I have frantically attempted to finish a post about our gallivanting, but like Tristram Shandy have fallen further and further behind. Happily we are now on a five-hour, 1500km train journey to Shanghai, which gives me leisure to bring the story up to date. Chinese public transport is excellent: buses are heavily subsidised and a city bus trip costs about 25p; trains are fast, comfortable, and pack in a lot of passengers while still giving plenty of room to use a laptop. But to be here I have already had to show my passport twice in the station and once on the train. For all its many pleasant amenities, China is still a country where Big Brother really is watching you. There are not even any legal protections that the government has to secretly flout to collect data about everywhere you have been and all you have done. They just collect it in broad daylight.
This post has resisted my valiant attempts to keep its length within reasonable bounds. Quite a lot of it seems to be about food. Vegetarians may wish to skip these portions.
Chengdu: temples, pandas, hydrography, and food
In Chengdu we started with the Wuhou Temple - a complex of memorials, porticos, pleasure gardens and so forth commemorating the great statesman of the Three Kingdoms period. Buddhism having been suppressed to various extents at various times in China, the dominant religion is Taoism, which often seems to be a thinly disguised form of veneration of various great men, particularly military leaders, of the past. Seen in this no doubt entirely unfair light, it is not particularly attractive; nor, as far as I can see, does anyone follow it with particular fervour, except as a guide to laying out gardens and temples, which are admittedly delightful. The spiritual vacuum has made a fertile ground for the spread of Christianity: there are over a hundred million Christians in China, including Y, who converted when at school partly because, he tells me, he has never met any Buddhists.
Like everyone else, we also saw Chengdu's famous panda reserve - pandas are very cute and the large site is also full of nice lakes and gardens and what not - and Jinli, a pedestrian street and tourist trap full of tat shops and food stalls. It is 'the oldest street in Chengdu' - the wooden buildings look like modern pastiche, but what would I know. At any rate it is the only street which is not a drab six-lane highway: Chengdu is not a particularly inviting city for wandering around. At a cabaret bar on Jinli we saw an incomprehensible stand-up routine and a wonderful demonstration of brush calligraphy, followed by a brief but enchanting performance of 'Sichuan opera', a dance form where the performer is arrayed in colourful silk finery with a mask stretched over his face with some pronounced expression - severe, say. At a dramatic moment in the energetic dance, he somehow makes a sudden move and the mask is a totally different one, looking cheerful. The same trick is repeated several further times, each mask peeling away (I suppose) to reveal a different one, but try as you might you cannot see how the trick is done. The result is a wonderful kind of mix of dance and magic show.
Perhaps our most interesting excursion was to the nearby city of Dujiangyan and the irrigation system from which it takes its name, a real miracle of hydrographic engineering from the third century BC, still in use today. With a series of water-dividing barrages, channels and runoffs of ingenious design and even more impressive construction, considering the date, it controls the water supply without the use of a dam, allowing free passage to fish and directing most of the silt away from the irrigation channel even when most of the water is being sent into it. Its brilliance is partly explained by the fact that one of the engineers, Erlang Shen, was in reality a god with a true-seeing third eye, who was sent from heaven to help the project's chief architect Li Bing sort out Chengdu's water issues. Inevitably there are innumerable attractive temples in on the adjoining mountainside to both characters. In this instance, at least, they are well-deserved.
We twice ate terrific Sichuan food with Y's father and uncle (and some of their colleagues), and I shouldn't move on without mentioning chai huo ji. In a kind of semi-outdoor restaurant popular despite the season, we sit round a brazier to keep warm while elsewhere a fire is lit under our table, in the middle of which is a large cauldron. Pieces of a chopped up chicken are fried in this, assorted vegetables added (among them 'tofu skin'), and the whole assemblage cooked in a spicy broth. Corn fritters are artfully arranged round the edge. A huge bamboo lid covers the whole contrivance before we are called to the table, when it is removed and we help ourselves with chopsticks to an endless series of delights from the cornucopia before us.
Xi'an: walls, mountains, hot springs, terracotta warriors, temples and food
Xi'an is utterly unlike Chengdu: an attractive, human-scale place with public spaces and amenities, on whose streets you might see two men playing chess or a group of young people playing badminton. At its centre are the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Disappointingly the bell and drum are apparently never sounded, even for special occasions - which it is tempting to take as another sign of the country's spiritual anaemia.
The ancient city wall is still complete (the Chinese make no bones about more thorough repairs to ancient monuments than would be considered in the UK), and one can walk round the top of it or hire bicycles. 'Let's walk', I say, assuming it will take about an hour. When we are a quarter of the way round we realise we had better hire cycles after all. The complete circuit is about 14 kilometres.
Mount Huashan is the westernmost of the Five Great Mountains of ancient China. Climbing it would be an epic feat, but nowadays there is a dramatic 4km cable car ride to a convenient point near the various summits. (It is far from the case that the cable-car merely circumvents a 4km saunter up a hillside, as it goes up and down across high passes and plunging ravines.) From the top of the ride you can climb along well-made paths, past inevitable temples and fast food stalls, to any of the mountain's five peaks. A feature of the South Peak is the 'plank walk in the sky', which would be as scary as it sounds, or rather more so, if one were not roped up before being allowed to traverse it.
Huaqing Pool is a complex of hot springs originally part of a Tang dynasty palace, one of them famously built by Emperor Xuanzong for his favourite concubine. Their romance is the subject of a famous poem by Bai Ju Yi. In an ancient and famous temple on the site, we are led from floor to floor to see various parts of a soppy historical drama (skilfully projected onto screens at different depths behind one another) presenting their story. At the end they meet in Heaven and fly off happily into the ether, despite the fact - not speaking the language I had missed this subtlety - that earlier on, when the palace guard turned against her after a rebellion, he had tearfully acceded to their demand to have her murdered. I would have thought that might engender a modicum of coolness on her part in the afterlife.
In the amazing Terracotta Army, the very first Emperor of China, two hundred years before Christ, built for himself a funerary monument which in the subsequent two millennia no successor has rivalled. Thousands upon thousands of full-sized terracotta warriors of all kinds and ranks, all distinct, representing the army he built to unify China and end the Warring States period, once stood - as many now stand again - in serried ranks, ready to defend him in death as they did in life. Though hidden underground, they were vandalised not long after his death, but remained buried and were lost until rediscovered by accident in 1974. Only a small part of the vast site has been excavated; one of its impressive features now is how successfully the authorities present both the reconstructed finds and the ongoing archaeological investigations. It takes three months to identify the broken pieces of a single soldier, archer, horse, officer, or whatever and put it back together again.
Dayan Ta, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, is the only Buddhist site we've seen, a 1300-year-old temple complex originally built to house the scriptures brought back from India and translated from the Sanskrit. Many of the temples have the most amazing wood-carved panelled walls, and climbing the pagoda gives fine views, apart from the fog, over the low-rise city.
The Muslim Quarter's main street is an endless row of food stalls heaving with people, neon signs, and kind of food performance art - notably a routine where two men with huge wooden hammers alternately pound something flatter and flatter, folding it occasionally. We never found out what they were making. But I picked up some feng mi lao tang, a moreish sweet made from honey and with a crunchy honeycomb structure like the inside of a Malteser.
Rou jia mo, or 'Chinese hamburger', is a Xi'an speciality 'famous through all China', I'm told. A perfectly toasted flat bun is filled with oily, but very tasty, pulled pork. The same bun is used to make tang bao, another local dish: you are given a couple of buns and a bowl, and must shred the former into the latter, which is then taken away and noodle soup added with thin strips of lamb on top. It is as starchy and filling and unexciting as it sounds.
Beijing: more walls, forbidden cities and, principally, food
Beijing, despite its vast size, is not a particularly international city, nor a particularly appealing one - at least, we have not found the appealing parts. My mother remembers it (from nearly 30 years ago) full of bicycles, and I regret not having seen it in those days. Like Chengdu, what it is full of now is huge streets bursting with cars. My first recollection on getting off the bus from the airport is of having to cross a road so wide that one almost had to squint to see the pedestrian lights on the other side.
The Great Wall runs across the tops of desolate mountains just outside Beijing. But a dinky chain of sort of go-karts on rails takes you up there from the bus stop. Up on the Wall it is like Oxford Street on a busy day, though apparently it is quieter now in the winter than the rest of the year. It is impossible to imagine the Ming engineers building anything, let alone such a wall, here, or an invading army ever breaching it. But they did.
The Forbidden City is Beijing's other obligatory tourist site - at least for anyone who's seen The Last Emperor. There is a vast series of enormous halls. Notices explain how in this one the Emperor held audiences, and in that one received foreign delegations, and changed before ceremonies in another, and in yet another took advice from ministers; but each is essentially a huge space, with a large dais in the centre of one wall on which sits a highly ornamented throne. The first one you see is stunning, the second beautiful, the third very nice. After that they all looked much the same to me, but it was bitterly cold - the surface of the moat was frozen and the sun hidden in fog - and I had a bad headache so my view may be jaded. Afterwards, if one goes through another two security checks, one can wander about the truly vast but fairly featureless Tiananmen Square which stands in front of the palace. My head was still pounding and I have never been so pleased to see a Starbucks as on walking to the hotel after getting the bus back. It is a place I'd normally go out of my way to avoid, but I badly needed coffee - for medicinal purposes, I don't like the taste - and in Beijing one's options are limited. A big cup of it and a sandwich had a restorative power that was almost miraculous.
Dadong, meaning 'Big Dong' - Dong is a name - is the very swish (and expensive) restaurant which is, apparently, *the* place to have Peking Duck. Elegant waitresses and tall-hatted chefs glide silently along the carpet, and on the glass-topped table in front of each diner, on a porcelain pair of swans rests pair of chopsticks and a spoon. The menu is a huge volume - one thinks of Gutenberg's 42-line bible - the first couple of pages being a table of contents, telling you on which page to find full-colour photographs of each dish. The style - apart from the signature dish - is of small, Frenchified, elegantly presented Chinese dishes, a kind of nouvelle cuisine chinoise. The duck comes to the table practically still quacking and one of the tall-hatted chefs dons surgical gloves and expertly carves two small piles of thinly-sliced meat covered in strips of skin, while a third plate contains the wings and the halved head. (From the latter one can pick out the brain with chopsticks, and nibble at the skin.) There are pancakes and a couple of crisp puffy buns, and we are brought a plate each of at least half a dozen garnishes - the plum sauce is terrific, but there is also a sugar glaze, garlic paste, cucumber, spring onion, and two or three things I cannot identify. Peking Duck is not quite the same as the crispy fried duck beloved of Chinese restaurants in the UK, but is equally delectable, the skin crisp and the meat rare and tender. We have some other dishes, of course, but it is the duck one remembers.
The next evening in return I want Y to try haggis, but we once again prove Beijing's parochial nature by discovering that none is to be had throughout the city. So we end up at the restaurant next door to the hotel, whose speciality is shuan yang rou, another famous Beijing dish, despite being known in English as 'Mongolian hot pot'. Y has never heard of a Mongolian connection but conjectures that perhaps it was introduced by the great Mongolian emperor Cheng Ji Si Han, whom you may better know as Genghis Khan. (He also tells me that the dish's name means 'swirled mutton' and that it is not at all like true 'hot pot', which is a different dish, from Chongqing, which he describes. But to my untutored ear the differences sound minor.)
To eat shuan yang rou, first of all you select items from a menu by ticking boxes on a huge form. Or rather your companion does so, as it's entirely in Chinese. An enormous receptacle is placed in a well in the middle of the table, with a coal fire below, a chimney above, and in a ring around the edge, a sauce full of chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, into which hot water is poured from a vast kettle like something out of a fairy tale. Each diner has a bowl full of chilli and oil, and some other herbs which can be added to moderate this, namely spring onion, coriander and chilli. The water heats to a rolling boil, while a vast array of raw food is brought to the table: thinly-sliced beef, various kinds of mushroom, strips of beef stomach, cuttlefish, lotus root, potato, and some sort of spinach, to name only the ones I remember. Using your chopsticks you drop food in the boiling spicy soup, and fish around to find cooked items, which you then dip or immerse in your bowl of chilli sauce, to which you may or may not have added futher chilli. The meat - ours is beef rather than mutton - cooks in ten seconds or so, so rather than drop it in, you hold it in your chopsticks and swirl it around briefly, giving the dish its name. From time to time a waiter with one of the fairy-tale kettles tops up the water in the broth as it evaporates away.
It is probably the finest meal I have had on my travels, so I for one have reason to be grateful that there is no haggis in Beijing.