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Planning Retirement Online

Fine China

  by Jeanne Davis

Jeanne Davis describes for us her recent tour of China when her collage of childhood images came to life.                                         

My images of China, building since childhood, included ferocious foo dogs - lion dog figures my mother collected, guarding mantelpieces and bookshelves in our sitting room - and the silky touch of ivory mah-jong tiles to covet in a gambling game I was introduced to as a child. There was also the film ‘the Good Earth’, a grainy epic of Chinese peasants persevering in their battle with nature. And then the image of Mao Zedong, China’s most famous peasant son. His ‘little red book’ of quotations. And last, the corpses of students sprawled on Tiananmen Square.

On my first visit to China this year, these images came alive. The foo dogs grinned everywhere - outside every restaurant, in every street, at every hotel entrance, in stone, porcelain, wood, every colour and size.

I heard the click of mah-jong tiles in the small towns and cities like Dazu, where people take an evening stroll, a paseo, along the ‘high street’.  In the open shops, like garages with no doors, on the ground floors of blocks of flats, enterprising residents sell food, run a pharmacy, sew garments for local and tourist trade.  In these shops at night, open to the sidewalk, the men gather, sit at small tables on low chairs, absorbed in mah-jong games, clicking the ivory tiles as though throwing dice.

Classic scenes of peasants ploughing a rice field, wooden plough harnessed to a water buffalo, appear as you drive through the countryside, as timeless as your imagination remembers. But more often than not, the farmer is wearing chinos and a sport shirt, although his hat to shade him from the sun is the age old bamboo ‘coolie’.

Mao’s picture is everywhere, on souvenir china plates, on posters, on schoolroom walls. His heroic figure leads a persevering band of courageous peasants on the Long March, immortalised in a monumental stone sculpture overlooking Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. 

You can read about uprisings in the newspapers today, but not led by students. The   scattered rebellions are workers’ protests, for better economic conditions (not democracy)  as the new market economy shuts down state owned enterprises and free health care, pensions, housing provided by the factories disappear.

There is a spirit of entrepreneurship that would win the applause of any gung-ho Western entrepreneur.  Cruising the Yangtze River in a five-star river cruise ship, I talked to the deputy ship director, Vic Lacap.  The ship, the MS East King and her sister ship the MS East Queen, are the products of three young Chinese bankers who recognised a niche in the Yangtze River cruise market, the need for upscale accommodation.  They did their business plan, attracted a major investment from the internationally- renowned  Holiday Inn Hotel Group, and six years ago launched the two luxury boats, replete with air- conditioned cabins, en- suite bathrooms, TV, sun decks, and good Chinese food, better than the gloppy cuisine tolerated in the UK  and the US, but not as exquisite as the 20-course dumpling feast we ate in a huge, bustling restaurant in Xi’An.

A monumental symbol of the vitality of the new China is the Yangtze’s Three Gorges Dam, which when completed will be the world’s largest, now the object of vociferous controversy and worldwide  protest. Chinese and Western visitors alike are moved to formulate an opinion. 

Our group spent many hours discussing its pros and cons.  The aim is to make navigable stretches along the river’s 3,964 mile course (the world’s third longest river next to the Nile and the Amazon); bring hydroelectricity to millions of homes, and control the floods that for centuries have swept away countless lives and livelihoods along its lower reaches.

But what of the environmental damage?  Some experts fear that controlling the silt to protect the dam may irretrievably erode the downstream riverbed.

On the slopes of the towering mountains along the river are the stone grey villages that will disappear beneath the reservoir.  Above them are newly built villages and blocks of white flats. These will not be sufficient to rehouse all of the 1.4 million who will lose their homes when the water level of  the river is  raised.

If such construction wonders don’t quite do it for you, then the aesthetic experience of Huang Shan, a mountain range of 36 peaks in the province of Anhui, will raise your levels of wonder.  It is a painting come to life.  Picture yourself in one of those familiar Chinese landscape scrolls that depict towering peaks rising above a sea of clouds with grotesque pine trees twisting from the rock pinnacles.

You can stand on top of one of these peaks, having ridden half way in a cable car and then hiked for three hours up torturing stone steps.  Take in a scene that harks to the time the earth was being formed and the peaks rose until they almost reached the heavens – as far as the Gods would allow.

The strange rock formations were given names by generations of pilgrim hikers and Buddhist followers  - Three Large Buddhas, A Monkey Gaping at the Seas, and most spiritual of all, Beginning to Believe Peak. 

Come down from the peaks and sit on the deck of your guest house and gaze at more vistas while sipping a bowl of “eight treasures tea”, a fragrant brew of chrysanthemum flowers, exotic seeds and spices.  For the insatiable, there’s a 4:30 am rise in which you hike in darkness to view the sun rise over these treasured peaks.

You may be pleased to know that this experience is not just laid on for the tourists.  Thousands of Chinese make the climb to Huang Shan every year.  The hubbub of Chinese voices adds a curious comfort and reminds that the wonders of the world attract visitors from near and far, because they are, after all, wonders.


Cruises range from around 2000 for 17 nights, shorter tours from about 600 - 1000

Kuoni Worldwide:  tel 01306 747000.

Hayes and Jarvis: tel 0870 89 89 890

China Direct: tel 020 7538 2840

Asiaworld Travel: tel 08700 799 788


On-line general information:  


Coal Hill Park, Beijing: join in morning exercise with local residents.

Lunch at home  with a Chinese family.

Visit to neighbourhood schoolroom: delighted children and teachers will welcome you.

Evening paseo in small city or town: stroll with Chinese families in early evening along lively “high street.”  Bustling with shops, markets, music and friendly smiles.

Dumpling feast in Xi’An. Featuring 20 different kinds of dumplings at De Fa Chong restaurant.  Outside of Xi’An , the Terracotta Warriors, 7,000 life-size soldiers entombed 2300 years ago to guard their Emperor in the afterlife.

Yangtze River Cruise and Three Gorges Dam: cruise through the heartland of China and through history and legend.  View the construction of the world’s largest dam.  Don’t miss excursion along the Shennong Stream, a tributary of the Yangtze. Boatmen of the Tujin minority pole you through spectacular gorges in traditional pod shaped boats.

Shanghai Museum, Shanghai:  Save some space for gifts from the museum’s gift shops Exquisite jewellery, scroll paintings, lacquer wares at fair prices.  Museum’s galleries are the best in China for ancient through contemporary masterpieces of bronze, jade, ceramics , calligraphy, furniture.

Huangshan Mountain (Mt. Huang):  Site of world famous Chinese scroll paintings—seas of clouds, grotesque rocks, strange twisted pine trees.  Stay overnight at a guest house for ultimate experience.


    Read:  Blue Guide, China       

Rough Guide, China 




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