Chinese high-speed trains are extraordinarily well organised. Every ticket has a carriage and seat number, and if you stand where that carriage number is marked on the platform floor the appropriate door will arrive right in front of you.
Train G1653 arrived on time from Shanghai at 09.01 and whisked us the 456km from Hangzhou to Wuyishan in 2hrs and 44mins, an average speed of 167kph. It would be much quicker but for the 6 intermediate stops – is frequent stopping the best way to use a high-speed train?
We disembarked at Wuyishan, or rather at Wuyishan East Station at 11.46. Emerging from the echoing barn of a station, we found our guide, M, and the young man who was to be our driver and looked around, wondering where Wuyishan was.
According to Wikipedia, Wuyishan is a county-level city within the prefecture-level city of Nanping. We could see hills and trees, and a few buildings but nothing that resembled a city of any level.
Wikipedia further informs me that Nanping City contains 2 districts, 5 counties and 3 county-level cities (including the elusive Wuyishan).
How can one city contain 5 counties and 3 county-level cities? What is going on here?
I was bewildered until I read that Nanping City (population 2½ million) has an area of 26,000km² and realised that makes it twice the size of Yorkshire (pop: 5 million). Clearly the Chinese word shi (市)always translated as ‘city’, can mean ‘city’ as we understand it, but also a much wider area administered by a city, like a county or prefecture.
There is a sizeable city of Nanping (pop: 400,000) in Yanping District, but the whole prefecture can be referred to as Nanping City. The differences between districts, counties and county-level cities is opaque. Yanping is the most urban part of the prefecture, while the other district, Jianyang, is rural. 'County-level cities' seem to be counties administered from a city of the same name (like Staffordshire or Worcestershire), while 'counties' have no eponymous city (like Kent or Devon). Wuyishan City is similar in area to Staffordshire, Wuyishan itself, when we finally arrived, is rather smaller than Stafford.
Anybody want to know more about Chinese local government areas?
I thought not.
At the time, I knew none of this but would soon discover that Wuyishan East Station (actually in Jianyang District) is over 30km from Wuyishan - and 30 fear-filled kilometres they were too. Chinese driving is often unruly but of the many professional drivers we have encountered in our various Chinese trips, the vast majority have been reliable and prudent, coping calmly with whatever is thrown at them. Today we encountered a member of the minority, a young man who believed in his divine right to overtake, even - perhaps particularly - on a blind bend beside a sheer drop.
Tucked away in the mountains (shan means ‘mountain’) Wuyishan consisted of a single main street lined with tourist shops, and a few residential areas. Our hotel, squarely aimed at the Chinese tourist market, was off the main street. We dumped our bags and let M lead us to lunch
It is a local practice (we have never seen it anywhere else) for restaurants to lay their wares out on a trestle table in the street. M took us to one where the mushrooms looked interesting, the vegetables tired and meat like it ought to be in a fridge. We like a written menu even if we can read little of it, but here we were reliant on M, whose English, we were discovering, was limited. Prices were high – the mushrooms astronomical – and perhaps we should have bargained, but that is not usual in restaurants. We settled for some duck which was overpriced and more bones than meat.
Lunch was unsatisfactory, but on the plus side we had now travelled far enough south to eat outdoors and sweaterless.
Afterward we reluctantly re-placed our lives in the hands of the driver for a 6km trip to Xiamei Ancient Village
|Xiamei Ancient Village, Fujian|
At first sight Xiamei looks like a genuine slice of old China, but this is not just an old village, there is a £5 entrance fee to be paid which includes the services a local guide.
We had spent the last week in jam-packed Jiangsu* and Zhejiang. By contrast rural Fujian is relatively empty, but there was modern housing nearby. I wondered if the people we saw were genuine residents of the ‘Ancient Village’, or were they employed as local colour. Am I really cynical enough to believe they brought their washing here so tourists could watch it dry? Probably not, but the Chinese tourist industry makes you think that way.
Xiamei is, however, picturesquely strung out along the Dangxi River (actually a canal) connected to the nearby Meixi Brook – which is larger than anything I would call a ‘brook’...
…crossed by any number of bridges of varying antiquity.
The local guide was loquacious, and we looked to M for translation, but she was clearly not up to the job, providing two or three words for every hundred spoken to her. Fortunately, the Zou Family temple was captioned in English and in two languages written in Cyrillic, Russian and, er…another one.
Xiamei prospered on the tea trade during the 18th century when it sat at one end of the Tea Road from China to Moscow. The houses are not as grand as those in the water town of Nunxun (was that only yesterday?) but as village houses go, they are impressive.
Other ancestral halls with intricately carved doorways vie with the Zou’s for prominence. I like the way they can be adapted for Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian ceremonies as required, an ecumenical harmony we had observed in 2013 at the memorable Hanging Monastery near Datong.
At the end of the row we found the village blacksmith hard at work…
…then we crossed the Dangxi and walked down the other side.
We soon encountered the local guide’s house where his mother set about making us a cup of tea - actually several cups. Wuyishan is the home of Lapsang Souchong, a black tea dried and smoked over pinewood fires. Worldwide demand for Lapsang Souchong has become far greater than the Wuyi area can provide, but although there is no Chinese concept of appellation controlée, Wuyi Lapsang Souching still commands a premium price. She made us a pot of Lapsang Souching and one of Jin Jun Mei (lit: golden beautiful eyebrow), an early spring picked Lapsang and even more highly prized. I like an occasional Lapsang, but I would struggle to drink it every day. Jin Jun Mei was gentler, sweeter, slightly less aggressive. We bought some. We also tried a superior Jin Jun Mei but that seemed to give little more for a higher price. She did not brew us any Da Hong Pao (big red robe) 20g of which can cost up to US$20,000, unless you source it from one of the original six bushes, in which case it becomes seriously expensive.
We moved on through another impressive house…
…with a strange door. Allegedly this is a template against which a mother can check a future daughter-in-law, a sort of Chinese glass slipper though without the foot fetishism. It was treated as a joke, but it embodies an attitude to women some might have difficulty laughing at.
At the end of the village a woman was de-husking rice using a hand powered machine. This was certainly not being done for the benefit of tourists, and the more I had seen of Xiamei, the more genuine it felt and the more I warmed to it. It is though, undoubtedly part museum and part living village. I have nothing against museums, on the contrary, at the Black Country Museum, for example, I watched with interest as blacksmiths and chain-makers demonstrated their crafts, but they and I knew it was a demonstration, there was no pretence; in China you cannot always be so certain. [We were almost the only visitors. I read it can be very crowded at holiday time or when school groups descend. I might have liked it less then.]
The short journey back to Wuyishan brought no accute threats to life or limb.
We took a walk round the town, looking for a promising restaurant. There were plenty of shops selling wood carvings and more selling tea, but few restaurants. Even the little grocery shop offered tourist tat, but we did note a couple of possibilities.
Later, as we set out to eat, the rain descended so, ignoring our research, we ran for the nearest restaurant. Menu excerpts were displayed outside and we had earlier noticed we could read most of one of them, so we ordered it by pointing, just to check we were right.
The unexpected plate of fresh, crunchy, just-roast peanuts, was a definite bonus. The strips of pork, mushrooms and potatoes were what we thought we ordered and the celery was obviously the unknown word. The stock in which everything had been cooked gave it a touch of class and the price was reasonable. We felt well pleased with ourselves.
I often take pictures of our meals, but just for a change, here is the restaurant’s drinks cupboard. Bottom right is fruit juice and beer (though our beer came from the fridge), above that cola, Red Bull and interestingly wrapped spirits. On the next shelf is Chinese red wine (generally avoided by locals and tourists alike) and a few bottles of Chinese vodka. The top two shelves in the centre also have vodka and more expensive rice and sorghum based spirits, their bottles made special by hiding them in decorated boxes. The contents of the big bottles at the bottom are considered medicinal and are best not scrutinised too closely.
*Jiangsu Province’s 79.8 million people live at a density of 780 people per km² (c.f. United Kingdom 270, USA 91) and this does not include the mega-city of Shanghai which is a province in its own right.
South East China