China again


The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is yellow crane tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.
The river is clear in Hanyang by the trees,
And fragrant grass grows thick on parrot isle.
In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies,
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.
— Cui Hao

I’m off to China again for a week, this time to Wuhan near the Three Gorges on the Yangtze river. Wuhan was historically important, and is one of the oldest cities in China. There are a few classic poems about the Yellow Crane tower next to the river. The most famous is the poem by Cui Hao on the right. Hao died in 754, and his poem was inscribed on a wall of the tower. It is said that Li Bai, perhaps the most famous of medieval Chinese poets, tried to write a better poem about the tower, but was unable to. A famous story, often told, is about Li Bai dreaming that the walls of the tower were reconstructed without Cui Hao’s poem, and he being asked to inscribe something on the blank new wall.

The old wooden tower stood next to the river. It was destroyed to build the Yangtze bridge that you can see in the photo above. The new concrete building (photo above) is situated in view of the river, but about a kilometer away. Traffic which comes over the bridge passes by the new pagoda style tower. The photo also shows the incredible pollution which is one of the things this city is famous for. The last time I was at the tower, I saw a tea house which was closed. I hope I can find it open once now. Wuhan is a center of tea trade, and I would like to have a tea here before going on to one of the huge tea markets which were my first introduction to the incredible variety of Chinese teas.

I’m looking forward to being in China again, this time armed with a smattering of Chinese words, and the ability to form simple sentences. I’m sure that my vocabulary will run out in a couple of sentences, since I know very few verbs, but it will be good to try to speak. I’m not there long, so the spotty access to wordpress and google will be an irritant rather than a major problem.

Deciding without knowing

Eventually it always comes down to this: you decide without sufficient knowledge. The Family and I have six days in China before my meetings start. What should we see?

Since my work is in Beijing, we will have many days and weekends to explore the region around the capital, so we can leave it out of the plan for the crucial six days. Xi’an is an easy weekend hop away from Beijing, so we can leave that out of our plan as well.

We pare away the exotic Gansu, with its silk route connections and the incredible landform of Zangye. Since it is not the core of China, as we imagine it, we will visit it on a future trip. The silk route used to terminate in the old capital city of Chang’an which is modern Xi’an (as I realize in a brief “duh” moment), so we will touch that bit of history.

We subject ourselves to the tyranny of maps and flight schedules. The south, Guangzhou, Guilin, and the Li river are also sacrificed. One day we will add this to a trip through Hong Kong, but that day is not today.

Mongolia and its sea of grass has been a dream destination for me. One day The Family and I will take a train to Ulan Bator and then drive out on a road trip without roads, into a landscape without trees. Are there birds in Mongolia? That dream allows us to let Inner Mongolia and other northern parts of China slip out of this trip.

Shanghai, Ma'anshan, Huangshan

We are left with Shanghai and Anhui province. I tell myself that city people like us can handle Shanghai in a couple of days (even though we have zero Putonghua), then spend a lazy couple of days walking around Xihu in Hangzhou and visiting tea gardens and still have a two days left over for other things.

The Family and I were keen on visiting Huangshan in May, the season of azaleas. Manon also recommended this in an earlier comment on a different post. I look at the details. It seems that the bus trip from Hangzhou to Tunxi would take three and a half hours, and then you would have to get to Huangshan: not too far away, but the hours start to mount. A cable car up and down, and the bus back would eat up the rest of the day. Is it worth the dash? Or should one spend the night on the mountain and watch the sunrise before coming down. The area also has a couple of reputedly beautiful villages (Xidi and Hongcun where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shot), which we could try to squeeze in. The bus from Tunxi takes 1 hour to Xidi and another half hour to Hongcun. Perhaps Huangshan, Xidi/Hongcun can be done in a couple of days, but a large part of it will be on buses. We discussed this with one of my Chinese colleagues, The Prosperous, who said it could be complicated if you only speak English.

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.
(Li Bai)

What else can one do in two days? Ma’anshan, where Li Bai died, is not so far from Shanghai. But it is in the middle of the mining area. Wikipedia says the town “is not as polluted as other major Chinese steelmaking cities”. But I’m not so sure that 14 centuries after Li Bai drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the the river, the Yangtze will be the quiet place he wrote about. We will give this a pass for now.

Other options are the villages of Zhujiajiao, Suzhou, Wuzhen, Nanxun. The pictures we see and the descriptions we read are nice. Perhaps we don’t need to plan in greater detail.

Maybe we don’t need to plan in greater detail. We will touch Shanghai and Hangzhou, and do as much travelling around parts of Anhui and Jiangsu as seems possible.

Reading about China

Of course we know about China from the TV and newpapers. But we also grow up reading about the Opium Wars, the Rape of Nanjing, the Long March, the invasion of Tibet, the India-China war, and the Beijing Olympics. Beyond that?

As lamentable as the obfuscations are the depths of ignorance from which foreigners approach Chinese

For several years I have been trying to read through John Keay’s history of China, a magisterial book from which the quote above has been taken. I guess that by the time I work my way through it my ignorance will not be quite as deep. All I can remember now are two facts: first, that the terracotta armies of the first emperor in Xian were forgotten by the time the three kingdoms were at war, and next, that the beginning of the Ming dynasty is closer to us than it was to the time of the three kingdoms. The article on China in Wikipedia is substantially shorter, and may be enough to prepare me for the trip.

There are many guides on the web, and I Google and scan them. But I’m happy to be old-fashioned enough to want to read a book. After browsing reviews on Amazon I settle for the Lonely Planet’s massive tome on China. I plan to read it on my Kindle, and find that it is very nicely cross linked. The maps don’t seem very readable on my Kindle, so maybe I’ll have to print out a few before leaving.

Go and ask this river
Running to the east,
If I can travel further
Than a friend’s love.
(Li Bai)

A large number of books I see on Amazon are on conflicts between India and China, past and future. I agree with a Chinese friend, The Striver, that the best that aam aadmi like us could do to prevent conflict is to visit each others’ countries. It could be a beginning. Getting back to books, I should read Red Sorghum. The Family was reading it a couple of years back when Mo Yan won a Nobel prize. A decade back we saw quite a few Chinese movies, I should try to find some. Also poetry: in a gathering of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, all quoting Chinese classical poetry, I feel I’m missing something.

I’m a little jittery about the language. On my first visit to China I had learnt the numbers with a lot of effort. They have slipped away now. On a layover in Hong Kong I’d managed to pick up a little phrase book by Lonely Planet which had phrases in English, Pinyin and Chinese characters. This had turned out to be really useful. I found it lying between my French and German dictionaries.

That’s a lot of ignorance, but no obfuscation, I hope.