The Lunatic Express

Ken1 copy“Belt and Road Cooperation for Common Promutual Benefit,” proclaims a large street sign suspended above Beijing’s ever-congested second ring road.

China is investing massively in its 21st-century reimagin­ing of the Silk Roads, even if the budget for fluid English translation remains insufficient. This rekindling of ancient trade routes is President Xi Jinping’s signature project and, in the year of the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, the banners are flying the message of globalisation with Chinese characteristics.

Deals have been brokered from Vientiane to Vilnius, provoking critics to cry, “Empire!” and advocates to applaud vital infrastructure heading to countries most in need of investment.

Many of those countries are in Africa and, in May, an unveiling in Kenya highlighted the fact that China’s inter­nationalist wheels are already very much in motion.

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The Rise and Fall of Luoyang, China’s forgotten capital

Luo1My photographer and I alight from our taxi in the centre of Yanshi, a shabby township straddling the Luo River, our presence eliciting curious stares from the locals, many of whom are employed at a nearby power plant. The only visible distractions in this part of Luoyang, in Henan province, are a few massage parlours, a smattering of pokey noodle joints and an inconspicuous museum.

There’s some confusion about how to admit a foreigner and a Hongkonger, neither of whom have a Chinese ID card, into the Shang Museum. Evidently, they don’t get many visitors from distant lands. We are eventually granted access with a shrug, protocol presumably not worth the paperwork.

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M2B_Eiffel-Tower-Paris_Niko-de-La-Faye_photo-Vinciane-VerguethenIf there’s one thing more common in Beijing’s labyrinth of hutongs than a bearded foreigner, it’s the tricycle. The former tend to be bohemian castaways taking advantage of the capital’s creative climate, the latter, low-cost vehicles first imported from British India and immortalised in novelist Lao She’s homage to Beijing, Rickshaw Boy (1937). The common incarnation today is the sanlunche, a pedal or electric-powered trike used to traffic wares through the hutongs (and get in the way of pedestrians).

Remarkably, these quirky commonalities of life in the capital have forged a partnership that has travelled the world.

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The Magic Mountains of Guilin

guilinAn eminent poet and scholar-official during the golden age of Song dynasty China, Fan Chengda was also something of an early travel writer. One of his diaries recounts a four-month journey from Suzhou to Guilin on what was then the Middle Kingdom’s southwestern frontier, where, in the spring of 1173, he took up a post governing the mountainous and ethnically diverse Guangxi region. Though banditry and a backward economy plagued his time there, Fan couldn’t help but be inspired by the surreal scenery around him. “I often sent pictures of the hills of Guilin which I painted to friends back home, but few believed what they saw,” he wrote. “There is no point in arguing with them.”

It’s easy to see why Fan’s pals in the Song literati were incredulous. There is something almost supernatural about Guilin’s craggy karst landscape, even to a modern-day traveler armed with the knowledge that these limestone pinnacles were created by millennia of water erosion. When confronted with the magic of the region, I swiftly fell into a more poetic state akin to what Fan must have felt when he described the topography as “like jade bamboo shoots and jasper hairpins, forests of them extend without limit.”

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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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