to travel 1,000 miles is like reading 1,000 books: confucius

The vast mystery that is China demands attention. A journey to this land opens to visitors a geographical, historical and cultural encyclopedia that offers a breathtaking exploration of various worlds within one world.

China is the world’s third largest country, after Russia and Canada. Its most mountainous terrain rises in the west with Tibet and the mighty Himalayas. At 8,847 meters, Mount Everest is the world’s highest peak. China’s lowest point, the Turpan Depression, 154 meters below sea level, is scooped out in its vast north-west. The great mountainous highlands of west China, together with the forbidding deserts of Gobi and Taklimakan in the north acted as a huge barrier to China’s expansion. The land increasingly flattens out the farther east you travel. The vast majority [90 percent] of the population lives along China’s coast or in the fertile lands that line the Yangtze river, Yellow river, Pearl river and the Mekong river. Most of the cultivable land is irrigated by these river systems. Two-thirds of the land is too mountainous, arid or otherwise unsuitable for agriculture. China’s coastline is an affluent bundle of Special Economic Zones [SEZs] and thriving ports. Continue reading

china 11: hong kong, fragrance harbour

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Hong Kong, situated at the estuary of the Pearl River Delta, was once the home of simple fishing villages. After more than a century of cultural and traditional exchange, Hong Kong is now one of the world’s greatest cities, where east truly meets west. Hong Kong meaning “Fragrance Harbour” derives its name from a practice dating back 500 years ago. Fishermen in the harbour used to burn sandalwood incense sticks at dawn and dusk; the fragrance hanging over the harbour led to its name. Continue reading

china 10: buddha is a mountain and mountain is buddha; and kunming

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The colossal red-stoned statue of Buddha at Leshan

I am back in China from Tibet. Back in Chengdu and on my way to Leshan straight from the airport. It is raining, wet and misty. Leshan, presiding over the confluence of two rivers which sweep past the foot of Lingyun hill, is a huge statement of faith and site of the world’s largest carved stone Buddha. Sculpted from the rock face, the effigy is a staggering 71 meters in height and is even more impressive for having been made over 1,200 years ago during the Tang dynasty. The Buddha’s head is 15 meters high; his ears come in at a lengthy 7.5 meters, and his sizeable feet can hold an audience of 100 people, while he looks down with his three meter wide eyes. Continue reading

china 9: chengdu, capital of sichuan

Sichuan [Four Rivers] province’s most abiding impression could well be its spicy cuisine, famous for its diversity and comprising over 5,000 dishes such as twice-cooked pork, spicy chicken with peanuts [which I loved!], fish-fragranced sliced pork, and long dumplings. Noodles are eaten as a snack. A legendary dish in Chengdu is pock-marked Grandma’s beancurd. It was invented 90 years ago by a Grandma with spots on her face. Not many knew about the dish or ate it. An important poet once visited her and the meal, thereafter, became the most popular one in the city. Continue reading

china 8: karst peaks and minority nationalities—li river and guilin

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For centuries, Chinese poets, painters and artistic people with a deep sense for the aesthetic have used Guilin as a yardstick for natural beauty. The throng of limestone peaks that rise abruptly from the plain—often shrouded in mist—is what makes Guilin’s scenery so special. Amidst the peaks winds the Li river, a tributary of the Pearl river, green and placid, dotted with bamboo rafts and straw-hatted men fishing with cormorants. The karst peaks are the result of sea-bed movements 100 million years ago which settled huge deposits of calcium carbonate, namely limestone, on the earth’s surface. Water and wind eroded these deposits into their current fantastic shapes. Continue reading

china 7: futuristic shanghai, by the sea

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Shanghai, literally meaning “by the sea,” is the epitome of today’s China: modern, dynamic, pristine, futuristic, with a palpable energy driving it forward into the global realm of international trade and finance. Dizzying high-rises in their thousands encircled with swirling flyovers, and an eclectic variety of restaurants, bars and shops make it what every cosmopolitan city today strives to be—sophisticated, suave, and avant garde. The city is, simultaneously, a museum of European antiquities and a showcase of innovative architecture. The biggest metropolis in the country, with a population of 17 million and a 25 percent share of its FDI, Shanghai is befittingly to be the venue for the World Expo in 2010. Continue reading

china 6: ultimate yangtze

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Plunging from the Tibetan plateau, the Yangtze river or Chang Jiang “the Long River” in Chinese, is China’s longest river, and the third longest in the world, flowing 6,300 kilometres across the country to finally empty its waters in the East China Sea above Shanghai. The navigable section, however, only starts in Chongqing, the chief industrial city in south-western China with a population of 30 million. Constrained by a very hilly peninsula marking the meeting of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers, the city is unique in China in not having a single bicycle on its streets, and tends to be very foggy all year round. If it is sunny for three days in a row, it makes news. 🙂 Continue reading

china 5: a crash course in tang culture

It was my last morning in Xi’an. My flight had been delayed. After breakfast I, hence, strolled over to the Tang Dynasty Art Museum, an absolute treasure trove of Tang artistic and cultural accomplishments, to fill in the hours. From plans of the city to Tang silk robes, skilful paintings to make-up styles, the museum was both delightful and enlightening. It was like a crash course in Tang culture. Herewith some excerpts from lessons learnt. Continue reading

china 4: yellow earth, yellow river and its capital xi’an

The north is the historic heartland of China. Chinese civilisation first blossomed along the lower reaches of the muddy Yellow river. The provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi in the north are stained with the yellow earth that die the Yellow river ochre. As China’s cradle, the north is unequivocally Han in custom and folklore, possessing a cultural continuity. All Chinese traditions flow from this northern fountainhead.

Xi’an and Chang’an

The revered and eternal city of Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi province, is one of China’s most important monuments. The city grew considerably under the first emperor of the Qin. The affluent Silk Road began here during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Later incoming foreign emissaries brought with them an Islamic flavour that still lingers today. It has been the national capital of 11 dynasties; its zenith was reached in Tang dynasty China (618-907 AD) when it was called Chang’an. The Tang city grid pattern still survives in Xi’an today, as does a considerable quantity of celebrated architecture. Continue reading

china 3: great wall of china and summer palace in beijing

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The Great Wall

One of the greatest building enterprises in the history of the world is the Great Wall of China. Not so much one wall as a collection of ramparts, the punctuated Great Wall straddles China from the Yellow Sea in the east to its crumbling finale in the Gobi Desert. In its entirety, it is 6,430 kilometres long. Continue reading

china 2: the forbidden city of beijing

Tiananmen Square

Fronting the Forbidden City, the sweeping square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace—Tiananmen Square—is the soul of China and the world’s largest square. The vast expanse of paving stones covering 100 acres is a colossal statement of state power. Chairman Mao is interred here and the monolithic Chinese parliament overlooks the square.

Tiananmen Gate with its huge portrait of Mao is the viewing stand for military parades. In the centre of the square stands the Monument to the People’s Heroes. South of this is the Mao Zedong Mausoleum, where the waxen-faced great helmsman lies in state. The hall was constructed the year after Mao’s death in 1976.

The square doubles as a huge park, with couples strolling languidly hand in hand, children playing, and enthusiastic kite flying.

The Forbidden City

beijing_forbiddencity1 Continue reading

china 1: yanjing, dadu, beiping, peking—also known as beijing

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The Temple of Heaven is believed to be the site where heaven and earth meet

Nihal! [hello]

Every heart that listens to the call of the distant shore wishes, fantasises of travelling through the mysteries of the Forbidden City, climbing the impregnable ramparts of the Great Wall, basking in the suaveness of Shanghai, and cruising through the mist-clad gorges of the Yangtze, but at least once in their lives. My month long solo journey through China was an answer to such a call.

Beijing

Beijing, or Northern Capital has a powerful allure. The seat of power in China and proud capital of the Middle Kingdom was not at all what I expected it to be. I had arrived anticipating blue-attired homogeneous masses frantically cycling through a cluttered, crowded, chaotic city. Beijing instead was the complete antithesis. Wide tree-lined avenues, colossal squares, and huge palaces left me in awe. Blond-haired Chinese youths complete with earrings left me a wee bit amazed. Harmony and elegance were the order of the day. Continue reading