Frescos on the Frontier

Mogao4 The Monk Xuanzang is known to almost all Chinese. As one of the key characters in the classic Ming dynasty adventure story A Journey to the West, he features in everything from advertisements to blockbuster movies.

But the real Xuanzang was a Tang dynasty scholar who embarked on a 16 year expedition to retrieve sanskrit scriptures from India. On his return to China he passed through Dunhuang, a border town at the mouth of the Silk Road. The monk prayed in Buddhist temple-caves dug into a cliff face just outside the city, a place called Mogao. At the time, the area was flourishing with unprecedented spiritual and artistic activity. Each “grotto” was adorned with exquisite Buddhist frescos and sculptures that alluded to the fine artistry of the Tang period.

Xuanzang left behind several hundred sacred scrolls before returning to the capital Chang’an to spend the rest of his days translating the remaining scriptures. Soon his exploits would be incorporated into Mogao art, notably in Cave 204, where a mural depicts the monk’s epic pilgrimage.
Over 1,000 years later an adventurer from a very different place would arrive in Dunhuang. Aurel Stein, a Hungarian born British archeologist had far more pragmatic motivations for straying so far from home. He was in search of fabled Silk Road treasures.

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Holistic Haven

One enters Baimo Cave through a small, water-curtained orifice. Once inside, a lofty vault in the limestone is revealed – an illuminated chamber decorated by evocative natural rock sculptures. While our tour guide points to a tangled stalagmite, observing with classic Chinese symbolism, “This one is called Peacock in his Pride Worshiping Avalostesvara,” I find myself distracted by the sound and sight of water bursting out of every crack and vent. It drips from the ceiling, while subterranean streams surge underfoot, suggesting just how Bama County’s cragged landscape has been shaped, inside and out.

Deep inside the cave’s sanctum we come upon several people sitting on rocks, some meditating, some merely lazing around, others bartering prices for local produce from nagging Bama farmers. But all, my companion explains, are bound by a belief in the healing properties of the cave stone.

“They buy monthly passes,” says Zhang Xingyuan, a kindly local businesswoman who is showing me around, “and come here daily from nearby Poyue Town. Sometimes they even hold events in the cave.”

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Guizhou’s breathtaking scenery and historic sites

GuiyangThe cities of eastern China are regularly wreathed in smog, so for pastoral scenery and fresh air, many Chinese head south-west. Going on holiday is increasingly common for city dwellers, thanks to new airports and a growing motorway network. But this has put a strain on classic destinations such as Guilin (famous for its karst scenery) and lakeside Dali in Yunnan province, which are frequently crowded. The Guizhou region, with its cavernous gorges and ethnic minorities, offers an enticing alternative.

The economic boom enjoyed on China’s east coast over the past 30 years has left landlocked Guizhou behind. The upside for travellers is that the province long labelled “China’s poorest” remains unspoilt, with a wealth of uncrowded historic sites.

But now the Beijing government is trying to tackle wealth disparities across the nation by building transport links. A high-speed rail line opened in 2014 connecting Guizhou’s capital, Guiyang, with Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong, and more lines are planned to Chongqing, Kunming and Changsha.

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Kompong Cham – Cambodia’s East Gate

cam copyPhnom Penh is ground zero in a reawakening Cambodia. Gleaming SUVs navigate streams of tuc-tucs and motorcycles. Outside celestial Wats vendors hawk hats, sunglasses and “something special sir” on litter blighted streets. And in the riverfront bars, men reddened by too much Cambodia Beer and the fierce Cambodian sun, cavort like beasts freed from the confines of the zoo.

Yet this was not the wild we sought. We were simply passing through this feral borough of the global village, exchanging buses en route to what we’d heard was the least developed quarter of the country: Cambodia’s wild east.

Five hours traversing tarmac that had seemingly been smeared across the land like butter delivered us somewhat disquietingly to Kampong Cham – the so-called gateway to the eastern provinces. My travel companion Jack Bailey and I alighted the bus and resolved to stroll off the journey.

We walked past the bustling central market place, flanked by fading French architecture, towards the mighty Mekong River.  Kompong Cham proved more of a provincial town than a city per se. Though I’d read that it was the biggest conurbation in the east of the country, it only took us ten minutes to traverse it on foot.

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The Ancient Towns of Xiangxi


Shen Congwen was a prominent Chinese writer in the 1920s and 30s before war and chaos enveloped a generation. Though Shen hailed from a remote region in Western Hunan – a mountainous, ethnically diverse place known as Xiangxi – his stories concerning “the human spirit” found wide readership with the urban young in places like Shanghai. His writing painted a world where Han infantrymen rubbed shoulders with the exotic Tujia and Miao in a land of lush hills and jade rivers. Yet Shen’s Xiangxi is a paradise flawed, caught in limbo between ancient ways and an encroaching modernity. His stories are riddled with conflict and simmering with mute pathos.

His hometown of Fenghuang is a place where, as Shen Congwen once wrote, “Land was scarce, so most people’s houses were dangling-foot houses, half on land, half on stilts built over the water.” The writer’s grave is located on the outskirts of the river town in a quaint hillside memorial garden.

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My Life: Wu Qiang

Ink painting by Wu Qiang

Ink painting by Wu Qiang

RED DAWN I was born in 1967 in Zigong, Sichuan province. That was just after the Cultural Revolution began. I can recall red flags and mass movements. It was dazzling but the more intense things got, the poorer people became. You had to quote Chairman Mao even when you went to buy food. For example, if you wanted a turnip, you’d first say, “Mao Zedong thought for 10,000 years,” and then you could pay for it. Food became scarce and people ate anything. I had an aunt who would fry up cockroaches because there was no meat. Of course, we added Sichuan peppercorns and chilli peppers for flavour. I was nine years old when Mao died. Everyone was outside crying in unison. I thought it was funny and started to laugh. A policeman hit me and said, “Chairman Mao has died and you laugh?” But I wasn’t sure what it all had to do with me. Those times were like North Korea is today. I think Pyongyang must have studied China.

DOTS AND DIY The older brother of a friend of mine used to draw. He mostly drew pictures of Mao and other socialist images. He gave me a join-the-dots Mao portrait when I was six years old. I soon abandoned the dots and started drawing freehand. In primary school we had an art teacher, but he couldn’t really paint. Zigong was a poor place and education was very backward. The best learning you could do was by yourself. When I was eight years old, I’d saved up enough from my Spring Festival lucky money to buy a foreign art book. I learnt about light and perspective from it. In middle school, I spent my whole time painting and drawing because there was nothing else to do. The art teacher threw me out of his class because I contested his ability.

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Rhythm & Xues

BeishanBeishan’s Zheng Road is anything but idyllic. It may be the main street in this part of Zhuhai’s Nanping town (about three kilometres northwest of the Macau border) but it is really no more than a lane, with a cracked pavement and soupy pools of black rainwater through which litter drifts. A makeshift abattoir-come-butcher shop operates beneath a tarpaulin; a tiny room houses a mahjong parlour. Overhead, electric wires knot with telephone lines. Remarkably, some remnants of China’s majestic past remain: a few Qing dynasty buildings, ramshackle and forlorn, sit between “kissing” houses – charmless low-cost tenements quickly (and often illegally) built so close together it is said that neighbours can kiss.

“Everyone here is from outside,” says Mr Peng, a migrant worker from Hunan province, over a steaming bowl in one of the street’s eateries, a Chongqing noodle shop, explaining why no one here appears to speak Cantonese. “The local people rent us the houses, they’ve already moved to new housing.”

A short distance away is some of that new housing: Huafa Century City is a modern waterside development of luxury apartments, Western-style coffee shops and European brand-name stores. Closer still is a construction site on which, it is claimed, will rise Zhuhai’s swankiest mall: Huafa Shangdu.

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Goodbye Old Canton

Photo by An Ge










It’s hard to miss the Canton Tower. At 600 metres, it stands high above Guangzhou and represents all that is new in ol’ Canton.

After an ear-popping ascent, one can savour macarons at the Lutece French revolving restaurant and, from the world’s second-highest observation deck, look out over Guangdong Museum and Guangdong Science Centre, both of which were built within the past decade. If you look hard enough (and if the city’s pervasive smog has desisted), you might even see the 53-metre tall, Ming-dynasty Chigang Pagoda, which is indicative of how towers looked before the mainland opened up to the world.

Chigang is one of three fung shui steeples scattered around the Pearl River that were intended to bring fortune to the people of the city. Canton Tower, by contrast, advocates the religion of modernity, as evidenced in the Science and Technology Marvel Tour Hall, on the 109th and 110th floors.

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Shenzhen’s craft beer brewing scene takes off

In July, Shenzhen independent craft brewery Bionic Brew celebrated its second anniversary. A horde of thirsty expats and local beer enthusiasts descended on Bionics’ tiny backstreet bar to listen to live music and down made-in-Shenzhen lagers, ales, stouts and pilsners, as well as a commemorative pink ale, created by master brewer Dmitrii Gribov.

Although American owner Joe Finkenbinder recalls little of the evening, what his hangover cannot obscure is that he, above all others, has succeeded in fermenting a Shenzhen beerscape. And when one winds the clock back, it becomes apparent that it took far more than yeast, hops and malt to turn this mercantile migrant town on to a quality brew.

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The expats living the quiet life in rural southwest China

Trading city life for remote villages in the South China Karst region might seem an unlikely choice for expats but, as Thomas Bird discovers, some wouldn’t have it any other way.

The South China Karst is a region of extraordinary topography – a land defined by limestone crags, seemingly otherworldly in their gravity-defying composition. The karst may be nothing more than a product of several millennia of limestone dissolution, but it’s easy to grow misty-eyed when confronted with this natural spectacle.

Historically, this area, which spans the provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan, was a hotbed of ethnic insurrection and separatist movements. The region proved so difficult to pacify that the Chinese have long dubbed it “the land of a hundred barbarians” and even today, ethic minorities, as well as local Han, eke out lives as removed from mainstream affairs as one can be in today’s China.

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