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Travels With Alice

January 2016

 

By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

We have enjoyed our contributing writer Jeanne Davis’ regular Beyond the Headlines for some time.

Look out each month for the latest story in our exciting new series Travels with Alice. Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy her fascinating insights into human behaviour and great locations .

This is going to be a great addition to Laterlife that will become addictive…

To view all of Jeanne's articles visit the Interest Index.

WONDERS OF CHINA: Old and New

It begins with yet another phone call from Phoenix.  "How about China this year,” says Alice. And we can celebrate our birthdays there."

Our birthdays are both in June. It will be my 69th, Alice’s 67th.

China! I’m excited.  I’ve had China on my mind for a long time.  There is the image from my childhood of the foo dogs, the ferocious lion-dog figures my mother collected which guarded the mantelpieces and bookcase shelves in our sitting room. I remember, too, the film The Good Earth, the epic of Chinese peasants persevering in their battle with nature.  And later in my student years, the image of the stalwart Mao Tse-tung, China’s most famous peasant son, and his Little Red Book of quotations.

COMING TO LIFE

All this was there. The foo dogs grinned everywhere on our tour that June, outside every restaurant, at every hotel entrance, in stone, in porcelain, in wood, in every colour, in all sizes from a cricket ball to a King Kong 120 feet tall.

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

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

But there’s so much more to discover, to learn about, to enjoy. On our first morning in the capital Beijing, in need of a good walk to shake us out of our jet lag, ,we wander into Coal Hill Park, there to see a gathering of senior citizens, engaged in  their morning tai chi exercise.  Sally, a friend who’s with us again, and I join the group.  Alice watches us from a hill above. 

Sally, ever so graceful, flows with the movements of the group.  I am not so graceful, says my good friend, no nonsense Alice. She is a hiker, climber, biker, skier.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

One of the wonders of the world, the Great Wall of China is a must – to see it and walk on it. Begun in 476 BC it was built in successive stages by successive emperors to keep out the invading nomads from the North. The last stone was put in place in 1644 AD.  
Just like a gigantic dragon, it winds up and down across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, stretching approximately 3,170 miles from east to west.

Walk a mile or two and you can  picture the thundering hordes attempting to invade but  you can’t help but reflect that beneath the ramparts are buried the bones of the peasants, soldiers and out of favour mandarins  who built what is called the longest man-made object on earth ,and the longest wall,  and died here.

 

THE YANGTZE RIVER AND THE THREE GORGES DAM 

China’s biggest construction project since the Great Wall, a monumental symbol of the vitality of the new China, is the Yangtze’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest. It is designed to make navigable previously unnavigable stretches along the river’s 3,964-mile-course (the world’s third longest river after the Nile and the Amazon); bring hydro-electricity to millions of homes, and control the floods that for centuries have swept away countless lives and livelihoods along the lower reaches.

We are there six years before the dam is completed.  The scale of the project gives rise to wonder and awe.  Engineers in our group, those who had seen  the great dams of the world, the Grand Coulee, the Aswan, were almost speechless, as we surveyed the excavations for the ship lifts, the concrete placements for the power generators , and  the spillway structures to be completed on a vast site covering 15 square kilometers.

What of the 1.4 million villagers whose homes will be underwater when the water level of the river is raised to make the great reservoir behind the dam?

On the slopes of the towering mountains that narrow the waterway in the gorges are the stone grey houses of villages that will disappear beneath the reservoir.  But above them are newly built villages and blocks of white flats, high above the proposed new water level.  Here the villagers will be relocated.

 

IN A STONE GREY VILLAGE DELIGHTED CHILDREN AND THE YEAR OF THE GOAT

Cruising down the Yangtze we go ashore to one of the stone grey villages. In the school house on a hill, the schoolchildren greet us with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem (“March of the Volunteers”). They are as delighted to see us as we them.  It is gratifying to see so many little girls despite China’s one child policy that favoured boys.

We stop at a market stall.  Here a woman dips into a bucket of water and holds out to us a handful of well worn stones. These she says are from the bed of the Yangtze River where it runs through the Three Gorges.  She asks us our year of birth and consulting a chart, tells me I am born in the Year of the Goat.  Alice is the Year of the Rooster.  And she etches our symbols on two of the stones.

Roosters, according to the astrologers, are frank and free with advice, they are punctual and a hard worker. That’s definitely Alice. 

The Goat, a charmer, unpunctual and hesitant.  I don’t mind being a charmer but I’ll deny being unpunctual.

My goat stone is still with me, nestled on my bedside table.

We celebrate our birthdays that night on board. We’ve grown to like the Chinese beer.  It’s good.  The local wine was dreadful (this is before the Chinese became the world’s largest importer of fine French Bordeaux wines) and whisky is too expensive.

 ON TOP OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN

If such construction wonders of the Dam 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 set in the midst of 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 halfway up in a cable car and then hiked for three hours up a series of tortuous 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.

Strange rock formations took shape to be given, by generations of pilgrim hikers and Buddhist followers, such evocative names as Three Large Buddhas, a Monkey Gaping at the Seas, and most spiritual of all, Beginning to Believe Peak. I rested there a long time, endorphins raised not only from the heady climb but from the near primeval view spread before me.

I am not sure I would have made it without my Chinese guide, Zhou Guo Ping, whom one of our group remarked looked like China’s answer to Hugh Grant. Handsome and young, he helped me over the more treacherous rocks and carried my supply of drinking water.

Come down from the peaks and sit on the deck of your guest house and gaze at more vistas and sip a bowl of ‘eight treasures tea’, a fragrant brew of chrysanthemum flowers, exotic seeds and spices.

If you are the sort of traveler who scorns the tourist, you’ll be pleased to know that thousands of Chinese make this climb to Huang Shan every year.  The hubbub of Chinese voices will comfort you.  After all, the wonders of the world attract visitors because they are wonders.                                                  

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