Books · China

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

China · Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s miserable anniversary

July 1 was a major milestone for Hong Kong. Twenty years ago, it changed from British to Chinese hands and became the Hong Kong SAR. As a result, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in town over the weekend, the first by him to Hong Kong. In addition, HK’s new leader Carrie Lam was also sworn in, taking over from Leung Chun-ying. But as with many other Hong Kongers, I felt very little joy or pride. I have little love for China and the Communist Party, and I see HK as having had mixed fortunes under China since 1997.

The authorities certainly understood the public mood as celebrations and decorations were muted. While there are a number of events and promotions related to the 20th anniversary of the handover, it seems that much of this has been met by a huge yawn or resignation. Who can blame people? Xi coming to town was met with probably the least enthusiastic response by people anywhere to a national leader visiting them for the first time.

On the contrary, Xi’s visit exemplified why China and its Communist regime are despised and feared. Xi appeared at certain events and his wife visited a few public places, but Xi did not speak to the public. His most notable comment was to warn Hong Kong about crossing a “red line” with challenging Chinese sovereignty and demanding independence. There was no recognition about the problems facing Hong Kong or any offer of political compromise such as opening up Hong Kong’s political system a little more. His speeches were littered with terms like the motherland and national humiliation and the Opium War. Because Chinese leaders are fond of publicly talking about negative actions committed by foreigners on China, whilst conveniently forgetting about Party atrocities like the Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen 1989.

However, as much as I dislike the Communist regime, Hong Kong cannot blame all of its problems on China. There is a lot of arrogance, greed and self-centered attitudes afflicting society, from top to bottom, as well as narrow mindedness. China may be vile at times, but it has also become a useful scapegoat. Local government officials and tycoons bear a lot of responsibility for Hong Kong’s sad state but sometimes it seems that many locals don’t hold them accountable enough.

Hong Kong has a tough job on its hand, with having to handle growing Chinese interference, not to mention threats such as what Xi uttered, while having to tackle its domestic societal and economic problems.

Books · China

Flood of Fire- book review

The Opium War is one of the most famous episodes in modern Chinese history, being the moment when China realized how feeble it was compared to the British who thrashed it in battle and forced it to open up its ports to Western traders. This came as a rude shock, putting it mildly, to the Chinese and their ruling Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and even after well over one and a half centuries, it still hasn’t been forgotten by the Chinese. Hong Kong owes its existence and prosperity to this war, because it was officially handed over to the British after the war under whom it changed from a small fishing village to the financial hub it is today.

Flood of Fire is the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s epic Opium War trilogy that spans India and China and features an eclectic cast of Indian, Chinese and British characters. The book sees the outbreak of the Opium War as the British launch an attack on the ruling Qing Dynasty over its ban on opium imports. As Guangdong is attacked, Hong Kong is captured and the Qing are humbled by the British navy and army, characters on all sides strive to exploit their differing situations. There are Parsi businessmen, British merchants and officers, an American sailor, Bengali soldiers, Chinese Tanka boat people, and Cantonese.

The trilogy began with a ship, the Ibis, which set sail from India in the mid-19th century with a diverse group on board, including runaways, fugitives and nobles, who dispersed after a mutiny mid-voyage. The bulk of these characters made their way to Hong Kong and Guangdong, which by then was the only point of exchange between Western merchants and China. Opium was the main import from Western and Indian businessmen, which as most of us know, caused a lot of anger among Chinese officials. But that is because many Chinese enjoyed this narcotic so much that addiction became a scourge (something that few Chinese accept responsibility for). A powerful Chinese official, Lin Zexu, (who is revered as a national hero in modern China) soon orders a ban on opium imports and burns a huge load of opium in public, bringing about hostilities that lead to a declaration of war from the British.

With such a large cast, it can be confusing at times, especially as there are several plotlines going on simultaneously, involving both sides. But most of these plots are interesting enough, though the conclusion ties them together a bit too neatly.

Indian-born Bengali Amitav Ghosh is probably my favorite novelist after I read Glass Palace, one of his novels which spanned Burma and India during the British colonial period. Ghosh has a gift for writing sweeping novels set across different but places, especially South Asia, during major historical events like the Opium War in this case, Partition (of British India into India and Pakistan), and the conquest of Burma by the British. Other books of his that I’ve enjoyed include Hungry Tide, a contemporary novel about a scientist studying Bangladesh’s vast Sundurban wetland, and this Opium War trilogy. His most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is not a novel, but a work of non-fiction, examining how climate change threaten a lot of countries, especially through global warming and unpredictable weather changes such as rising sea levels that can put coastal cities and settlements at risks.

Books · China

Asia’s Cauldron- book review

The South China Sea has been the biggest flash point in Asia for the past few years, even though North Korea has stolen the thunder with its provocative missile tests in the last few weeks. Surrounded by multiple nations, but heavily contested by one that is furthest away from it, the sea is a vital conduit for regional trade with over $5 trillion worth of shipping passing through it each year. It is also rich in underground petroleum deposits. The nation that I am referring to above is China, which has expended a lot of effort in claiming and occupying islets and reefs in the sea that even extend into other countries’ waters. Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific looks at this potential theater of war and the geopolitics surrounding it.

Kaplan outlines China’s rising military strength and capabilities, which last week’s news of China launching its home-built and second aircraft carrier provided a reminder of. China claims over the majority of the sea, using a dubious nine-dash map (first issued by the ROC in the mid-20th century) that supposedly shows that China historically had control of many islets in the sea. While this flimsy evidence does not have much ground in contemporary international norms or laws, China has disregarded this and continues to stand by its claims.

But yet, international conventions be damned, as other than economic collapse or a significant decline, China is set to dominate the region. However, while nations like Vietnam and Malaysia are obviously too small to confront China by themselves, the US support and cooperation among those countries can ensure a balance of power. Because to ensure stability and relative peace, balance of power rather than US domination is necessary. In other words, China’s rise must be tolerated and even given some breathing space, though the US needs to remain involved.

Kaplan also says that the South China Sea is potentially to China what the Caribbean is to the US, basically its maritime backyard over which which it has total domination. The US did this in the early 20th century and China is trying to do something similar. Of course, one difference is that rather than being filled with mostly tiny Caribbean countries, the South China Sea is surrounded by larger, older countries that do not readily accept Chinese domination.

So in addition to China, Kaplan also devotes a chapter each to key countries including Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Philippines, all of which he visited. He provides interesting and insightful observations of each country on their geopolitical situation,history, military, and society. Vietnam is the one most at threat from China, but despite its small size, it is a feisty country with a long history of resistance to Chinese occupiers and attackers from imperial times, not to mention its fight with the US in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Kaplan surprisingly rates Malaysia highly, seeing it as a model Islamic nation that is also democratic and diverse. The chapter on Philippines makes for somewhat surprising and amusing reading, as Kaplan likens it more to a failing Latin American country than an Asian one, a result of its inefficient Spanish colonialism. In these country chapters, he provides a complete picture combining interviews, history and observations, as opposed to some writers who visit a country and use a few anecdotes or statistics to come to conclusions.

Robert D Kaplan is one of my favorite authors, due to his keen geopolitical views and insights on regions and conflicts around the world in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. He is famous for The Coming Anarchy, a 1994 essay that painted a very bleak picture of the world due to overcrowding, tribalism and environmental issues. But his writing is measured as opposed to alarmist or emotional. Even if you don’t agree with him, you will still learn something.

Asia’s Cauldron was published in 2014, but its topic and views are still just as relevant and vital now.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Hongcun village

One of two old UNESCO World Heritage Site villages near Huangshan, Hongcun is the most attractive Chinese village I’ve ever been to (not that I’ve been to that many, but trust me, it is beautiful).
Situated next to a stream, with a small lake in front of it and a pond within it, Hongcun is also where scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. In real life, the village is just as scenic, and you’ll sometimes see Chinese art students sitting across from the lake painting the village.

I went to Hongcun on a cold, overcast morning on the last day (having gone to Xidi, the other World Heritage village in the area on the first day) of my Chinese New Year trip to Huangshan a few years ago. Unlike Huangshan, the village was not too crowded with tourists, which was a good thing because it is full of narrow alleys. To enter Hongcun, you cross a narrow stone bridge with an arch in the middle and no rails (so be careful! Or you can just walk around to the side of the lake) into the actual village and its lanes of traditional and well-preserved black-roofed white houses, examples of Huizhou architecture. Many of these were built by wealthy merchants and officials during the Ming and Qing dynasties which the size, design and workmanship, such as wooden frames and carvings, attest to. Several of the larger houses feature open courtyards with ancestral halls featuring portraits of illustrious ancestors and wooden frames.

When you get to the middle of the village, you’ll reach the Moon Pond, and the sight of old houses and their reflections on the pond is an incredibly photogenic sight. It is also exactly where one of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon scenes was shot, specifically the part where fighters are gliding across rooftops and leaping onto water while duelling with each other. There was a small meat market behind held that morning by the pond, which certainly didn’t seem like it was for tourists, while dried pork flanks, split-open fish and ducks hung right in the open on the walls of a few nearby houses.
Those were reminders that Hongcun, as with Xidi, is a living community despite being a tourist hotspot. That’s not to say there aren’t many villagers who’ve opened restaurants or sell souvenirs and local food specialties, but it isn’t as over-the-top as many other Chinese tourist areas. It’s been a few years since I was there so I hope it remains so.


Crossing the bridge to get to the village



An ancestral hall in one of the larger houses

Moon Pond





Meat market


   


Traditional pastries on sale. I think I bought some of this.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- Anhui’s Xidi and Tunxi

Huangshan may be the most famous attraction of Anhui, but it is not the only interesting one in the area. The surrounding villages, whether it be the traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, or even Tunxi, known mainly as the area’s tourist hub but with a great ancient street, are also very much worth a visit. The reason why there are so many preserved historic villages around Huangshan is because this area used to be home to prosperous merchants who thrived during the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th-20th centuries). With over 600 years of history, both Xidi and Hongcun boast lanes filled with traditional homes, including large houses with massive halls and two-storey high ceilings, which no doubt belonged to the wealthier merchants. In these villages, the majority of old homes have been preserved with little or none modern houses. But far from being deserted relics or over-touristy theme parks, Xidi and Hongcun are both thriving communities with people living their daily lives while tourists come and go.
Both are attractive places but Hongcun really stood out for me with its small lake and arched bridges fronting the village and a pond within, the combination of old homes and water resulting in some very gorgeous scenes. So magnificent that a scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed there as well. Hongcun is so beautiful that I’ll devote another post to it, so let’s go on to Xidi and Tunxi.

Xidi was less spectacular, but it also features a famous landmark – a high 3-layered stone paifang (traditional Chinese gate) at the entrance next to the pond bordering the village. Walking through the paifang takes you into a series of narrow lanes among which are several impressive compounds with giant open courtyards, wooden halls and ancestral tablets and paintings of illustrious ancestors. But even the “regular” buildings are attractive to look at, especially as they all feature curved upswept eaves and black tiled roofs, both distinctive architectural features in the region.
Getting there from Tunxi takes an hour by public minibus, which I took, but as it was during the holidays, I couldn’t get one back so I got a “black cab” minivan with a few other people, including a Cantonese family (one weird thing is I always run into Cantonese people when I travel in China).
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Tunxi is where I got off after coming from Nanjing by sleeper train as that is where Huangshan train station is location. Back then (2014), you could only get there by the regular slow train but they have since built a high-speed station, also in Tunxi. While the town is for the most part a hub for getting to Huangshan and not too special, it boasts an attractive old street with a lot of traditional wooden buildings. Many have been converted into stores and restaurants, but a number of them are still homes, as indicated by the dried fish or laundry hanging by the windows. Most of the stores sold souvenirs, while there was one that sold ethnic minority goods and another that sold faux Maoist stationery. Some of it was a bit too gaudy as Chinese tourist areas can be, but it was still a nice walk at night.

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Xidi
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Tunxi again
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China · China travel · Travel

Huangshan photo round-up

As we get set to move into the Year of the Rooster with Chinese New Year coming up on the weekend, enjoy this photo round-up from a CNY trip to Huangshan a few years ago. While it certainly wasn’t the best time to visit the mountain, it was still enjoyable enough.

The subject of countless paintings, photos and literary references, Huangshan is one of China’s most beautiful mountains, and it is not hard to see why. Despite not being able to hike around the paths at the top in full and having to share it with thousands of Chinese tourists, I was still able to experience some of the mountain’s beauty and magnificence.
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Books · China

Trickle-Down Censorship- book review

Censorship is one of the most well-known and detested attributes of China. Many people are already aware that Facebook, Youtube, Google, and the New York Times are blocked and that newspapers and news shows cannot report freely on many sensitive topics. But censorship goes far deeper and is more complex and widespread than that as shown in Trickle-Down Censorship, author JFK Miller’s account of his time working for That’s Shanghai magazine from 2006-2011.

Despite the long time period between when he last worked in China and the present, his book is not really outdated because the sad truth is that censorship is not just still present but also much more widespread and harsher than before. But while regular citizens can try and ignore it, journalists and editors have it the worst because it is a constant in their work. Even as an editor at That’s Shanghai, an expat mag that mostly covers food and entertainment, censorship was a major threat to each story Miller worked on or approved.
Miller also goes through aspects of modern China through the scope of censorship, which mostly works because of how ubiquitous it is. At the end of it, Miller decides enough is enough and calls time on China, as I did myself.

The main point is censorship and there is plenty of aspects to it. It can be arbitrary as there are no firm rules and the censors do not need to explain specifically what is the issue; it can be applied to everything from serious political pieces to photo-essays on pyjamas; it is futile to resist, at best, one can fight to keep a “objectionable” sentence or passage. The worst is that it becomes so prevalent and expected that not only do you get used to it, but you actively apply it to yourself, as Miller did while editing and even assigning stories. “It is frightening just how quickly you acquire the ability,” says Miller. As a reminder, Miller worked for an English-language expat magazine that mostly features food, hotel, and club reviews, not some newspaper or political magazine specializing in hardhitting exposes.

And Chinese censorship is not just resilient but adaptable and sophisticated, extending even to the online space where censors utilize software to filter keywords and resulting in the blocking of blogs and social media posts to even text chat messages on WeChat. Coincidentally, this week saw news about China’s government announcing a crackdown, yet again, on unauthorized VPN software, which lots of expats and locals in China use to access banned websites.

The only main issue I have with the book is the cover which features an outline of China, that includes Taiwan. It is a somewhat strange and perhaps cowardly decision because it isn’t like the book would be able to be sold in China, given its topic, so one wonders why he had to do that.

Experienced expats won’t be surprised at much of the content, but other readers will likely find a lot to inform themselves.
Otherwise, Trickle-Down Censorship is a fine account of Chinese censorship, a sad reminder of the power of authoritarian regimes, even in this day and age.

Books · China · Travel

The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China- book review

China is a large, vast country with an area of 3.7 million square miles and though the majority Han make up 90% of the population, has over 50 ethnic groups. As a result, beyond the teeming megacities and factory zones, and the heavily populated Han-majority provinces, there is a lot of ethnic and societal diversity.

This is what former Sunday Telegraphy China correspondent David Eimer explores in The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China as he travels to the edges of modern China. A well-known Chinese proverb goes “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.” What this means is that in the outer reaches of the empire, the emperor is a remote figure and so is his rule. The modern equivalent of that saying is true in areas like Yunnan Province and the fringes of the Northeast. There, the government’s rule is not as firm as everywhere else in the country, and local non-Han minorities and cultures still thrive. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the very opposite is true as the full force of the regime is imposed, ranging from heavy army and police presence to repressive measures limiting or banning local religious practices and languages. Not surprisingly, these areas – Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and the edges of the Northeast – are often considered exotic and fascinating to both foreigners and the Han (the dominant majority in China) Chinese. But there is also a tragic element to several of the peoples in these areas as well, as Eimer examines how these minorities like the Tibetans and Uyghurs fare after decades of Communist rule.

The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, the most restive and repressed areas in China, is not surprisingly, rather bleak. Heavy-handed policing and harsh measures enacted against the locals have generated significant anger, the result of which can be seen now and again in the news with “terrorist” attacks in Xinjiang, which raise fears of an insurgency, no doubt played up by the government to justify their taking even harsher measures. Not only are Tibetans and Uyghurs not able to speak their language at schools or freely practice their religion, but their movements are restricted through measures like making it extremely hard to get passports, and they are unable to integrate into mainstream Chinese society.

In Yunnan, the province that has the most minority peoples in China and borders Thailand and Myanmar, a Wild-West atmosphere prevails in much of the borderlands. Here, the government practices a looser form of border control as there are several tribes who peoples live across different countries like the Tais. A thriving cross-border criminal trade exists, especially in narcotics. Eimer manages to travel across to Myanmar where he visits areas populated by minority tribes and controlled by drug armies, descendants of KMT soldiers who fled to Burma and stayed to cultivate opium.  The Northeast is more sedate, though the vast icy landscape belies the economic dominance of China compared to Russia just across the northerneastern-most border. In this area, Small ethnic groups, including the descendants of nomads, cling on while facing the obsolescence of their language and customs due to decreasing numbers, intermarriage with the Han, and modern-day integration. This is already the fate of the Manchus, a Northeast people who ruled all of China as the Qing Dynasty for over 250 years up to 1911. Interestingly, the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast provinces are allowed to have their own schools where classes are taught in their own language. There is also interaction with North Koreans across the border in the form of trade, people smuggling and marriages, but this is starting to get clamped down on by the government.

It is a book rich in travel, historical and ethnographic detail about a China so much different from the one often portrayed in more conventional travel books, whilst not shying away from illustrating the repressive rule of the Communist Party. It is also sad to ponder the fate of all the peoples mentioned in the book, many of whose cultures and languages are under threat in one way or the other. Simply put, The Emperor Far Away is about a China that is rapidly disappearing.

China · China travel · Travel

China travel- A Chinese New Year’s trip to Huangshan

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With Chinese New Year coming up in just a few weeks, it’s fitting I should finally write about my first Chinese New Year in China in 2014.

Back then in Beijing, I made a spontaneous decision one week in advance to travel to somewhere in the country, specifically Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. In hindsight, it was a foolish decision and I learned my lesson not to travel to places at the exact same time as multitudes of Chinese. But, the trip was still kind of good. I didn’t go all the way to Anhui from Beijing just to visit Huangshan, but also Xidi and Hongcun, two grand old villages in the area that are also UNESCO World Heritage sites. Hongcun is especially beautiful, and scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were shot there.

I had long wanted to visit Huangshan, one of China’s most beautiful and famous mountains, its mist-covered slopes and pine trees a familiar image in countless photos and paintings. Its beauty has been paid tribute to in poems and ….. So when the New Year holiday came up and as I wasn’t going overseas, I decided to go to somewhere in China, thinking that the crowds would not be as bad as during the National Week in October (I was told this by at least one acquaintance as well). I deliberated between Shanxi (Pingyao and Datong) and Huangshan and the latter won out. However, I was going to spend several days in the area, which meant staying in Tunxi, a small town an hour away from Huangshan. Getting to Tunxi meant taking a high-speed train from Beijing to Nanjing, then taking a sleeper from there to Tunxi.

Situated in Central China, Anhui is probably best known, besides Huangshan, for being the setting of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Set in 1930s China, this novel follows the hard struggle of a peasant amid poverty, war and instability as he tries to move up in life. While China, and the province,  has long moved on from those terrible times, largely agricultural Anhui is still one of the country’s poorer provinces despite having rich neighbors like Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Many migrant workers in the country, especially in Shanghai and Beijing (I also had a couple of colleagues and friends from there, though they weren’t migrant workers) hail from Anhui. However, Anhui is also the ancestral home of former Chinese President Hu Jintao and current Premier Li Keqiang.

But Anhui’s earthy reputation belies an interesting cultural heritage (Huizhou) that culminated in a distinct regional architectural style with black roofs and impressive wooden designs, which Xidi and Hongcun both feature some good examples of.

My trip was eventful even before it actually got underway because when I got into Nanjing, my favorite Chinese city actually, in the afternoon, I tried to find a bus to Tunxi but there wasn’t one since it was Chinese New Year. I then booked a ticket on a sleeper train but I had several hours to kill. As I wasn’t feeling to sightsee, I went to book a room at a nearby hotel. But what was supposedly a straightforward task turned out to be a jarring shock because I was turned away from several hotels because their system didn’t allow Hong Kongers (I’m one by virtue of birth and ID card) to book hourly rooms. I’d heard of similar experiences happening to Westerners when trying to book a regular room but I didn’t think this could happen to Hong Kongers as you know, being part of China. But finally I found one where the boss told his receptionist to let me stay, saying “it’s New Year, let him in,” displaying a fitting holiday generosity that was glaringly lacking from all the other hotels’ staff.

The train trip was straightforward and I got into the town in the morning, taking a taxi to my hotel, with the driver refusing to use the meter because “it’s New Year.” I went to the village of Xidi that first day, then went to Huangshan the next by a one-hour bus to Tangkou, a tourist village at the foot of the mountain. It seemed I arrived too late despite it being early afternoon, I learned that crowds would mean going up by cable car would take hours. My plan was to take the cable car up and hike around the paths on top because that was where the views were.

I had a decision to make – return to Tunxi and come back the next day bright and early, or stay in Tangkou for the night, thus paying extra for another hotel. I chose the latter because I wanted an early start. After I found a hotel, I took a walk through the village which provided some fantastic views of Huangshan from the ground. I did get that early start but apparently 6 am wasn’t early enough, because when I left my hotel at that time the next morning, I found the street filled with other tourists making their way to the car park to take the bus to Huangshan visitor center (from there, you then hike or take the cable car up the mountain). The car park itself was filled with people and the lines were crazy. Eventually I got into one and after what felt like an hour, got into a bus.
That felt like a relief, but it was temporary because when I arrived at the visitor center, I saw even more people than there were at the car park! When I approached the cable car station, the line was so long it started from the second floor or the station and extended downstairs and outside.

As before, my plan was to take the cable car up so I could hike around the top. With no choice now, I would have to hike to the top and hope I had enough time and energy to walk around the trails on the peak. As Huangshan is not that high, it took me about two and a half hours (fitter people can surely do it in less time), and while I was traveling solo, I was accompanied by dozens of Chinese. Some were in tour groups while others were with friends or family, and noone seemed to be hiking solo like me. Being in China, some of those folks just couldn’t keep quiet so there was a constant chorus of shouting, yelling, and throat-clearing, as well as music playing on little portable radios that some older hikers in China and Taiwan like using.

The nearer I reached the top, the better the views got and I was able to get a glimpse of the much vaunted peaks with clouds that Huangshan is famous for. It is a beautiful mountain up close, not just from afar, with its forested slopes and rocky granite peaks. Along the way, you’ll pass well-known rock formations and trees, such as the first photo on top, and these are even named, for example, “God Points Road” and “An Immortal Pointing the Way” (probably sounds better in Chinese).
But when I got to the top, I realized there was a lot of people there as well. I continued walking and got onto a trail, figuring the crowds would thin out along the mountaintop. But no, everywhere I went there were people, and the trails were so clogged, it was impossible to pass people. After continuing for over an hour, the sheer congestion meant I couldn’t make a circuit of the trail, and also I’d have to hurry back to the cable car station if I wanted to make it down by mid-afternoon. I hadn’t planned to stay another night in Tangkou as I wanted to get back to Tunxi.
I wish I had been able to hike around the paths on top and I feel I will return to do just that in future. Huangshan hasn’t seen the last of me yet!

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Lineup for the cable car at the foot of Huangshan, at 8 am. No way was I going to endure that, so I chose to hike up instead.
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The hike up was pleasant in some parts.

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The higher I got, the better the view as the mountaintop started appearing.
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There was a bit of the sea of clouds for which Huangshan is famous for.
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Lineup for the cable car at the top of Huangshan
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Perfect view of Huangshan from Tangkou
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