‘In the market place there is money, but under the cherry tree there is rest and peace.’ Chinese proverb
We are flying to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, a two and a half hour journey from Hong Kong by Dragonair, an offshoot of Cathay Pacific. The cabin staff is all female and all pretty. Perhaps Dragonair would be a more appropriate name for Qantas. I am with my son, his friends Chris and Sunny, whose Chinese mother, Mesa, meets us at the airport.
Kunming, so-called ‘city of eternal spring’, is home to the Han people and has a sub-tropical climate like Sydney although, being on a plateau 6,200 feet above sea-level, there is little or no humidity. This totally modern city of six and a half million people sits on the shores of Lake Dianchi with the Shiumennen mountains holding it in a bowl. European cities evolved slowly leaving their historical development clearly visible – the glass skyscraper next to the Roman Forum, the 11th century Tower of London next to Victorian Tower Bridge. In Kunming the past has been bulldozed away. There has been a quantum leap from rough houses to modern skyscrapers in less than a single generation. The streets are broad and straight and lined with trees and shrubs, the plazas spacious. Trees and plants unsuited to Kunming’s climate are wrapped for the winter, making the sidewalks and parks look like an immense project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The lampposts are all topped with wind turbines and solar panels. Now why didn’t we think of that? What lacks, for European eyes, is the unusual, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, the bend in the road, the slight architectural deformity that provides interest and creates charm. While we are being persuaded to become cyclists, the Chinese, once a race of bike-riders and took-took drivers, have tossed out their bicycles and took-tooks for BMWs.
We are staying in a house on the edge of the city. It is in a gated community and a smartly dressed sentry salutes us each time we enter and leave. Our neighbour keeps chickens and I wake to the sound of crowing roosters at sunrise; not a bad way to start the day. The days are warm, even though we are in the last days of winter, but as soon as the sun goes down it becomes very cold. There is no heating in the house and I lose two toes to frostbite before we sit down to dinner. Luckily my bed has an electric blanket, which I leave on all night, popping out in the morning like a slice of burnt toast.
The boys have gone clubbing and I am having dinner in a restaurant with Mesa and her friends. We are sitting at the traditionally round table with lazy susan where I have been placed next to Evita, a charming law student who speaks English. The susan slowly revolves, depositing in front of me comestibles previously unknown to science. I pick at a carpaccio of marinated bamboo and some quick fried snail. ‘What is this?’ I ask Evita, nimbly transferring a battered object into my rice bowl. ‘Fried bees and larvae’, she tells me. Risi e beezy! After dinner I pose for a photo with Evita. The picture shows me with the slightly dippy, bewildered look of the old and timid. I think of T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
‘I grow old… I grow old…
I Shall I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.’
O to be young! To walk out in Old England on a May morning with hawthorn in bloom and heart pounding for Maisie Hardcastle behind the counter at the Post Office!
We are taken to visit Lake Dianchi by Yi Fang, the 17 year old son of Mesa’s friends. He drives a big Series 7 BMW Coupe through the city traffic with speed and aplomb. ‘You drive well’, I tell him. ‘I’ve been driving since I was 12’, he replies, and then, almost as an afterthought – ‘my father likes to drink’. The view across the 24 mile long lake is clear; there are no yachts, cabin cruisers, kayaks, jet-skis or windsurfers clogging shore lines and surface. Nor are there any fishing boats as the water is highly polluted. The sky around the lake teems with screaming sea-gulls from Siberia, here for the milder winter and to pose and be fed by wedding couples and their guests.
That same evening we sit around a restaurant table with Yi Fang, his sister PanPan and their parents. After Yi Fang’s earlier remark I wasn’t surprised to see his father produce a silver hip flask the size of a hot-water bottle, charge our glasses and kick off a series of toasts. If you are singled out to be toasted, you must stand, take a sip, clink glasses and sit down. But if the toaster says ‘Gangbei’, which translates as ‘Bottoms up and no heel-taps’, you are obliged to drain your glass. And so began the first ‘Gangbei War’ between East and West, which I feel I won but at the cost of a serious headache the next morning. Run of the mill Chinese rice wine is only good for cauterizing wounds and pouring into a petrol tank, but the wine of Yi Fang’s father was a match for the very best Grappa. Intent on suicide, I mixed this Oriental rocket fuel with occasional morsels of pickled and chili-infused garlic. If I had breathed down a bowling alley I would have knocked all ten pins flying.
After a 4 hour drive from Kunming, passing through the Valley of Dinosaurs, we arrive in Dali, home of the smaller, darker Bai people. We skirt the new town and enter the old, once the capital of Yunnan province and now a beautifully restored, mainly pedestrian, city of the 12th and 13th centuries, lying on the shores of Lake Erhai and at the foot of the Cangshan Mountains.
The hotel is beautiful, the roofs, with their carved and painted gables, rising at each end in imitation of the Chinese character meaning ‘people’. There are courtyards with ponds and the reception staff is dressed in traditional costume.
The rooms have all mod cons including -thank Buddah! – proper toilets. At last, within the confines of the hotel, I find a bookshop. So far I had seen precious little evidence of literature, no people reading novels or newspapers in cafes; the only reading matter I could find in our house in Kunming was the instructions for the washing machine. A quick look around tells me that nearly all of the books are communist themed. The owner offers me tea and we talk of Mao, of the Long March and of the Cultural Revolution while a Chinese version of the Carpenters’ song ‘It’s Only Just Begun’ plays in the background. We tend to think badly of Mao because of the tens of millions that died in the late 1950s during the Great Leap Forward when he changed China from an agrarian to an industrial economy. But here he is still deeply admired. Every banknote bears his portrait, the hotel reception is flanked by two fine busts of Mao and many shops still display fading posters of the Chairman in his cap, ill fitting suit and clumsy boots.
I am told that it was during the Long March and the struggle against Chiang Kai-Shek that he won the battle for hearts and minds by billeting his soldiers outside rather than inside the huts and houses of the people. I am more concerned by Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that took place from 1966 until his death in 1976. I would guess the present lack of books and art are part of its legacy. The shop has a large selection of vintage Little Red Books and I choose one with some handwritten notes and a bit of wear so that I can imagine it sitting in some soldier’s tunic pocket. With my change the bookshop owner gives me a two-sided photo of Chairman Mao and Chou en Lai. As custom requires, when a young person serves an older person, he presents change and gift with both hands. I must introduce this at home.
What is the greater good, to have a strong and respected leader, appointed by an unelected council, who permits 4 on a scooter with no helmets, optional seat belts, smoking in restaurants and the purchase of fireworks or the freedom to elect a bunch of self-seeking politicians who appoint a gaffe prone moron (detested by the greater part of the electorate) and who make Australia one of the most regulated societies in the world?
Dinner in Dali and Mesa chooses our menu from the fresh vegetables and mushrooms displayed. There is a choice of slabs of dried pork and buckets of eels from the lake. But what’s this? – a tub of ugly, black toads! No, surely not; Chinese toad in the hole!
Mesa takes us up into the mountains where, after a lengthy drive and hike we settle down on the terrace of a tea-room.
The Chinese don’t buy their tea in the form of tea-bags but in plate-sized hard disks which are priced according to their age and quality like fine French wines. Behind us are snow-capped peaks and below us pagoda- roofed temples and the pale, blue waters of Lake Erhai. Around us, on the slopes, azaleas and tea roses bloom among the rows of tea plants. We take the Cloud Travellers’ Path further up the mountain to see a waterfall, but the snows have not yet melted and the ravine is dry. Turtle doves flap around carp-filled ponds; people doze in the sun.
Sounds like Shangri-La? Well, in 1933 English novelist James Hilton published a novel called Lost Horizons. His story, concocted without the benefit of a visit to China, tells of a plane crash in a mountainous area of that country. The survivors stumble into an isolated, peaceful Utopia where the inhabitants live to a very old age. The author called this fictitious paradise ‘Shangri-La’ and it has been used to sell the idea of oriental paradise ever since the book’s publication. A 1937 film version, which used bleached corn-flakes for the snow scenes and starred Ronald Coleman, only increased public fascination. After Doolittle’s famous bombing raid on Japan in April 1942, when President Roosevelt was pestered to reveal where the planes had come from, he merely said ‘Shangri-La’. The town of Shangri-La, not so far from Dali, was once the city of Jiantang, renamed in 2001 to promote tourism.
We drive to Shuanlang on the opposite side of Lake Erhai and while the boys go climbing Mt Jizu with a professional guide, Mesa and I take tea and visit the old town.
We lunch on the tiny, sweet, lake shrimp and browse the stalls selling antiques, old strips of brocade and various bric a brac. I buy a brass statue of a cheerful looking Buddha, money cradled in one arm, strong drink in the other, and a big silver coin, a three masted junk on one face and the face of Sun Yat-Sen on the other. Mesa tells me the coin is dated 1918, 6 years after Sun overthrew the Qing Dynasty (which had lasted from 1644) and became the first President of the Republic of China. Seven years later he would die and later, Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun’s heir to lead the Kuomintang Party, would compete with Mao and his Communists for mastery of the country. We can read, learn of and imagine historical events but handling Mao’s little Red Book and the coin remove, for me, a whole layer of mystery.
From Shuanlang we drive 160 kms to the city of Lincang where Sunny’s grandpa lives in a walled compound in a quiet lane. In the courtyard is a fish-pond and tubs of camellias, tea roses and palms; birds flutter, agitated, in their cages from the steady stream of friends, relatives visitors and suppliers of sugar cane, rice and fruit. Although there are modern hotels and buildings in Lincang much of the old city remains; chairs on the sidewalk tell me street life still lives here as it does in the South of Italy. But whereas in Italy an Australian tourist would attract no attention, here in Lincang, as we stroll through the market, we are followed and photographed. Younger Chinese try to engage us in conversation and in restaurants the waitresses peek at us around the door and giggle.
The Chinese prefer to call their New Year celebrations The Spring Festival, for it is the beginning of the earth’s renewal, not, as in our case, the first day of the Roman calendar. Festivities have started well in advance of the new year and most houses are already decorated with red lanterns and images of Tao Gods. There are intermittent reports from fire-crackers and large explosions during the day but on the stroke of midnight the whole city erupts making us feel we are in the front-line of a war zone.
Families traditionally spend the first day of the new year together, feasting, drinking, playing mah jong and lighting more fire-crackers. Sunny’s family revolves around 92 year old Grandpa, its oldest member. Old people are well respected in China. I’m invited to inspect a whole pig that has been dismembered on the kitchen porch and which we will eat in various forms (except a pork chop) over the next few days. Someone announces that there has been fighting in Burma between Government and rebel forces leaving 70 dead. The conflict provokes martial law and causes a stampede of refugees across the border. Mesa has a hotel in a town near the border and offers free accommodation to refugees while other hotel owners are raising their rates. Love and you shall be loved. The incident failed to make the news back home as there was a cricket tournament in progress.
On day two of the festival everyone wears red and each guest receives a gift of cash in a red envelope. Grandpa is kitted out in a splendid red and gold satin jacket and we walk with him and the rest of the family to the Taoist Temple where they pray and make offerings to the Gods.
There is none of the pious solemnity and discipline of the Anglican Church. Rows of scribes collect cash offerings and write out people’s prayers, which are later burnt, the smoke, combining with the smoke from didgeridoo sized incense sticks, rises to heaven to receive the attention of the deities. Out of respect we decline to enter the temple proper, but through the smoke I could make out the giant sized Jade Emperor and the Pure Ones. Taoists believe in the natural movement of energy (the ‘Way’ or Tao), the sort of thing Stephen Hawking has been trying to work out on a blackboard for the last 30 years. Taoism has given us Tai Chi, Qigong and yin and yang as well as a history free of child abuse. Its Three Treasures are compassion, moderation and humility. Doesn’t this sound like what the world needs?
Day three of the Spring Festival is reserved for paying respects to one’s ancestors. There are no cemeteries as we know them; the Chinese bury their dead randomly on hillsides on plots bought from farmers. The tombs of Sunny’s ancestors are on a hill a short drive from Lincang, grouped in a small spinney. Offerings of cakes, fruit and flowers are placed on the tombs, which are circled with burning incense. Family members trim back the trees to let sun in; sacred music is playing against the noise of firecrackers. A pile of gold and silver fake money is burnt, the smoke trailing heavenward towards the ancestors. A light wind suddenly shakes the tree- tops; are the ancestors responding? There is a joyful atmosphere here, so remote from the morbid silence of Christian cemetery ritual. There is an intimacy with past generations that I never knew with my extant parents. Trying to decide where to dine in Florence is fun, but this has been a truly enlightening experience.
Day four and we are in the car park of a Karaoke club where management is entertaining staff by providing 3 pigs and free beer. I’m not sure how we came to be invited. When we arrive the pigs are being chopped into cuts totally unknown to European butchery.
Intestines sizzle in a giant pan; ears and feet are being shaved. Around the car park groups sit on low benches barbecuing pieces of pork and drinking beer from bowls. I join a group and within minutes I am being plied with beer and the best pork I have ever tasted. Someone proposes a toast and before long the second ‘Gangbei War’ breaks out.
That night we return to a re-opened Karaoke club. Grandpa sings a couple of numbers. My offering of ‘Rose, Rose, I love You’, a 1940 Mandarin song recorded in English by Frankie Laine in 1951 has a mixed reception.
There seems to be no dish recognisably designed for breakfast, lunch or dinner. No restaurant owner will tell you that you are too late for breakfast or too early for dinner. The same savoury dishes bubble away all day. Here in Yunnan nearly all are heavily spiced with chili. Over the Bridge noodles and Congee are popular morning dishes. Congee, made from rice with broth of chicken, onion and lumps of pork, when good, can be very tasty; bad, it is only fit for whitewashing your garage walls. Most chicken dishes are prepared with the flesh and bones of black (Silky) chickens, which can be quite alarming to those of us used to the glad-wrapped, anemic birds sold in Sydney supermarkets, especially when a leg still has the foot attached.
We are spending a night at The Supreme Peoples Hot Springs Hotel; accommodation for 200 guests and 3 billion mosquitoes. After a game of mah jong I slide into a pool of natural, warm spring water. The temperature is perfect and I decide to stay there until I die. I feel both relaxed and exhilarated at the same time. After a while a young lady summons me to a couch where she scrapes me from head to toe as if paint-stripping some old bannisters. I wonder if it’s the first time she’s had her hands on Occidental flesh. If it is, she’s concealing her excitement very well. Flesh not as springy as it used to be, but she can’t have everything. I’m directed under a shower to clean off and I watch half my body weight disappear down the plug-hole. Back to the couch for an oily massage before being popped into a baking sauna. I’ve now been soaked, scraped, oiled and steamed; I feel a new man. I was going to buy Honeybee a pair of jade earrings but I think she’ll be happy with this new body between the sheets. Hmmm, on second thoughts, perhaps I’d better lock myself in the spare bedroom for a couple of weeks.
We are back in Kunming where the magnolia and walnut trees in Mesa’s garden are now wearing white and pink for the new year. We go into the city for some last minute shopping and a visit to one of the few old buildings left in the city. It is a restaurant, but a plaque near the entrance tells us that this was once the headquarters of the Flying Tigers. In the early years of WW2, with Burma and the whole of Eastern China in Japanese hands, President Chiang Kai-Shek asked American General Clare Lee Chennault to help train the demoralised Chinese air force. In the summer of 1941 Chennault organised a group of American volunteers including 90 pilots and 150 mechanics. The Chinese called them the Flying Tigers after the tiger shark teeth painted on the nose of their P-40 fighters. In the first 7 months of 1942 the Tigers shot down 297 Japanese planes and lost 21 pilots in resisting the invaders and protecting the 500 mile long air-cargo route from Assam to Kunming, China’s only life-line. The Tigers must have been happy to get back home to Kunming after their dangerous missions, which they called their ‘Shangri-La’.
Well, I’ve entered Dali by the same gate used by Marco Polo eight centuries ago, taken the Cloud Traveller’s trail in the Cangshan Mountains, bathed in hot springs by the Langcan river and stood by Lake Dianchi to watch newly-weds feed the migrating seagulls from Siberia. I’ve been taught mah-jong and the manners and poetry of tea. Most importantly I have enjoyed the hospitality of a large and happy Chinese family and, for the small inconvenience of an occasional upset stomach, I have had a life lesson in hospitality and generosity.
Just in case some of you are wondering why you haven’t received a post card, there are no post cards. In fact there are no post boxes. To post a letter you must go to a post office. To post a letter to another country you must take the letter to a special post office for international mail. The letter must be unsealed, just in case you’ve written something rude about Xi Jinping or enclosed plans for their new aircraft carrier.
 Risi e bisi is a typical Veneto dish of rice and peas.