Pandas and Spice in Chengdu

Young panda, Chengdu

I am trying to fly like a bird. With limited success, I hasten to add but my tai chi teacher gives me a thumbs up. I must be doing ok. With the Qing Cheng mountain as a backdrop, I am taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn some of this art form in the Taoist area where it was first conceived.

Just one and a half hours from Chengdu, the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain Retreat has brought me away from the crowds to a peaceful, rural, luxurious alternative to the busy city of Chengdu. The Tai Chi class, just one of the many ways to relax into mountain life here.

Pandas. That, of course, is what Chengdu is famous for and I too am here to meet some of this fascinating species and the Dujiangyan rescue centre is just 15 mins away from the resort.

These black and white bears are solitary creatures, so each panda has its own sanctuary: an outside area to explore as well as an indoor air-conditioned escape. Having pandered (no pun intended) to these creatures for many years now in the race to save their species, they lack the ability to manage their temperature hence the seemingly extreme necessity for air conditioning. There are no fences just plenty of trees, water and green space in a low walled paddock. There are about 30 pandas here currently, all adults and they all look very relaxed; either appearing to be stuck in trees, sleeping in weird positions or munching on bamboo. If it’s young, cute, playful pandas you want to see then in Chengdu you can call into the Giant Panda Breeding Research Institute and with over 100 pandas it’s busy but that’s China. The Dujiangyan option is quieter, there were times when it was just me and the precious primate within metres of each other.

Dujiangyan is renowned for where you can get the closest and learn much more about the pandas. As well as a controversial 20-second photo opportunity sat next to a panda, you can opt to take part in a day volunteer programme. After plenty of camera snapping and panda souvenir purchased, I was ready to move on and see what else I could learn about this area of China. As a local saying goes; there is more to Chengdu than pandas.

Chengdu is actually one of six UNESCO cities of gastronomy, due to its position in the province of Sichuan. This popular style of Chinese food has 23 different flavours, most based around chilli and Sichuan pepper, which numbs your tongue. A strange sensation and to be honest one which I don’t particularly enjoy but each to their own I guess. During my cooking course I held back on both the chilli and the pepper but the Kung Pao Chicken and the Mapo Tofu plates I dished up still tasted pretty good to me. I do love learning how to cook alongside a local; the different ingredients, as well as the methods, always inspire me when I return home. And leaving aside the Sichuan pepper, I’m sure there will be more Chinese food on the menu soon, and I’m not referring to ordering regularly from the local takeaway.

With a satisfied stomach, I was then driven back to the Six Senses. Back to the mountains. Back to a haven of serenity. Whether you prefer to indulge in a spa treatment, take a dip in the outdoor pool or wander around the private garden and rice field, the six senses experience is just that: an experience. Slightly different to everyone I’m sure but with its contemporary, timeless and warming décor and exceptional level of service, it can’t fail to impress. The moon bar was a personal favourite with its fairy lights glittering as you listen to the nearby waterfall.

Now I’m sitting watching the mountains disappear into darkness over dinner. My time in China has been incredible. So much history, so much amazing scenery but also so many people in the cities. This mountain escape has been the perfect way to relax before my onward flight.

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A journey through Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan – three countries and three (plus one) world number ones

Old men chatting Kashgar Xinjiang Province China

It has been more than 10 years since I visited Pakistan. Much has happened during that time and most of it not for the better. I have a rule of thumb, ask the same question five times and if three answers come back the same, then usually that is near enough right. With Pakistan, I was asking the same question 10 times and getting very different answers each time.

The question related to security. Pakistan is one of my favourite countries to visit but I was worried about going back. Nobody wants to go on holiday feeling they have to look over their shoulder all the time but at last, it felt like the right time. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office have lifted the ban on travel to Gilgit Baltistan (Hunza) and further collecting of knowledge from news sources, our partner in Pakistan, our insurer and most recently a direct security contact in Pakistan provided, in my view, a well-balanced picture of life in the country.

I was there during Muharram, particularly marked by Shia Muslims, to mark the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, killed at Karbala in 680 CE. Thousands of people, dressed in black clothes, visit the mosques to listen to loud broadcast speeches by the mullahs and collect in large groups to march and beat themselves. Security was extremely tight. Armed police and Rangers were everywhere, the mobile telephone network was shut down in a number of cities and the Karakoram Highway was shut to all transport for two days, something that has not happened before. As a foreigner, I was told not to leave the hotel. I did not and never felt under threat. Precaution by the authorities being the key. It was for me more the frenzy of the crowds that was potentially intimidating but keeping away meant I was not subject to this real or perceived threat.

The advantage of this disruption was that the artistically painted lorries for which Pakistan is famous were all parked up. Vehicles have a finite life, especially when working but I did see a number of old Bedfords that started life in the U.K. Lorry art developed as a result of drivers being away from home for long periods of time. They wanted a connection with home so decorated their lorries. There are no rules and the imagination of the drivers and the artists assisting them makes for memorable adornment.

I entered Pakistan by crossing the Khunjerab Pass, the highest paved motorable border crossing in the World (4,693m) – my first world number one! I will not go into the procedures or the options available here suffice as to say that they are challenging for people without an open mind or patience. As you pass under the Chinese arch and enter Pakistan you pass the highest ATM in the World – number two ticked off.

This part of the country has some of the highest mountains in the world, 108 peaks over 7,000 metres. The country has five of the 14 highest peaks on the planet, those over 8,000 metres. Many lie in the Karakoram range which sits almost entirely in the Gilgit Baltistan (GB) region that I travelled through. As you travel down the Karakoram Highway, a road that has evolved over the years from a track hewn from solid rock one jeep wide to a far safer and wider road today, the wonders of the mountains are all around. Towering rocks, jagged glaciers and whitewater rivers never fail to impress. Stopping at the first Pakistani checkpoint to pay the compulsory entrance fee to enter the Khunjerab National Park, allowed me to view an Ibex resting on a mountainside through the scope of one of the security personnel’s rifles.

Everybody I met was welcoming. Domestic tourism is thriving which is a good barometer of how things have improved and now I feel that it is time for Western visitors to return. It helps to be reasonably fit in this area as there is some wonderful walking available. That said UNESCO submitted sites such as Baltit Fort in Karimabad (Hunza) and pre-history rock carvings at Heilkdesh, the wonders of village life (some houses are over 700 years old), fresh air, fresh fruit (apples and apricots) and nuts (walnuts), Spring blossoms and Autumn leaf colours make this a truly wonderful place to visit whatever your interests. Do not expect 5* accommodation but the best available is good. This should be seen as an adventure and not a sophisticated “pampered” holiday but for those that make the trip, the rewards are memorable.

I actually began my trip by flying into Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. I spent a day walking just outside the city at the Ala Archa National Park. Easily accessible but a great place to stretch the legs and get a taste for admiring the mountain scenery that awaited me in the coming weeks. From Bishkek, I ventured south spending the night at Chichkan in a small motel by a fast running river, drinking vodka with members of the Slavic, Kyrgyz, German University.

I then took a small diversion to see my third world number one – the world’s largest walnut forest in Arslanbob. The village has a small bustling centre where goods are traded, and people come to meet and chat. Part of the village lies on the valley floor, but parts climb the mountainsides. Here it is homestay accommodation with shared bathroom facilities. I took a local guide and spent the afternoon in the forest walking. He had a walnut grove himself and he explained to me how the allocation of individual walnut trees was made and who benefited from the collection of the nuts. The system had changed several times since Soviet times as different methods were tried and then refined because they either did not work or were unfair. He told me that villagers in Arslanbob were great climbers and could harvest and collect their nuts quickly. The adjacent villagers were poor climbers so those from Arslanbob made extra money by going to them and doing additional climbing.

The journey from Bishkek to the South and beyond to Kashgar travelling through the Irketsem Pass becomes ever more dramatic with wider vistas and taller more impressive mountains. The Irkestem Pass is another procedure I will not describe but what I said above applies in equal measure.

Kashgar has changed. The Chinese are paranoid about regional security and as such the city is patrolled by many police vans – this presence was increased as I was travelling close to National Day, 01 October which marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Changes aside, I did enjoy my few days there.  There is an old section of the town which is wonderful to stroll through and a real highlight for me was the Mausoleum of Apak Hoja, a beautiful building of mosaics and tile work adorned with four towers on each corner. Visiting at the end of the day meant we had the venue to ourselves. Another highlight was sitting in a local tea house while local musicians played and old men danced, a twinkle in their eye for the few female tourists enjoying the occasion. The famous Sunday Livestock Market is now held 15 kilometres from town.

Another first for me, and the final world number one was travelling out to see Shipton’s Arch. This is regarded as the largest natural stone arch in the World and at 365 metres this is just a little shy of the height of the Empire State building for comparison purposes. Discovered by Eric Shipton, former British Consul in Kashgar, in 1947 it lay undisturbed and not visited until a National Geographic expedition located it again in 2000. Until then, access was extremely difficult. Whilst today it is accessed along a river bed and by a number of staircases it still remains a challenge for some.

This was a momentous journey. A journey of adventure with some stunning locations and scenery and interesting people and varying cultures. I hope that some of you will be able to follow in my footsteps and tread a little off the path well-trodden.

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Guizhou – Hidden Minorities of China

Longhorn Miao Women Dancing Suoga Village Guizhou China

I have travelled to China over 30 times over three decades and seen many changes. On this trip, I went somewhere new – Guizhou Province in South Central China. Guizhou is an area of karst limestone scenery with mountains far bigger than its southern neighbouring province of Guanxi. Tree covered, mist-shrouded peaks and long deep valleys made this an inaccessible place and it became home to those marginalised in past battles lost. They were forced to the high ground to make a living from slash and burn agriculture and so remained isolated.

To think that the economy is shrinking in China takes one by surprise here. Guizhou relied on coal and heavy industry but was held back after these were closed because their antiquated techniques and outdated factories made them inefficient. The local government turned to tourism and infrastructure to reverse their fortunes.

What Guizhou offers is wonderful natural scenery and a large number of ethnic groups that attract visitors wishing to see different cultures. The Miao (Hmong), Buyei and Dong are the three dominant groups but even within these, there are many variations in customs and dress.

I travelled with our textile group and our appointed expert Gina Corrigan. I have known her for 30 years and come to know that she is respected greatly for her work in collecting and recording the costumes and techniques of primarily the Miao and Tibetans. She passed on her knowledge and introduced us to people she has built relationships with over the years. The owner of the Miao Costume Museum in Guiyang and a dealer/collector who had some beautiful pieces of traditional clothing as well as accessories that we were able to touch and see in detail the work.

We spent lots of time meeting local people and wandering in markets, a wonderful way to observe lives untouched by a more modern China. We took in a local festival and saw many of the techniques that make up the intricate costumes worn. Sadly, it is only really the women who wear their traditional clothes. The men, with a few exceptions, prefer Western dress nowadays.

I mentioned the economy earlier and infrastructure development has had a profound effect on the province and will continue to do so. Travel in Guizhou used to be slow. Journeys that took seven or eight hours previously now take two or three. We passed through 77 kilometres of tunnels in two days. A new high speed “bullet” train has been built, meaning that people in the richer Southern provinces of Guangdong, for example, can easily come up for the weekend. The motorways are at present very underused. This will change, I am sure, once the links through to the East coast are completed. Already seafood in abundance can be seen in markets and restaurants and has fallen in price by two-thirds.

Whilst roads and railways are improving hotels have some way to go. “Functional” is the best way to describe them. Breakfasts still have a very Chinese edge to them, steamed buns and rice porridge, and service varies. Breakfast at 07.00 turned out to be 07.45 with not a soul in sight until 07.20 and the hotel receptionist was stretched out asleep on the sofa in the lobby, covered in a blanket. All of which for me, only adds to the charm of this rural part of the world.

China never ceases to amaze. I saw a lady wearing a long elegant dress taking a piglet for a walk on a long piece of twine in the centre of town. A pet, not food. In the motorway service stations, you can buy snacks as you would expect. How about a vacuum packed chicken foot to chew on?

A contradiction of tourism and development is that local cultures change. We as visitors want them to remain unchanged whilst the cultures themselves want to access the latest trends and labour saving devices. In some respects, Guizhou is currently in a middle ground. The way local cultures do things is changing, buying ready-made fabric from the market instead of weaving it for example, but tourism does encourage these ethnic groups to maintain their costumes, dance, and way of life. Through education and tourism, it is hoped that more traditional techniques which are fast disappearing, like tablet weaving that we found one elderly man still doing, can be preserved.

Tourism must be managed. I do not like to visit places where visitors overrun the local sites they are seeing, and in China, this happens. The secret is to get a balance. Domestic tourism in China is growing at a phenomenal rate but they like places to be accessible. This leaves very interesting villages on the periphery for us to see with far fewer visitor numbers.
Guizhou to Western visitors is still an unknown. For those that want to see a China where people still nudge one another in the street to indicate the presence of a foreigner then Guizhou can still deliver. Domestic flights from the capital Guiyang are good and the high-speed train and motorways make it easily accessible to other parts of China including Guilin.

During this trip, we talked about the future and what tours we could and should offer in a changing China. In 2018 Gina will lead a group tour to Qinghai, a remote province on the Tibetan plateau, in northwest China, where Tibetan culture still thrives.

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Steppes Big 5: Film Locations in China

The Great Wall, released today, is the most expensive shoot set entirely in China. Directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, the story may not be historically accurate (there were no monsters attacking China), but it reveals stunning panoramas of the man-made marvel that is the Great Wall of China.

The wall is made up of many sections built over time by the different ruling dynasties. The best preserved are just outside of Beijing, with many Steppes clients visiting the Mutianyu or Jinshanling sections of the Great Wall.

This is not the first movie to display China’s stunning beauty. Here are Steppes Big 5:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – The highest grossing foreign-language film in the USA was filmed in several magnificent locations in China such as the UNESCO-listed Hongcun Ancient Village near Huangshan (Yellow Mountain).

Hero (2002) – The highest grossing film in China on release and won several awards for its cinematography. It also alerted many to the spectacular scenery of Jiuzhaigou National Park, a short flight from Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

Avatar (2009) – The highest grossing film of all time and credited for the use of impressive 3D visual effects. The floating Hallelujah Mountains in the imaginary universe of Pandora were inspired by the sandstone karst formations of Zhangjiajie National Park within the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.

The Last Emperor (1987) – A true story of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last ruler of the Chinese Ching Dynasty. Told in flashback, the film covers the years 1908 to 1967. Shot on location in China, the film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Visit the filming locations including the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the Museums of the Imperial Palace, Changchun. This epic movie is still a feast for the eyes.

Kung Fu Panda (2006) – A computer animated action movie, revolving around a panda who aspires to be a Kung Fu Master in ancient China. Winning numerous Annie awards  for Best Animated Feature and Best Music in an animated feature the musical score alone is worthy of a watch, produced by Hans Zimmer collaborating with John Powell.

To absorb the culture of China, Zimmer spent time in the company of the China National Symphony Orchestra as part of his preparation. Why not time your travel to China to coincide with a performance at the Beijing Concert Hall.

Travel with Steppes and experience the best that China has to offer. From private access at some of the most important sights to lesser visited areas. Spend a day with pandas or hike along the Great Wall. If you are interested in visiting one or all these film locations, please contact our China experts.

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The Year of the Rooster

On the 28th January it is Chinese New Year and 2017 is the year of the rooster. The words China and Rooster are inextricably linked in my mind with Paul Theroux’s classic ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ about travelling around China in the 1980s.

Travelling throughout China in the 1990s and leading groups across this most enigmatic of countries, I empathised with Thubron and sought solace in his words as I endured the curiosity of Chinese commuters, the blockages of loos and similar obstinacy of the train officials. I remember on several occasions having to sit with the chef and guard playing drinking games – my stomach still curdles at the thought of Bai jiu – to ensure that my lao wei clients could get private access to the dining car.

In highlighting such misadventures you might infer that I did not enjoy China. If so, I need to disavow you of any such impression. I was voracious in my learning of the language, history and customs. I am most definitely a Sinophile and a strong advocate for anyone to travel to China.

Thankfully train travel in China is now immeasurably more pleasurable and less alcoholic. Perhaps this is best epitomised by the Golden Eagle Train. Travel the Silk Road in luxury as you cross Central Asia into China and enjoy historic treasures such as the beautiful Buddhist art of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang and the mesmerising Terracotta Warriors of Xian.

Beijing and Shanghai are two of China’s greatest cities and highlights. A high-speed train has now transformed this journey that gives you a ground-level view of the urban landscapes and cultivated countryside in China’s heartland. It is five hours well spent.

 

The Xining to Lhasa train must surely qualify as one of the great train journeys of the world. It is just under a two thousand kilometre journey that takes some twenty hours and reaches heights of 5,000 metres – making it the world’s highest rail journey – as you travel onto the Tibetan plateau and across the permafrost to Lhasa. You can take the train all the way from Beijing to Lhasa but that adds time and not much more to your journey – the most impressive scenery is definitely between Xining and Lhasa.

If you are looking for some Chinese reading other than ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, I would suggest the below:

Life under Mao

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Fire under Snow by Palden Gyatso

Travels post Mao

Red Dust by Ma Jian

Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron

More Recent

The Emperor Far Away by David Eimer

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Beyond the Clouds

China’s image is tainted by media reports of pollution. Whilst this might be true of certain cities and highly populous regions it is not a fair reflection on the country as a whole. At just under 10 million square kilometres, China is the fourth largest country in the word and forty times the size of the United Kingdom – there are many wonderful areas of China in which to escape. Here are some of our favourite places to travel in China.

Yunnan literally means clouds (Yu) south (nan) thus Beyond the Clouds. It is one of China’s most diverse provinces with landscapes ranging from the Tibetan plateau in the north to the sub-tropical forests of the south. Places to visit vary from the bamboo houses of the Bai to the historic Naxi city of Lijiang to the Tibetan monastery of Sumtseling. However, for me, the delight of Yunnan is its peoples. Not just in terms of the number of minorities but the colour and smiles that you meet throughout.

Xinjiang, literally the ‘western region’, is the largest administrative district in China and home to the Uyghurs. A wonderful people of Turkic extraction, their thick (and delicious) laghman noodles are very different from the rice and finer noodles of the Han Chinese, a metaphor for the contrast between the different cultures. Such discrepancy is further emphasised in two of Xinjiang’s key cities, Turfan and the exotic Kashgar, which in spite of its Hanification still remains one of the must-see cities of the world.

The clouds that encircle Tibet are ones of controversy. Lhasa and the region is much changed – again through the influx of the Han Chinese as I wrote in my blog – Tibet – but there are areas which still have a strong and fascinating Tibetan identity. As I wrote, “Lhasa and Tibet are undoubtedly photogenic, but what lies beyond the lens is not.”

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The Terracotta Warriors – Over 40 years on

Time flies. I was a backpacker in China in 1983. Two currencies, no food after 6 pm, the high rise skyline of Pudong in Shanghai was rice paddies, there were no cars (all bicycles and lorries that were often broken down along the roads) and everyone was dressed in Mao suits.

The Terracotta Warriors at this time were housed under a metal framed fabricated building to protect them from the elements. No photographs were allowed but a few sneaky ones were taken at waist height on small film cameras. There was a small number of shacks selling a few poor quality souvenirs in a dusty dirt car park a short distance from site. There were only a few tourists and almost no local Chinese tourists as they were not able to travel at this time. It was an exhibit almost lost in the fields. Now there is a purpose built building, technological interaction and exhibits allowing close up views of the clay figures.

The warriors remain as commanding as ever, over forty years on from their initial discovery and are a highlight of any holiday to China.

Recently shown on BBC2 The Greatest Tomb on Earth: Secrets of Ancient China investigates fascinating discoveries that unveil even more about this vast tomb.

 

Why not also visit the miniature warriors at the Han Yang Ling Mausoleum – these less imposing but no less fascinating warriors are far less visited yet are a highlight for many of our clients.

Speak to Paul to learn more about the Terracotta Warriors and how best to include them in a holiday to China. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Big 5 iconic highlights of China

I have just returned from a trip taking in some of the most popular places to be visited by the first time traveller to China; Beijing, Xian, Guilin (Yangshuo) and Shanghai, plus Chengdu, home of the Giant Panda. With such iconic sites come the inevitable crowds but I have found a few ways to view some of these amazing sites without the masses. As such here are my suggestions of how to avoid the masses and experience China a little differently.

1. Giant Pandas and Six Senses Luxury

It is hard to find havens of peace and quiet in China but at the Six Senses you are in a very quiet location with the opportunity to walk and cycle and see Giant Pandas at the new Panda reserve at Dujiangyan. This reserve is only accessible via a tour operator so offers the chance to view these gentle giants with few others around.
Beautiful rooms, a pool, gym and a pleasant garden in which to sit make the Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain an ideal place to unwind after the direct flight on British Airways from London to Chengdu.

2. Wonders of Beijing

In the Forbidden City view the private living quarters in the Chonghua Palace, a truly exclusive behind the scenes opportunity. Spend a day being carried (not compulsory) in a sedan chair at the Great Wall and decadently dine in one of the watchtowers on a beautiful sunny afternoon.

Follow in the footsteps of emperors and stay at Aman at Summer Palace using their “secret” door to access the Summer Palace itself when the crowds have gone.

3. The Terracotta Warriors

Xian is home to the amazing life size terracotta warriors that guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Jump the queue using our fast track knowledge and electric cars and stand face to face with the warriors themselves while other visitors look down from above. See the miniature warriors of the Han dynasty, equally impressive, a great favourite with clients, but seldom included by most programmes, except us of course.

4. The Li River

Yangshuo, near Guilin, is well known for its stunning lime stone scenery, the Li River and cormorant fishing. In 1983 when I first visited, Yangshuo was a sleepy riverside town that awoke for two hours each day when the few tourist boats arrived and then resumed its slumbers. Now Yangshuo is a small town with literally hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists. Leave this behind and take a gentle raft trip along one of the tributary rivers, a far more peaceful and tranquil experience. Take a bicycle (the terrain here is great for cycling as it’s flat) and explore the winding tracks that pass through the farming community. Stop to speak with local people and gain an insight into rural life.

View Banyan Tree Yangshuo

5. Shanghai

Shanghai is changing all the time. A city that was once a thriving far Eastern port under the British and the French has again reinvented itself and is now the country’s leading financial centre. Bright lights and amazing food make it an exciting place to experience. It is also home to the world famous acrobats who perform death defying acts, ancient arts with a modern twist. Get the best of both worlds and stay in the picturesque water town of Zhujiajiao, located just one hour from Shanghai. Experience the buzz and energy of Shanghai before returning to the calm of your luxury hotel.

Luxury hosted holidays to China

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps suggests staying in the top hotel and dining in the finest of restaurants – however for us, service and expert guiding is key. Incredible attention to personal detail and immersion into a culture makes your experience.

We have fantastic guiding options. Opt for a local guide, someone chosen for their care, attention and knowledge. Or be guided by a western host who speaks fluent Chinese, lives in China and has studied this country’s culture and history. I was sceptical at first about the latter, but having experienced being guided by a western host on my trip I firmly believe that they are able to bridge the link effectively between the local community and the visitor for a fully immersive experience.

Talk to our China Travel Experts to start planning your tailor-made China holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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Food for thought in China

Mother-and-daughter-enjoying-chinese-food,-China

That night we ate at a local restaurant, a table on the pavement; bones strewn around, watching the world go by. Chinese cooking is justifiably famous around the world and back at home it is no different with food being a national obsession, as evidenced by the common greeting “Have you eaten?”.

According to various phrase books and guide books this phrase is used commonly as a result of the many famines that China has suffered over the years, most recently the Great Leap Forward when some 40 million people died and the shortages of the Cultural Revolution. And yet I rarely heard this phrase used. Maybe this is due to the fact that there has been surplus since the opening up of the Chinese economy under Deng Xiao Ping and the Four Modernisations of 1978. Or maybe it is just that at the sight of two hungry foreign cyclists the Chinese wished to preserve and save their kitchens from the inevitable and did not ask this question.

Despite the importance of food and eating to the Chinese both at home and abroad, the experience of dining in China is very different from the UK. For a start the menus are almost unintelligible. This is not just due to their use of Chinese characters, but due to items such as ‘mayi shan shu’, which translates as ants climbing a tree but in actual fact is thin spicy noodles, and dishes such as fish heads and chicken feet. Exotica such as snake are available but not as widespread as stereotypes would have us believe, in part no doubt due to the cost of such items. The Chinese food that we get in Britain is largely of Cantonese origin, a lot of sweet and sour and mono sodium glutamate. In China there is not as much ‘sweet and sour’ or MSG, and Sichuan food, hot and spicy, is the most popular of cuisines.

Not only is the food itself different but also the manner in which it is consumed – eating in China is not for the faint-hearted or those obsessed by table manners. Sounds of slurping, noisy slurping that causes you to turn and stare, smacking chewing and occasionally spitting provide the background noise to animated conversations that become more heated as more alcohol is consumed. The end of the meal is a scene of debris and carnage, bottles, chopsticks and spilled food littering the table, bones and cigarettes strewn over the floor, not unlike a drunken student visit to a curry house.

People sat on stools and chairs outside their shop-fronts, chatting and laughing with friends, gossiping and joking. It was all very sociable, life happening on the street-side, lacking the privacy and personal space of the west as everything was out in the open. The meal itself was interesting, if only for the ordering. Presented by a menu written in Chinese I explained in Chinese that I could not read Chinese characters. Amusement at the fact that I could not read then worry and concern that I might not be able to order. I then began asking for various dishes that I could remember and each time received the answer ‘mei you’ which means ‘have not’. At the point of exasperation I was led into the kitchen to see what was available and to witness the killing of a chicken – at least one dish would be fresh.

China has a number of great culinary traditions, such as Canton, Sichuan and Hunan. Throughout there is variety. Muslim-Chinese cuisine emphasises lamb, cilantro, cumin, and breads. The food of Yunnan has more in common that of Southeast Asia. The Uighur cuisine of Xinjiang in the north-west of China is of Turkic origin and uses thick noodles, tomatoes and peppers. To fully appreciate this dizzying variety, you must embrace unfamiliar textures – the Chinese place great importance on kougan, literally mouth sensation.

Talk to our China Travel Experts to start planning your tailor-made China holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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The Birth of a Nation

Chinese-little-girl-behind-door,-China

The population of China, currently estimated at 1.2 billion, is bigger than the combined populations of the US, Europe and Russia. Although demographers argue that India will overtake China within the next thirty years, currently it remains the largest in the world.

Historically too, it has had one of the largest populations in the world. In the Tang Dynasty from the seventh to ninth century AD there were ten cities in China with a population greater than one million – after the Black Death in the fourteenth century the population of England was only some 3.5 million. The introduction by the Europeans in the sixteenth century of crops such as maize and peanuts that could be grown on sandier soils, and thus more land could be put under cultivation, led to a population boom. Thus the population of China in the nineteenth century was 450 million whereas the population of Europe at this time was only 250 million.

When the communists came to power in 1949 the population was approximately 600 million. Leaders of China today believe that the optimum Chinese population is 700 million. Mao discarded birth control as a capitalist plot to hinder his country’s growth and said that the strength and potential of the country lay in its people. This rhetoric along with improved sanitation and medical facilities introduced by the communists, and years of stability after the turmoil post 1919 of the Warlord era, the Japanese Occupation of China and the Civil War, led to a baby boom and today’s population.

In the late 1970s the government began to try to deal with the population explosion through campaigns and slogans such as ‘Longer, Later, Fewer’ and billboards showing a young couple with just one child, usually a girl in an attempt to break down established Chinese prejudices. Contraception became free and there was a sustained attempt to educate the people in the use of birth control. The legal age of marriage was raised to twenty-two for women and twenty-four for men, and women were encouraged to have children later by such incentives as longer maternity leave. In the cities married couples were encouraged to sign a one child pledge by offering them an extra month’s salary each year until the child is 14 years old. If the couple has a second child then this and other privileges are rescinded. This policy did not and does not apply to the countryside and to the minorities who are allowed two children before penalties are imposed.

 

Birth control measures appear to be working in the cities where an extra 300 million people would have been born over the last twenty years had there been no family planning. Yet some argue that if China’s one child policy does succeed than one consequence will be a rapidly ageing population. The argument being that Mao’s baby boom policies created a population that is today young and that the baby bust of today will have the opposite effect, and thus the result will be having to support a large number of geriatrics in the future.

One worrying side effect of the one child policy is the length that couples go to have a boy. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn in their book ‘Dragon Awakes’ talk of how in one province, Zhejiang province, 99% of aborted foetuses were female. Adoption and orphanages are sensitive issues in China but the overwhelming amount of evidence shows that most orphans and adopted children are female. In the countryside where couples are allowed two children if the first is not a boy the girl will often be called ‘Zhaodi’ or ‘Laodi’, variations on ‘Bring a little brother’. This preference, the importance of having a son is deep-rooted within Chinese culture and history, part of the Confucian orthodoxy, and even forms a part of the language. The Chinese character for the word good is the character for woman combined with the character for son – the implication being that it is good when a woman has a son.

This desire to have a male, a son, has led to a distortion of birth figures. Every people in every country have an approximate birth-rate of ratio of 106 male births to 100 female births. However in China, because of the importance of having a son, this figure has been skewed to 118 male births to every 100 female births. If you extrapolate the world-wide average figure on top of this, this being the norm, then approximately 1.3 million baby girls go missing every year. This raises the ugly question of female infanticide, however most baby girls are simply not reported to the authorities or are left on the doors of an orphanage. Perhaps more worrying for the young men of China there will be a lack of women in the future.

By 2020 China could have between 30 and 40 million men who cannot find wives.

Talk to our China Travel Experts to start planning your tailor-made China holiday with us, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

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On the Songtsam Trail

The Songtsam Lodges and where to start? I could use bountiful amounts of superlatives to describe my experience there but wouldn’t that be cliché? How about I give the truth and honest facts?

My experience about these truly fabulous, cosy sanctuaries blended in with local villages, off the beaten track and offering truly splendid scenery…oh dear, I seem to have dragged back to the clichés but they really are deserved!

More seriously though the five lodges that cluster through the valleys, gorges and mountain ranges of remote Yunnan deserve all the plaudits it can get. Who’d have thought, and now picture this, sitting embedded at the bottom of a valley ‘officially’ in Tibet, surrounded by fresh orange trees, green paddy fields, a stream bubbling nearby, toothy grins and flashes of colour from local minorities. Better still, while sitting under the veranda sipping fiery ginger tea and dunking Tibetan biscuits in freshly made Yak butter…I mean what could be better!

As night falls and the sun disappears, a chill arrives, not surprising being above 3000m. But go inside and your abode gets better. A log burner flickers in the background of your room to keep you nice and snug, now all you need to do is sit back and take in those wonderful views to enjoy…and most importantly – there is no TV!

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Missed the train

I love the adventure of using public transport when travelling, however this isn’t necessarily what I would recommend for Steppes Travel clients – please rest assured that a comfortable transfer with an English speaking driver and guide would be arranged to get you to your train on time!

I’ve missed the train, I can’t believe it. The times is 08:20, the train leaves at 08:21. ‘Ooh, too late!’ The check in girl says to me as I skid along the marble floor like a breaking juggernaut. ‘What! No, I’ve still got a minute, please!’ The poor girl doesn’t have a clue what I am saying and just points me back down the corridor, towards the escalator I have just come from. I just can’t believe it. I was supposed to be flying fast as a bullet on the Shinkansen to Xian this morning. I packed the night before, went to bed early, wolfed my breakfast this morning and left the hotel an hour and a half ago and made just about every metro without having to wait. I am now pouring with sweat, bewildered and unsure what to do.

Oh the joys of travel, I back away but after a few seconds and begin smiling at my misfortune. I even start to laugh. It’s nobody’s fault, I am just unlucky and have a swig of water to cool down. You see when I left my hotel at 06:50 this morning I walked leisurely towards the metro station. The air is cold, that Mongolian wind blowing from the north has started to crack my lips after a few days to its exposure, and the appearance of the sun looks like it is going to be a very pleasant day.

Underground I made three changes from Line 2, to 5 and then to 10. I try following signs from my last stop and as I emerge at the surface I don’t see any buildings resembling a station, I walk this way and that like a headless chicken, referring to my map, I haven’t got a clue. I see an old lady sweeping leaves with a bamboo brush. ‘’Hi, Ni Hao’’ I say to her, she looks at me and I carry on: ‘’Urrmm..Station, Beijing Xie?’’ Gesturing with my hands to suggest where it could be. She looks at me blankly and points another way. Off if go, crossing the road I have just crossed.

I check the time. It is 08:05 and I am still not there. I can’t miss this train, and I start having that heavy sinking feeling in my stomach.

I start to run. I ditch any attempt to find the station myself and look to grab a taxi. I start waving my hand in the road but the taxis are going too fast on this part of the highway.

I run up to the corner of a street hoping to intercept, waving my hand furiously as I go. At last one pulls over, bags thrown into the back of the cab: ‘’Beijing Xie!! Please’’

The driver nods and off we drive…at a snail’s pace! We pull up on the other side of the highway and out I get. I have to run 200metres to get to the over pass and take the escalator going up. Added to that, there is definitely no way to pass the heavy pedestrian flow with my bags. Once at the top I sprint down to the other side. ‘Ticket validation’, ‘Baggage drop’, ‘Refunds’… every sign but the actual entrance.

8.16 am. At last I find the entrance.

*Five* minutes to go.

I queue to enter but have to show proof of ticket and identity. I hand over my driver’s license and the assistance looks curiously at it, no good. She wants my passport now. Finally I pass through.

*Four* minutes to go.

Security next, putting my bags on a conveyor belt and hurriedly grabbing them back off again. Clearing the security check, I head towards another escalator where hundreds more people are also making their way up too. I reach the top.

*Three* minutes to go.

I look at the board ‘Train G633 Xian – Gate 10′. Look around, much to my horror, Gate 10 is at the other end of the station.
I run. Faster than I ever have…

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Exceptional panda sightings on tour to China

Clients on our recent trip to China, On the Trail of Wild Panda, were rewarded with exceptional sightings of the world’s most iconic, endangered animal.

March is prime time for seeing wild pandas as the animals descend from the snowy mountain peaks to lower ground for mating. Sightings are still rare however and often one only gets to hear the male pandas as they fight each other for mating rights while the females stay hidden in bamboo thickets.

On the first day of trekking in Foping Nature Reserve a female panda was spotted sunning herself up a tree while male pandas could be heard scrapping on the ground. On the third day a cold front enveloped Foping and heavy snow fell from mid morning to mid afternoon. The inclement weather did not deter our clients however and it was not long before our Chinese trackers found another female panda seeking shelter from the snowfall and potential male suitors, perched uncomfortably in a tree. As clients stood and watched a male panda came trundling through the undergrowth only 10 metres from where the group stood, moving quickly, spurred on by the scent of the female.

There are conservationists who believe we should give up on the panda and instead channel energies into conservation battles that can be more easily won. Pragmatism may well be the watchword however the plight of the panda has long been symbolic of the threats endangered animals face all over the world, so the repercussions of throwing in the towel on these remarkable animals will be felt right across the animal kingdom. Surely it is far better to maintain the struggle and allow responsible tourism to play a supporting role in the conservation efforts being made.

Find out more about our trip to China: On the Trail of Wild Panda