bags reached fever pitch but died down a little as we left the pedestrian shopping area and entered Renmin Park, the green, open space, claustrophobically surrounded by tall buildings. On the far side is the Shanghai museum.

There was a long queue at the museum that moved slowly, too slowly for some tastes so most early progress was made from people dropping out. It was mainly Chinese, but we found ourselves hemmed in by a group of wives and children from the British and American consulates. We learned some gossip, but regrettably few state secrets.

For the Olympics the government had declared that all museums would be free, so the hold-up could not involve tickets. It was, we eventually discovered, a matter of security. Metal detectors and X-ray machines were laboriously discovering that no terrorists wanted to see the exhibits that day. When it was our turn, they examined our water bottles and requested we drink from them. We did so without apparent discomfort and were waved through.

Outside the Shanghai Museum - the queue had gone by the time we left

And was the museum worth the wait? Well, the collection of money, from two thousand year old coins shaped like miniature scimitars, through great perforated weights that could be threaded on string, right up to the modern preference for grubby paper notes, was fascinating; the landscape paintings were somewhat repetitive, as Chinese landscape paintings tend to be; the textiles and pottery were similar to articles we had seen in the Shaanxi provincial museum in Xian some year ago, though the quality and shear antiquity of some of the exhibits could not fail to amaze; and the calligraphy collection was vast. I am never sure if calligraphy is better appreciated when you can or cannot read what is written. There is some historical interest, I suppose, and I can understand the point of Islamic calligraphers who are denied any representational art, but as far as modern calligraphy is concerned I have only three words: buy a computer.

We escaped and made our way down into the metro system. The Shanghai metro was built by the same company as Hong Kong’s excellent MTR so speed, efficiency and cleanliness were guaranteed. At mid-afternoon it was also as crowded as Hong Kong in the rush hour.

We emerged in the former French Concession, southwest of the old British Settlement. It is generally said that there is nothing very French about the French Concession, and between the wars it was largely populated by impoverished White Russians. This may be true but turning off the main drag, we wandered through streets edged with railings and shaded by mature plane trees. The villas behind the railings might have been substantial but it was architecture on a more human scale than in much of Shanghai. It was almost possible to imagine we were in a well-off residential district of a French provincial town – albeit one with a surprisingly large Chinese community.

Dr Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai both had houses here. Sun Yatsen was the first post-imperial president of China and as he died in 1925, long before the civil war between Mao’s communists and Chiang Kaishek’s Guomintang, he is considered a hero by both sides. Dr Sun’s French style house is modest, but comfortable and packed with memorabilia which was studied reverentially by the Chinese visitors.

Me and Dr Sun Yatsen
Zhou Enlai was Mao’s number two for many years and was a calming influence during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. His personal interventions are credited with saving many historical monuments from the frenzy of the Red Guards, including the magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa. He lived in a substantial pile on the same street as Sun Yatsen.
Lynne outside Zhou Enlai's house
The next morning we set off for the airport and the real start of the Silk Road, but not before our third splendid breakfast. The American Breakfast Bar in the New Asia Hotel is on the eighth floor, but we long ago realised that Chinese American breakfasts should be avoided. Do not think here of maple syrup and stacks of pancakes, think rather of a skilled Chinese chef cooking unfamiliar cuts of meat and bizarre egg dishes that he neither likes nor understands. Far better to take a Chinese breakfast and let a skilled Chinese chef do what he does best.

On the ground floor was a restaurant serving the best of all Chinese breakfasts, that Cantonese version of all-day lunch known as Dim Sum. It was here we presented ourselves on the first morning. ‘American breakfast eighth floor’ said the maitre d’. ‘We want to eat here,’ we said. ‘You have to pay’, he said, but as we had booked room only that made no difference. ‘No coffee’ he said. We shrugged. ‘Only chopsticks’. We shrugged again, in China you learn to use chopsticks or starve. ‘No western food at all.’ he said despairingly. Seeing he could not make us go away, he resigned himself to the situation, showed us to a seat and organised a minion to bring a pot of tea. On day one, we were unsure whether he resented out attitude or was quietly pleased, but by day three we were being treated like old friends.

The trick with a Dim Sum breakfast is to first attract ‘Congee Lady’. This is the girl who wheels round a trolley bearing vats of Congee, as it is called in Hong Kong, or Zhou, to give it its Mandarin name. Zhou is rice soup, which can be thin and unpalatable, but in Dim Sum comes thickened with gobs of gelatine, strands of green vegetable and lumps of chicken. It is a fine way to start a cold day - or a hot day in an air-conditioned restaurant. Then there are the trolleys of steamers containing dumplings constructed from various sorts of noodles with equally varied fillings; beef, pork, prawn, crab, taro and many more. It is not always possible to know what you are buying, but they are all wonderful, as are the trays of pastries wrapped round fruit, custard, red and yellow beans or a host of things we could not identify. Not every dish is a great success though, the pickled squids’ heads offer remarkably little to eat, their tentacles as edible as pipe cleaners. Lynne plays a vital moderating role. Left to myself I would buy more and yet more until I was surrounded by a hundred plates of good things that I was just too full to eat. I need her to stop me. She would, however, never stop me buying chickens’ feet. Some people sneer at chickens’ feet: ‘the flavour depends on what they’ve been standing in’ as my friend Brian would say, but slow cooked in black bean sauce with ginger, chilli and garlic they are toe-curlingly wonderful. Just suck off the richly flavoured outer skin to get at the unctuous chickeny-ness within, and then spit out the bits of cartilage. There is no better way to prepare for a flight to Xian…

Sunday, 20 July 2008

The Silk Road in China : Introduction

Two thousand years ago a trade route was established been China and Rome, the greatest empires of the east and of the west. This route came to be known as The Silk Road, although Chinese silk may have found its way to Egypt a thousand years earlier.

In 221 BC Qin Shi Huang, he of the Terracotta Warriors, united the core of what is now China, built huge chunks of the ‘Great Wall’ and settled his capital at Chang’an, the modern Xi’an. His dynasty was, however, short lived and in 206 BC the rebel warlord Liu Bang founded the Han dynasty.

The guard at the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang
(Either these are 21st century re-enactors or I have a time machine. Guess which)

The Han ruled a united China for over four hundred years and defined the national identity to such an extent that China’s main ethnic group still describe themselves as ‘Han Chinese’.

The Wall had been built as a defence against harassment from the Huns, a Turkic people who would later turn their attention to ravaging Europe. Hun prisoners told The Han Emperor Wu of their battles against the Yuezhi, a people dwelling in the far west beyond the Taklamakan desert. In 138 BC, wishing to make common cause against the Huns, Emperor Wu sent a young man called Zhang Qian as his ambassador to the Yuezhi.

Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army
Thirteen years later, when all assumed he was dead, Zhang Qian returned. He had failed in his objective, but instead brought back strange tales of far-flung lands. He had visited the kingdoms of Ferghana, Samarkand and Bukkhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, and he told stories of the even more distant and fabulous realm of Persia, and beyond that, unimaginably far away, the land of Li-jien – almost certainly Rome.

So the Chinese discovered the existence of Rome, now all that was needed for the Silk Road to come into existence was for the Romans to discover China.

Exactly how this came about is unclear, but the battle of Carrhae in Eastern Turkey is reputed to have played an important part in the story. In 53 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus, whose only previous command had been against Spartacus twenty years earlier, was leading an expedition against the Parthians. Feeling his inferiority to the other members of Rome’s ruling triumvirate, Julius Caesar and Pompey, he was out to prove his military virility. Through inexperience, he allowed himself to be lured onto unsuitable terrain by a much smaller Parthian force and then, when attacked, ordered his troops into inappropriate formations. Already tired and suffering from sunstroke, they found themselves pinned down, often quite literally, by the Parthian’s mounted archers. Whether the Romans finally turned and fled because of the silk banners waved by the charging Parthian cataphracts is a moot point. I am inclined to believe the Parthian victory was the result of superior tactics rather than superior textiles, but according to legend this was the Romans first encounter with silk. Legionaries captured at Carrhae were subsequently pressed into guarding the Parthians’ eastern borders where they bought silk from Chinese traders following in the wake of Zhang Qian.

However it happened, there is no doubt that when silk ‘as light as a cloud’ and ‘as translucent as ice’ reached Rome it caused considerable excitement. Via the Parthians, and a host of other intermediaries, trade was established with the land of ‘Seres’ where, as Pliny wrote, the inhabitants ‘are famous for the wool of their forests; removing the down from the leaves with water’.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their ignorance of how it was made, the Romans developed an inexhaustible appetite for silk. In AD14, the Emperor Tiberius banned it as an instrument of decadence, but he could not hold back the tide. In 380 the historian Marcellus Ammianus noted that ‘the passion for silk, once confined to the nobility, has spread to all classes’ and was contributing to a balance of payments problem.

Spinning silk
If silk had been the only commodity traded then the Silk Road would not have survived the fall of Rome. The traffic, however, was far more diverse and far from one way. Westward came furs, ceramics, iron, lacquer, cinnamon, bronze objects and, believe it or not, rhubarb. Eastwards went gold, woollen and linen textiles, ivory, coral, amber, asbestos and also glass. The Chinese may have had paper and gun powder before Europe had even dreamed of these things, but the Romans were way ahead in glass making, a technology which did not reach China until the fifth century. And it was not just goods that travelled, but ideas too. Buddhism swept into China in the seventh century along the Silk Road, followed three centuries later by Islam.

It was the goods rather than the traders that did the bulk of the moving. A merchant bought supplies, transported them a couple of hundred kilometres and sold them on. No Romans manned stalls in the markets of Xi’an, no Chinese traders were seen in the forum, although the historian Florus reports that Chinese ambassadors were received in Rome as early as the reign of Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD).

There were cities, particularly around the oases of the Taklamakan desert, that owed not just their prosperity but their entire existence to the trade passing through them. Those who controlled the routes controlled the taxes and this motivated the Chinese to push west across the Gobi and around the Taklamakan to incorporate what is now the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region into their empire. Chinese control here has often been tenuous and frequently been disputed, indeed it still is.

The remains of the silk road city of Jaiohe
Turpan Oasis
By 1278 Kublai Khan controlled an empire that stretched way beyond China’s borders. The country was open to travellers, traders and missionaries. Arabs and Venetians could be found in Chinese ports and Marco Polo described the lifestyle and treasures of the imperial court.

But the secret of sericulture had already been smuggled west, and this climate of openness encouraged the development of new sea routes for other goods. It was the beginning of the end for the Silk Road. In 1368 the Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty, gave way to the Ming dynasty and China entered a period of isolation that was to last over six hundred years. Overland trade ground to a halt. Whole cities around the Taklamakan were evacuated and the desert slowly re-assimilated their mud bricks. Great centres of art and civilization disappeared and were forgotten until European explorers arrived at the end of the nineteenth century.

Surprisingly, the name 'Silk Road' - more precisely Der Seidenstrasse – was only coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the Red Baron. The title, though both handy and romantic, is doubly misleading; silk was not the only commodity traded, and it was also not one road, but a series of routes across the Asian landmass.

Our self-imposed task in July/August 2008 was to travel the Chinese section of the Silk Road. We started from Xi’an and passed through the Hexi corridor to Dunhuang in the Gobi desert, where there was a major bifurcation. The Gobi is benign, as deserts go; water is easy to find and the climate is merely extreme. Beyond that are the arid wastes of the Taklamakan, where there is no water and the summer heat and winter cold make ‘extreme’ seem temperate. The northern road round the Taklamakan was easier, though more troubled by bandits, as it hopped from oasis to oasis along the northern edge of the desert below the Tian Shan Mountains. The southern Silk Road was more rugged but safer, plotting a course between the desert and the Kunlun Shan, the northern rim of the Tibetan plateau.

The Dunhuang Oasis
In an age without bandits, although the authorities live in constant fear of terrorists, we travelled the northern route to Kashgar, where the two roads rejoin at the western tip of China. We then returned some five hundred kilometres along the southern route to Hotan before flying north across the desert to the regional capital at Urumqi and thence home. We wanted to see what has become of the glories of the Silk Road, and learn something about the lives of the people who live there now.

The final sentence of Peter Hopkirk’s otherwise excellent Foreign Devils on the Silk Road reads ‘In 1979… when the first party of British tourists stepped down from their coach at the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas …. the last shred of mystery and romance had finally gone from the Silk Road.

The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas
Mogao, Dunhuang
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Any person who walks among the ruins of Melikawat or Gaochang and does not feel their feet rummaging among the bones of long dead civilizations has little brains and no imagination. Any European who can stand in Kashgar’s Id Kah Square and not feel the thrill of being somewhere totally foreign and utterly remote should probably have stayed at home. Yes, we travelled in air-conditioned cars and by railway trains not camel trains; maybe we did not go without water or food when we became lost in the desert, but we did visit places that see few other foreigners, and we did eat and travel with the descendants of those who made The Silk Road the greatest trade route on earth. True, no physical privations were involved, but no mystery? no romance? Pull the other one, Peter.

The Chinese Silk Road
Prelude: Shanghai
1 Xi'an
2 Jiayuguan: A Total Eclipse and the Last Fortress under Heaven
3 Dunhuang: Dunes in the Gobi
4 Turpan: Ruined Cities of the Silk Road
5 Kashgar (1):  The Sunday Market and the Former British Consulate
6 Kashgar (2): Upal, Abakh Hoja and the Old Town
7 Hotan (or Khotan or Hetian): City in the Desert
8 Urumqi: A By-word for Remoteness