Three Chinas

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November 19th 2005
Published: November 19th 2005
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We've seen three sides of China now. The old historic pretty China, the brash modern (slightly shoddy because its being built so quickly) new China and the relatively wild scenic China. The new is in danger of wiping out the old completely, leaving behind puddles of concrete and holes where buildings should have gone up but haven't. But the wild - at least down South - is still unspolit and amazingly accessible once you get a hang of where you are going.

Chengdu, a city we have just left in the South China is a good example of Chinese modernisation. Whole parts of the city have been walled off so that sites can be demolished and then rebuilt. The end result is that hopes are quickly dashed as that ancient famous noodle and dumpling shop you've set your heart on is reduced to a pile of rubble, along with the other noodle and dumpling shop up the street. Leaving you to resort to lunch at Pizza Hut because the waitresses are wearing Christmas elf hats and they are playing classic Liza Minelli tracks.

Then let's contrast Chendgu with Lijiang, a great example of old historic China. Slightly further South West (and happily the domain of the lovely Naxi people - our favourite Chinese tribal group so far) Lijiang is a city that was rocked by an earthquake about 10 years ago. However, the old stone streets and houses survived, along with a network of hundreds of bridges throughout the city.

Given the city's miraculous survival, Lijiang was promptly named a world heritage site. This has proved good and bad. I thought the city was architecturally amazing. I don't think we have been anywhere quite so quaint in China and it is everything one might imagine the picture postcard China should be. The flipside is every foreign tourist in China (both backpacker and conventional) and every tour cap touting Chinese tourist group now knows this. Great for the tourist shops, which are everywhere, but not so great for those who naively thought they had discovered the real China all by themselves and all for themselves.

The third side of China - it's wild and scenic side - was experienced when we went off on our first Chinese trek along Tiger Leaping Gorge. In the end we spent two days covering 50 kms. The scenery was amazing - at times it felt like we could have been trekking in the Alps with bluebells flowering around us, a brown cow for company and nothing but trees and the sound of the river or waterfalls. We decided to do the whole trek in the end, which culminated in a rushed trek to the ferry terminal/mud and rock ledge which would take us across the Yangtze to Daju, a small village. We've never crossed the Yangzte before so it was pretty exciting - especially because it meant we could stop walking for five minutes and even more exciting because we made the crossing with the company of a nervous horse.

We're now in Xi An - mainly to see the terracotta warriors, which I think we'll tackle tomorrow. We spent the day happily wandering around the Muslim quarter. A stomach churning experience at times when faced with streets lined with shops full to the brim with goat carcasses, spleens and intestines. But nonetheless an authentic experience. A slightly less savoury sight encountered in a normal Chinese market today was a table laid out with whole hairless dead goats and dogs. We'd worked out that the Chinese eat pretty much every body part of most living things (a slight exaggeration?), but this came as a shock. It's also made me a bit more nervous about eating anything non-vegetarian and may have prompted David's egg and tomato noodle choice today.

Anyway, off we go again to book our train tickets to Beijing.


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