There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Wuyishan (2) Bamboo Rafts and Tianyou Peak: Part 9 of South East China

Wonder Wang, the imaginatively named young man in Chengdu who had planned this trip for us had warned that ‘there would only be Chinese breakfasts’. No problem, we thought, a good Chinese breakfast is infinitely preferable to a bad ‘western breakfast'. Today, though, we were not offered a ‘good’ Chinese breakfast. With several busloads of tourists to deal with the staff had put the food out early, the noodles had congealed into a single inseparable lump and the rice… well, best not.

M (our guide) turned up for her free breakfast – well no one can ruin a boiled egg – and afterwards we set out for the Wuyi Mountains UNESCO World Heritage site.

Location of Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountains) in south east China

The day was dull and grey, though not cold, and the entrance huge and forbidding. The Chinese authorities like to open up these sites, invite tourists by the hundred thousand and then strictly regiment everything they do; their desire to control transforming a wilderness area into a facsimile of a Disney Adventureland. My resulting grumpiness prompted Lynne to remind me that I travel to experience other cultures, and this was the Chinese way. She was right, which made me even grumpier, but the Chinese revel in it, marching in battalions behind the leader’s flag as he or she barks out instructions through a hand-held loudspeaker.
Standing in front of the entrance to the Wuyishan scenic area

Once inside, we strolled through the trees to an area where shuttle buses and road-trains waited to whisk the masses to their approved recreation zones. M found the right bus (we would have had no chance without her) and we travelled several miles down an ordinary road to what seemed an ordinary village.

We were there to board a bamboo raft for a trip down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River). The Chinese need to enumerate everything (the Five Sacred Mountains, the Four  Great Gardens...) springs from the same source as their desire to regiment and be regimented but I love the futility of trying to define the number of bends on a river.

The Chinese, of course, turn up mob-handed for their river trips. The rafts hold six and we had to wait while M found a spare foursome we could tag along with. Her ability to speak Chinese was invaluable but she struggled to communicate with us. Although local tourist flock to the Wuyi mountains, foreigners are a rarity and if we insist on coming to such places we should not be overly surprised when our ‘English speaking’ guide doesn’t.

Eventually we settled into a boat and pushed off.
Setting off down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River)

The six passengers had a crew of two, a man at the back with a pole…
Action man helps us down the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

…and a woman at the front with a pole and the gift of the gab. She kept the four other punters entertained and informed, but it rather washed over us. Her hat was covered with tin foil, perhaps for a protection against Wuyi’s semi-permanent drizzle, but if she worried about aliens stealing her brainwaves it would help with that too.
While the talking came from the front, Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

The river enjoyed occasional outbreaks of ebullience, calling them ‘rapids’ would be over-dramatizing,….
Approaching an outbreak of 'ebullience', Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

…and bamboo floats very low in the water, so when encountering an ‘ebullience’ it was wise to raise one’s feet.
Lift your feet, Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

Wet feet or not, the Wuyishan Scenic Area is appropriately named and we floated past sheer cliffs,…..

Cliffs beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan
….peered into the misty depths of the mountains…

The misty Wuyishan Mountains

….and marvelled at unusual rock formations.
Rock formations beside the Jiuqu Xi (Nine-Bend River), Wuyishan

Occasionally the rafts formed themselves into a queue….
A queue of rafts on the Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan

….with some overtaking,….
Overtaking our rivals, Jiuqu Xi,Wuyishan

But for two hours we generally drifted quietly on, under the only bridge…
Bridge over the Jiuqu Xi, (Nine-Bend River) Wuyishan

….and, near the end, past Yunnu Hill, the symbol of the Wuyi mountains.

I am uncertain which word best describes Yunnu Hill, but I am sure it is not ‘hill’. I have been unable to discover the Chinese word used, but official translations can be misleadingly rigid. The Chinese for ‘river’ is (pronounced with a rising tone, roughly ‘huh?’), we were rafting on a , unfailingly translated in official guides as ‘brook’ while liú is ‘stream’, but the Chinese words hé, and liú only roughly correspond to river, brook and stream (and what about gyhll, burn and beck?). Being a requires a lot of water, whereas a 'river' can be more modest; I have referred to Jiuqu Xi as Nine-Bend River, because to me it looks like a river not a brook.

Yunnu Hill, Wuyishan

M met us at the disembarkation point. ‘How do the boats get back to the start?’ I asked, having seen none travelling upstream. I rephrased the question several times using simpler and simpler words and in the end received an answer, of sorts, ‘by car’ she said.

Several minutes walking brought us to a pedestrian street lined with smart wooden cabins selling snacks, drinks and tourist tat. M seemed to be telling us this was a 10th century Song dynasty village though every structure we could see was clearly 21st century; perhaps she was just saying that the retail outlet was called Song Street. Her next statement was less ambiguous: ‘you have lunch.’ It was barely 11 o’clock and despite our early start we were not ready for food, so we politely declined. This threw her into confusion; she arranged to meet us again in half an hour and wandered off.

We had a look round thinking we might buy something for our grandson, but having dismissed the crossbows with their hard, sharp bolts as inappropriate there was nothing to do but drink coffee. We re-read Wonder Wang’s itinerary, after the rafting ‘you will climb up Tianyou Peak, the sheer rock peak that just rise skywards, to have a bird’s eye view of the magnificent mountain.
My rock climbing career started and (I hope) finished on one fear filled afternoon in July 1972, so if pitons and carabiners were out of the question the only way up a sheer peak was by cable car. These are difficult to hide so presumably it was not nearby.

We were killing time, and as it was limited that felt wrong. The drive would use time profitably and might even reveal a place for lunch, and if not, well, so be it.

Armed with this misapprehension we rendezvoused with M and announced we were ready for Tianyou (Heavenly Tour) Peak. She led us on a lengthy walk along concrete paths and across the bridge over the Jiuqu Xi. We kept expecting to encounter a car park, but in the end we encountered Tianyou Peak.
Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

Mt Huangguang (2,158m, 7,080ft) is the highest peak in the Wuyishan range, Tianyou, at 808m (2,650ft) is relatively insignificant and from where we stood the peak was little more than 100m above us - but it looked forbiddingly sheer.

M led us up a some steps.

Up the steps to the side of Tianyou Peak
We had been climbing for a while before it dawned on us that somebody sometime had part constructed, part hacked steps all the way up the side of the rock face. The route was obvious, so M informed us that we could walk to the observation point, she pointed to a pavilion high above, and return the same way, or continue to the top (828 steep steps) and descend the other side (2000 shallower steps). M, though roughly half our age, would wait at the bottom.

Starting up Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

We settled down to some upward plodding and reached the pavilion surprisingly quickly. We took a breather and enjoyed spectacular views down to the Jiuqu Xi….
Looking down to the Jiuqu Xi from the pavilion on Tianyou, Wuyishan
…further up the rock face….

Looking up the Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
….and across to the adjacent peaks. 
The nearby peaks, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
Eastern Wuyishan is an example of the ‘Danxia landform’ common throughout south eastern and southern China. Cretaceous red sandstone, lifted and cracked by shifting tectonic plates, has undergone millions of years of erosion to produce distinctive ‘hills’ with steep sides and flat wooded tops.

We got our heads down and continued plodding so we could soon look down on the nearby peaks, the river and the pavilion – half way according to M – and…
Looking down on the adjacent peaks, the pavilion and Jiuqu Xi, Wuyishan
…up to the next part of our climb
The next part of our climb
I have mentioned (more than once) the Chinese preference for making visits en masse. Our path up Tianyou was pleasantly uncrowded, but here is a photograph borrowed from travel agent Access China Travel taken in roughly the same place during a holiday.

Access China Travel's picture of the same part of Tianyou, Wuyishan
Near the top the more exposed route was cordoned off and the last part of ascent was on a pleasant path behind the peak.
Nearing the top of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
A boy came running down to us. ‘Hello, where do you come from?’ he started before going through the complete school book conversation with confidence and unusual accuracy. ‘Thank you,’ he said at the end before running off up the steps.

At what appeared to be the top was a small temple and a kiosk where my pointing and smiling was rewarded with two much needed soft drinks. Communicating the price is normally straightforward, the young lady could have used pencil and paper, a calculator or her fingers, but her strategy was to say a number and keep repeating it until I understood. It failed, and then failed again and again and.. After so many visits to China I am ashamed to admit I still do not know any numbers above ten and  after multiple fruitless repetitions, a waiting customer interrupted. ‘Fifty,’ she said. I had expected to pay a premium, the merchandise has to be carried up on foot, but not £6+ for two small drinks. I shook my head, put the cartons back on the counter and made to walk off. ‘Why?’ the customer asked. ‘Too much,’ I replied. ‘Not too much,’ she said ‘only fifty, one five, fifty.’ ‘One five, fifteen?’ I ventured. ‘Yes, one five, fiftee.’ I thanked her and handed 15 yuan to the bemused girl in the kiosk. Chinese English speakers almost invariable omit final consonants but this confusion has somehow never arisen before. The English words ought to be more distinct.

Thirst quenched, we found yet more steps to climb. Behind the temple we passed some (possibly ancient) calligraphy….
(Ancient?) Caligraphy, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

….and some Jinjunmei tea bushes (spelling varies). Wuyishan is the home of Lapsang Souchong, and Jinjunmei is its superior version. 100g of top Jinjunmei allegedly sells for US$1,600; these bushes growing in marginal conditions might produce ‘top’ jinjunmei – or may just be a curiosity.

Jinjunmei, near the summit of Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan

We soon reached a sign pointing to the summit. The path hardly rose as we crossed the peak’s flat top but there was no feeling of exposure, it was so well wooded we could see only the surrounding trees. A little pavilion marked the high point. We were all alone so we put the camera on a wall and took a selfie.
The summit, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan 

This anti-climax was followed by many, many downward steps, and no sooner had we started than the rain, which had threatened all day, began to fall. South winds bring clouds rolling in from the South China Sea and the first high ground they hit is Wuyishan, so although the climate is warm it is notoriously wet.
We were passed, at a run, by the boy we had spoken to earlier and then, at a more measured pace by his older brother. He thanked us for our patience and hoped we had not been bothered. We said it had been a pleasure to meet such a polite and enthusiastic youngster but did not tell him his little brother’s English was almost as good as our guide’s - it would have been only a slight exaggeration.
The descent round the back of the mountain offered no views so it was a long plod through an unrelenting downpour.
A long downward plod through unrelenting rain, Tianyou Peak, Wuyishan
M was waiting in the dry, but she too was uncomfortably wet (pardon my schadenfreude) by the time we reached the car park, where a road-train took us out of the Scenic Area. M found our driver and we headed back to town, proving en route the truth of her earlier statement; the bamboo rafts do indeed return to the start 'by car'.

The bamboo rafts go home by, well not quite 'car', Wuyishan
In the evening, dried, rested, and by now hungry, we ventured to a nearby restaurant - continued rain discouraged walking further abroad. We may not know our spoken numbers but we were pleased that we were able to peruse the Chinese menu and select a beef dish and a vegetable dish, though how they would be cooked remained a mystery. We also ordered a cheap unknown side dish out of bravado.

The beef and Chinese cabbage were excellent. The mystery dish - strips of some pickled vegetable - was a bit dull and we had no more clue what it was when we finished than we had when we ordered it. Including rice and beer a good diner came to less than £10 - and we had duly entertained the little audience that gathered to watch the weird foreigners eat.

South East China

Part 10: Xiamen
coming Oct 2017

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Wuyishan (1) Xiamei Ancient Village: Part 8 of South East China

Chinese high-speed trains are extraordinarily well organised. Every ticket has a carriage and seat number, and if you stand where that carriage number is marked on the platform floor the appropriate door will arrive right in front of you.

Train G1653 arrived on time from Shanghai at 09.01 and whisked us the 456km from Hangzhou to Wuyishan in 2hrs and 44mins, an average speed of 167kph. It would be much quicker but for the 6 intermediate stops – is frequent stopping the best way to use a high-speed train?
Train G1653 arrives in Hangzhou
We disembarked at Wuyishan, or rather at Wuyishan East Station at 11.46. Emerging from the echoing barn of a station, we found our guide, M, and the young man who was to be our driver and looked around, wondering where Wuyishan was.
The train took us from Hangzhou in Zhejiang to Wuyishan in Fujian Province
According to Wikipedia, Wuyishan is a county-level city within the prefecture-level city of Nanping. We could see hills and trees, and a few buildings but nothing that resembled a city of any level.
Wikipedia further informs me that Nanping City contains 2 districts, 5 counties and 3 county-level cities (including the elusive Wuyishan).
How can one city contain 5 counties and 3 county-level cities? What is going on here?
I was bewildered until I read that Nanping City (population 2½ million) has an area of 26,000km² and realised that makes it twice the size of Yorkshire (pop: 5 million). Clearly the Chinese word shi ()always translated as ‘city’, can mean ‘city’ as we understand it, but also a much wider area administered by a city, like a county or prefecture.
Nanping Prefecture, aka Nanping City, in the north east corner of Fujian Province
There is a sizeable city of Nanping (pop: 400,000) in Yanping District, but the whole prefecture can be referred to as Nanping City. The differences between districts, counties and county-level cities is opaque. Yanping is the most urban part of the prefecture, while the other district, Jianyang, is rural. 'County-level cities' seem to be counties administered from a city of the same name (like Staffordshire or Worcestershire), while 'counties' have no eponymous city (like Kent or Devon). Wuyishan City is similar in area to Staffordshire, Wuyishan itself, when we finally arrived, is rather smaller than Stafford.
Anybody want to know more about Chinese local government areas?
I thought not.

At the time, I knew none of this but would soon discover that Wuyishan East Station (actually in Jianyang District) is over 30km from Wuyishan - and 30 fear-filled kilometres they were too. Chinese driving is often unruly but of the many professional drivers we have encountered in our various Chinese trips, the vast majority have been reliable and prudent, coping calmly with whatever is thrown at them. Today we encountered a member of the minority, a young man who believed in his divine right to overtake, even - perhaps particularly - on a blind bend beside a sheer drop.

Tucked away in the mountains (shan means ‘mountain’) Wuyishan consisted of a single main street lined with tourist shops and a few residential areas. Our hotel, squarely aimed at the Chinese tourist market, was off the main street. We dumped our bags and let M lead us to lunch

It is a local practice (we have never seen it anywhere else) for restaurants to lay their wares out on a trestle table in the street. M took us to one where the mushrooms looked interesting, the vegetables tired and meat like it ought to be in a fridge. We like a written menu even if we can read little of it, but here we were reliant on M, whose English, we were discovering, was limited. Prices were high – the mushrooms astronomical – and perhaps we should have bargained, but that is not usual in restaurants. We settled for some duck which was overpriced and more bones than meat.

Lunch was unsatisfactory, but on the plus side we had now travelled far enough south to eat outdoors and sweaterless.

Afterward we reluctantly re-placed our lives in the hands of the driver for a 6km trip to Xiamei Ancient Village
Xiamei Ancient Village, Fujian

At first sight Xiamei looks like a genuine slice of old China, but this is not just an old village, there is a £5 entrance fee to be paid which includes the services a local guide.

Entrance to Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
We had spent the last week in jam-packed Jiangsu* and Zhejiang. By contrast rural Fujian is relatively empty, but there was modern housing nearby. I wondered if the people we saw were genuine residents of the ‘Ancient Village’, or were they employed as local colour. Am I really cynical enough to believe they brought their washing here so tourists could watch it dry? Probably not, but the Chinese tourist industry makes you think that way.
They put foodstuffs out to dry as well as clothes
(pity I have forgotten what this is!)
Xiamei is, however, picturesquely strung out along the Dangxi River (actually a canal) connected to the nearby Meixi Brook – which is larger than anything I would call a ‘brook’...
The Dangxi 'River', Xiamei, Wuyishan
…crossed by any number of bridges of varying antiquity.
Old bridge, Xiamei, Wuyishan
The local guide was loquacious, and we looked to M for translation, but she was clearly not up to the job, providing two or three words for every hundred spoken to her. Fortunately, the Zou Family temple was captioned in English and in two languages written in Cyrillic, Russian and, er…another one.
Zou Family Ancestral Hall.
Xiamei prospered on the tea trade during the 18th century when it sat at one end of the Tea Road from China to Moscow. The houses are not as grand as those in the water town of Nunxun (was that only yesterday?) but as village houses go, they are impressive.
Village house, Xiamei ancient Village, Wuyishan
Other ancestral halls with intricately carved doorways vie with the Zou’s for prominence. I like the way they can be adapted for Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian ceremonies as required, an ecumenical harmony we had observed in 2013 at the memorable Hanging Monastery near Datong.

Stone carvings at the entrance to an Ancestral Hall
Xiamei ancient Village
At the end of the row we found the village blacksmith hard at work…
The village blacksmith, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
…then we crossed the Dangxi and walked down the other side.

Starting down the other side, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
We soon encountered the local guide’s house where his mother set about making us a cup of tea - actually several cups. Wuyishan is the home of Lapsang Souchong, a black tea dried and smoked over pinewood fires. Worldwide demand for Lapsang Souchong has become far greater than the Wuyi area can provide, but although there is no Chinese concept of appellation controlée, Wuyi Lapsang Souching still commands a premium price. She made us a pot of Lapsang Souching and one of Jin Jun Mei (lit: golden beautiful eyebrow), an early spring picked Lapsang and even more highly prized. I like an occasional Lapsang, but I would struggle to drink it every day. Jin Jun Mei was gentler, sweeter, slightly less aggressive. We bought some. We also tried a superior Jin Jun Mei but that seemed to give little more for a higher price. She did not brew us any Da Hong Pao (big red robe) 20g of which can cost up to US$20,000, unless you source it from one of the original six bushes, in which case it becomes seriously expensive.
Making tea, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
We moved on through another impressive house…
One of the grander village houses, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
…with a strange door. Allegedly this is a template against which a mother can check a future daughter-in-law, a sort of Chinese glass slipper though without the foot fetishism. It was treated as a joke, but it embodies an attitude to women some might have difficulty laughing at.
Bride template, Xiamei Ancient Village, Wuyishan
At the end of the village a woman was de-husking rice using a hand powered machine. This was certainly not being done for the benefit of tourists, and the more I had seen of Xiamei, the more genuine it felt and the more I warmed to it. It is though, undoubtedly part museum and part living village. I have nothing against museums, on the contrary, at the Black Country Museum, for example, I watched with interest as blacksmiths and chain-makers demonstrated their crafts, but they and I knew it was a demonstration, there was no pretence; in China you cannot always be so certain. [We were almost the only visitors. I read it can be very crowded at holiday time or when school groups descend. I might have liked it less then.]
Husking rice, Xiamei Ancient Village
The short journey back to Wuyishan brought no accute threats to life or limb.
We took a walk round the town, looking for a promising restaurant. There were plenty of shops selling wood carvings and more selling tea, but few restaurants. Even the little grocery shop offered tourist tat, but we did note a couple of possibilities.
Later, as we set out to eat, the rain descended so, ignoring our research, we ran for the nearest restaurant. Menu excerpts were displayed outside and we had earlier noticed we could read most of one of them, so we ordered it by pointing, just to check we were right.
The unexpected plate of fresh, crunchy, just-roast peanuts, was a definite bonus. The strips of pork, mushrooms and potatoes were what we thought we ordered and the celery was obviously the unknown word. The stock in which everything had been cooked gave it a touch of class and the price was reasonable. We felt well pleased with ourselves.
Drinks cupboard in a small restaurant in Wuyishan
I often take pictures of our meals, but just for a change, here is the restaurant’s drinks cupboard. Bottom right is fruit juice and beer (though our beer came from the fridge), above that cola, Red Bull and interestingly wrapped spirits. On the next shelf is Chinese red wine (generally avoided by locals and tourists alike) and a few bottles of Chinese vodka. The top two shelves in the centre also have vodka and more expensive rice and sorghum based spirits, their bottles made special by hiding them in decorated boxes. The contents of the big bottles at the bottom are considered medicinal and are best not scrutinised too closely.
Wuyishan at night
*Jiangsu Province’s 79.8 million people live at a density of 780 people per km² (c.f. United Kingdom 270, USA 91) and this does not include the mega-city of Shanghai which is a province in its own right.