Hidden China and Tibet
“How hungry are you?” my interpreter and friend, Lillian, asked as the minibus headed back towards the city of Guilin, in China’s south-western Guangxi province.
It was post-SARS and I was in China for three months as presenter for a TV series being filmed by an all-Chinese crew for national TV channel CCTV-9. We had spent a gruelling day up in the mountain rice terraces of Longsheng, a couple of hours’ drive away, and I was starving. Without thinking, I replied: “I could eat a horse.”
They nodded understandingly…and that evening, we were tucking into horse flesh at one of the city’s horsemeat restaurants. Be careful what you wish for in China– they literally take you at your word.
Such food may not appeal to animal loving, squeamish Westerners like me, but in many parts of China it is the norm. Throughout that and later trips around China, I was offered (and it was rude not to accept) various other “exotic” dishes. Camel hump, chicken’s feet, sparrows, snakes, fried scorpions and silk worms on a stick – even a decapitated chicken’s head which, as guest of honour at an official reception hosted by the local Communist Party chief, I had to tackle while they looked on. After biting some skin off its face and quickly swallowing it without chewing, I smiled politely and pushed the plate away, saying: “Wo chi bao la,” or I am full. At which point the cameraman grabbed the bird by its cockscomb and dug out its eyes, slurping them down. They are a prized delicacy, apparently.
Another time, I and the male film crew members were served a special whisky while the women were given tea. Lillian refused my attempts to share some, eventually admitting it contained a special aphrodisiac ingredient meant only for men – dog’s testicles! Liquid Viagra, in other words. On a different trip, I misheard a menu translation at a traditional restaurant in Kunming, Yunnan province, and ordered what I thought were honeyed beans…only to be served a plate of fried honey bees! All of which demonstrates that, for the adventurous prepared to escape the well-trodden “Golden Triangle” itineraries – Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an – when visiting China and explore off the beaten track, the experience is a world away from what we are used to.
The Chinese love their food. They live to eat rather than eat to live, and the phrase “Chi fan le ma?” – meaning “Have you eaten?” – is used as a form of greeting. China has many different regional cuisines. Some, like in Sichuan, are very spicy. In the north, Mongolian hotpot helps fortify against the cold winters. The people of Cantonese capital Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, are renowned for their unusual tastes, as its Quingping Market underlines. Starfish, dried ants, bottled deer fawns – you will see all that and more. Even in Beijing, you can find bizarre foods. At Wangfujing Street’s night market, a short stroll from the Forbidden City, you can try the fried scorpions and silkworms. Beware the scorpions’ stingers, though. They hurt if you prick your lip on them, as happened to me. Thankfully, they are not venomous!
Most visitors to Beijing only see the most famous sights, which also include the Temple of Heaven and Great Wall. Explore beyond those and you can find many hidden delights, such as Beihai Park, where locals practice tai-chi in front of ornamental arches, or some of the few remaining traditional hutong neighbourhoods, through which you can take a pedicab tour. In the grounds around key monuments, you can see people playing traditional instruments or ancient board games, or practising calligraphy with giant paintbrushes on paving slabs.
At the Great Wall, you can escape the throngs by planning your trip in winter. It may be frigid, but you can walk the impressive ramparts in peace and often with clear-blue skies, even in normally-polluted Beijing.
Combine it with a visit to Harbin, in Heilongjiang province. China’s most northerly city, on the Russian border, every January it hosts the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival – one of the world’s foremost winter festivals, with stunning ice and snow carvings illuminated by dazzling colours at night. Attractions include the oniondomed Church of St Sophia, now a museum, and a Siberian tiger park.
Shanghai, famed for its space-age Oriental Pearl TV Tower and skyscrapers, has its hidden corners, too. Behind its famous waterfront area of colonial European architecture, The Bund, you will find glories including the historic, wooden Huxingting teahouse, on a lake in a pretty park. At Chinese New Year, it is decorated with traditional paper lanterns.
Visitors going to Xi’an for the Terracotta Warriors should venture around the city to see its impressive city walls, Big and Small Wild Goose Pagodas and the Muslim Quarter, with its Great Mosque. China’s capital for centuries, it was the starting point for the Silk Road.
Just inland from Shanghai are a number of historic water towns often missed by visitors. They include historic Suzhou on the 1,500-year-old Grand Canal, famed for its many beautiful gardens, and quaint towns such as Tongli – where a former primary school now houses a tasteful sex museum! – plus Wuxi and Hangzhou, regarded as the queen of them all.
In south-west China, the jagged limestone karst peak scenery around Guilin is a must-see. This area also has many caves with breathtaking rock formations, including Guilin’s famed Reed Flute Cave. The karsts are best viewed on a half-day cruise along the Li River to former hippy hang-out, Yangshuo.
Take a side trip from Guilin to visit the mountain-top Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces in Longsheng. You can stay overnight in guest houses operated by the local Zhuang people in mountain villages such as Ping’An after a climb or sedan chair ride up precipitous paths. The area is also home to the Red Yao women, who boast the longest hair in China.
China’s most famous ambassador, the giant panda, is best seen in Chengdu in Sichuan province, which has a breeding and research centre. The devastating 2008 earthquake decimated parts of Sichuan including the mountain preserve at Wolong, where I viewed 16 playful little cubs in their natural environment. The surviving pandas have been moved to other centres.
Chengdu is China’s snack food capital and has more teahouses than anywhere else in China. It is the home of the wonderfully-colourful Sichuan Opera, with its ornate costumes and mask-changers, and the bizarre trade of ear-cleaning. There are nearly 400 professional ear cleaners, who use a selection of instruments to dig out accumulated wax – even while you watch opera. Ticklish rather than unpleasant, it costs around £3.50.
Days out from Chengdu can take in the giant carved stone Buddha at Leshan, nearby holy Buddhist mountain Emeishan and the world’s first irrigation scheme at Dujiangyan.
In northern Sichuan, another panda reserve area encompasses Jiuzhaigou Valley, sometimes called Nine Villages Valley, for the traditional Tibetan villages which dot the exquisitely-beautiful World Heritage Site landscape. Vivid greens contrast azure-blue lakes and milky-white waterfalls.
Neighbouring Yunnan is a province of amazing natural and cultural contrasts, with 26 of China’s 55 minority groups and settings from elephants and tropical rainforest in the southern Xishuangbanna region to towering snow-capped mountains in the Tibetan-influenced north. The town of Zhongdian has been renamed Shangri-La and is claimed to be the setting for the fabled paradise in James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizons. Nearby is the imposing gold-roofed Songzanlin Monastery.
Locals dance in circles around a bonfire in Zhongdian’s main square, close to a giant bronze prayer wheel. Similar dances are performed by the matriarchal Mosuo minority people at Lugu Lake, which borders Sichuan and on which men and girls in traditional costume row visitors in dugout boats. It could almost be Peru.
It is a five-hour drive from Lijiang, where the Old Town is full of winding, cobbled alleyways lined by quaint wooden houses and streams. At night, lanterns reflect in the streams and candles float along the swiftly flowing water. You can also listen to local music by the colourful Naxi orchestra and Dongba shamen.
The town of Dali has ancient city walls, soaring pagodas and a laid-back café society with backpacker bars. Kunming is another delight, with nearby Shilin Stone Forest a major attraction.
Tibet can be reached by train from Beijing now as well as by air. Although part of China, it has very different traditions and culture. Yaks – and foul-tasting yak butter – are ubiquitous while the majestic mountains, fascinating villages and glorious monasteries take your breath away. Literally, in the thin air. Lhasa’s Potala Palace is the most imposing and a must. However, also try to take in other wonders including: Lhasa’s unassuming Jokhang Temple; Tashilhunpo Monastery, in Tibet’s second city, Shigatse; Palkhor Monastery and the mountain- top Old Fort at Gyantse, where I hitched a lift on the back of a motorised tricycle; and the 8th century Samye Monastery, near Tsedang. You may encounter pilgrims on the road to or from there, on journeys that can take years.
China has many other places to visit, such as the tropical island of Hainan, Confucius’s home town of Qufu and China’s china town, Jingdezhen, where Ming porcelain was made and the tradition continues. There are also many villages and towns untouched by the country’s rapid growth, and as you travel around you will be met with smiles and waves. Or you can take a leisurely cruise on the Yangtze.
That should give you plenty of food for thought
China and Tibet facts
When to go
Between spring and autumn is the best time to tour China, although winter can bring beautiful, clear but cold days to Beijing and the north.
Flights from the UK are operated directly to Beijing and Shanghai by British Airways (www.ba.com), Air China (www.airchina.co.uk), Virgin Atlantic Airlines (www.virgin-atlantic.com) and China Eastern Airlines (www.chinaeastern.co.uk).Other airlines offer service via onward points in Europe, the Gulf, Hong Kong and various Asian cities, to points around China.
In cities, taxis are the best option – but ensure you get your hotel to write down both your intended destination and the hotel address in Chinese characters, so that you can show the taxi drivers. Most do not speak English. For longer journeys, domestic flights are the most typical form of transport but trains are a great way to experience China.
Most Western hotel chains have properties in China, usually in main cities. Chinese-owned companies with widespread hotels include Hong Kong-based luxury company Shangri-La Hotels (www.shangri-la.com) and Jin Jiang Hotels (www.jinjianghotels.com). China is also seeing an increasing number of luxury boutique hotels, while away from the big cities it is fun to stay in traditional courtyard hotels. Standards and service can vary, however.
Specialists include Wendy Wu Tours (www.wendytours.co.uk), Tucan Travel (www.tucantravel.com), Kuoni (www.kuoni.co.uk), Complete India & Asia (www.complete-india-asia.com), CTS Horizons (www.ctshorizons.com), China Holidays (www.chinaholidays.co.uk), Regent Holidays (www.regentholidays.co.uk), Silverbird
(www.silverbird.com) and Travelsphere (www.travelsphere.co.uk).
China National Tourist Office: www.cnto.org.uk; tel 020 7373 0888 or 09001 600 188 (brochure requests).