19 May 2011

Book Review: Yunnan, China South of the Clouds, by Jim Goodman, *****

Buddhist monastery in Yunnan

Wedged between Tibet and the exotic lands of Southeast Asia, Yunnan Province is one of the least known and most beguiling regions of China. A mountainous wonderland, it is home to 24 diverse, colorful ethnic cultures. With a name meaning ‘South of the Clouds’, Yunnan boasts sparkling blue skies, red earth, and green forests. The picturesque capital of Yunnan, Kunming — ‘the City of Eternal Spring’—lies near a serene, mile-high lake. Other natural marvels, such as the haunting Stone Forest and lush tropical Xizhuangbanna, make Yunnan a microcosm of China at its very best. With 211 color photographs.


This is, by far, the most comprehensive guide on Yunnan. It deal with all aspects of culture, history, art, society, minorities, festivals, markets, etc and it is probably going to remain an invaluable resource for the intellectually motivated traveler for a long time.

The books does NOT have much in terms of where to stay and eat, logistics, practical info. But this kind of book is not meant to. I recommend the Lonely Planet Southern China for that. But by all means buy this book if you want to have one reference work to turn to for your cultural interests and curiosity. It is a bit heavy to carry around, and there is no kindle version for now, but it's worth every gram!

See my other reviews of books on China in this blog.

15 May 2011

Film review: The Big Blue (1988), by Luc Besson, ***

Enzo and Jacques have known each other for a long time. Their friendship started in their childhood days in the Mediterranean. They were not real friends in these days, but there was something they both loved and used to do the whole day long: diving. One day Jacques' father, who was a diver too, died in the Mediterranean sea. After that incident Enzo and Jacques lost contact. After several years, Enzo and Jacques had grown up, Johanna, a young clerk in a security office, has to go to Peru. There she meets Jacques who works for a group of scientists. He dives for some minutes into ice-cold water and the scientists monitor his physical state that is more like a dolphin's than a human's. Johanna can not believe what she sees and gets very interested in Jacques but she's unable to get acquainted with him. Some weeks later, back in her office, she notices a championship for divers that is supposed to take place in Taormina, Italy. In order to see Jacques again she makes up a story so the firm sends her to Italy for business purposes. In Taormina there is also Enzo, the reigning diving world champion. He knows that only Jacques can challenge and probably beat him. This time Johanna and Jacques get closer, but Jacques, being more a dolphin than a man, can not really commit and his rivalry with Enzo pushes both men into dangerous territory...

A controversial movie about two great champions of free-diving, their relationship with one another and that which bound both of them to the sea. The movie does not (and does not purport to) reflect the reality of these relationships however, it is only a fictional rendering of what the two men did and were. I found this disappointing, I would have preferred a real account of their real lives.

Apparently Besson had tried to involve the two protagonists in the making of the film but for various reasons was only partially successful with Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca refused all cooperation, which is why the movie protagonist is called Enzo Molinari. In a tragic ending that reminds one of the film's ending, Mayol committed suicide in 2001.

Nonetheless, an interesting introspection into the personalities of the two characters. The film shows how an inner passion can motivate a person to do incredible feats and perform immense sacrifices, as well as to take extreme risks. All for no real, or at least no rational, reason.

08 May 2011

Book Review: Yunnan, by Stephen Mansfield, ****

Yunnan mountains and temple

Located in southwest China, this geographically and ethnically diverse region is the centre of a growing focus on tourism. This guide covers Yunnan's many attractions including the provincial capital of Kunming, legendary Yangtze and Mekong rivers, Buddhist stupas and Tibetan border monasteries. You also get detailed insight into Yunnanese history and culture, giving an all-round picture of this intriguing province.


As is often the case with Bradt guides, this book is the best available on the culture, history, art etc of Yunnan. In a concise 250 pages you get as much as most tourists will ever digest on what makes Yunnan... Yunnan. And indeed this book makes you want to go there. I used it during my trip in Yunnan in May 2011 and found it highly informative and to the point.

For info on hotels, restaurants and other practicalities go to Lonely Planet or the web. This is never Bradt's strong point and in any case this book is from 2007, and the way things change so fast in China it is bound to be out of date. But the cultural information will remain relevant for some time.

See my other reviews of books on China in this blog.

07 May 2011

14. - 7 MAY: Fly back to Italy via Chengdu and Amsterdam End of the trip.

I come away from China impressed, even awestruck. Despite my strong misgivings about the politics of the country, I must recognize that the improvements to the living standards of the Chinese people are immense. At least if what I was able to see is any indication of reality, but it must be. I am aware that there are huge discrepancies between one region and another, between cities and countryside, etc. But overall the picture must be positive. Leaving aside material improvement, I am heartened by the fact that great efforts are being made to make up for the enormous losses caused by the maoist regime, and especially the Cultural Revolution, to China’s immense treasures of art, literature, architecture, music, etc.

What would they say if they saw China today?

06 May 2011

13. - 6 MAY: Drive to Wuhan, Yellow Crane

I visited the Yellow Crane Tower today after our flight from Yichang to Chengdu was cancelled and we had to come to Wuhan to catch a plane in time for the KLM flight back to Europe.

The tower was first built during the Tang dynasty, one of the most culturally flourishing periods of all Chinese history. Then the Sung, Yuan (Mongols), Ming and Qing all expanded and improved it. It suffered from five major fires during its long history, the last in 1884. Reconstructions was completed exactly one hundred years later, in 1984, but the main central wooden structur was replaced with one in cement.

Over the centuries, famous poets have dedicated poems to it and their verses are engraved in some rocks at the base. You can climb the many steps all the way up, but a lift is available provided you are at least seventy-years-old!

Several legends have been told about the yellow crane at the Wuhan Tower. Here is what they tell us...

One is that a drink house keeper was selling wine but business was slow. He had painted a crane on his door to make it attractive. One day a wizard arrived and to help him attract more patrons he painted the crane yellow with some pigment he had taken from orange peels and the crane came alive. The live crane attracted many patrons and business flourished. After a while the wizard came back and after seeing that business was brisk he decided the crane was not needed any more and took it with him to heaven. The keeper was so sad and he missed the crane so much that he made a sculpture of it, which is still standing today at Wuhan's tower.

A variation of the legend is the following: The Yellow Crane Tower was built by the family of an old pothouse owner living in Wuhan City long ago, named Old Xin. One day, a shabbily dressed Taoist priest came to the pothouse and asked for some wine. Old Xin paid no attention to him, but his son was very kind and gave the Taoist some wine without asking for money. The Taoist priest visited the pothouse regularly for half a year when one day the Taoist said to the son that in order to repay his kindness, he would like to draw a crane on the wall of the pothouse, which would dance at his request. When people in the city heard of this, they flocked to the pothouse to see the dancing crane. The Xin family soon became rich and they built the Yellow Crane Tower as a symbol of gratitude to the Taoist priest.

Today there is no more pothouse, but crowds of tourists and local families enjoy the restored tower and surrounding gardens...

Wuhan is the home of the writer Hu Fayun, known worldwide for his controversial books, especially about the Cultural Revolution. Here is an interview he gave to the New York Times.

05 May 2011

12. - 5 MAY: Three Gorges Dam: Disembarkation and brief visit of Yichang

Today we get to actually walk on the largest dam in the world by capacity (the second after Itaipu by production of electricity), it is more impressive than my words can ever convey. To acces the site, one is led through a checkpoint, with metal detectors and all, and must take a local shuttle bus. It rides for about fifteen minutes in a closed town where dam workers and families live, a perfectly manicured model project to showcase the new China to domestic and foreign visitors. And there the show begins...

04 May 2011

11. - 4 MAY: Cruise on the Yangtse:

The highlight of an otherwise quiet day is the Shennong stream cruise. We leave our ship for a ride on a smaller ferry up the Shennong river, and after half an hour or so we are transferred to smaller wooden pirogues where skinny rowmen start working their oars up the stream. We float by serene and green areas, some fishermen, some villages, and an impressive contruction site for a bridge of the Chongqing-Shanghai highway. The whole thing is a bit touristy, a lot in fact, but pleasant nonetheless.

Our guide for the tour is a semi-professional singer dressed in traditional costume. She is trying to keep alive some traditional music from the area, and on our way back offers a little performance to her captive audience on the raw-boat: us. She also has CDs to sell of course, very entrepreneurial of her...

In the evening, after dinner, we reach the Three Gorges Dam. At this point the ship is lowered through five ship-locks, in a little over three hours, to the lower part of the river. Read more on tomorrow’s post...

03 May 2011

10. - 3 MAY: Cruise on the Yangtse: Shibaozhai

Peaceful day of cruising down the river. The most meaningful part of the day is our visit to Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure Fortress) located in Zhong County, at the south bank of the Yangtze River, 52 km away from Wanxian, it was first built in Qing Dynasty in 1750, with a height of 56 meters.

The original village has been inundated after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and all inhabitants have been moved to a brand new village 56 meters higher on the nearby hill. I can’t comment on the old village, but people here say it was pretty poor, no sanitation, damp wooden houses and gardens by the waterline that were flooded every rainy season. Now I can see brick apartment buildings with electric power and sewage systems. Of course there will be those who will regret the romantic old ways, but to me this is a net improvement of huge proportions.

Late at night I talk to Li about our day and we sip baijiu on the balcony of my cabin. As we look out to the river, several towns and a couple of large cities pass by, she is not even sure of their names, but they count millions of people. Row after row of brightly lit skyscrapers stick out against the black moonless night. I can't but be impressed by the achievements of China.

02 May 2011

9. - 2 MAY: Dazu, legend of the country girl; board ship for Yangtse cruise

The highlight today is another Unesco WHS: the Dazu rock carvings dating from the 9th to the 13th century of our era.. I won't take time to describe them here, just click on the Unesco page linked above. It is a magical place, and worth spending a full day in. Maybe even two if your schedule allows.

Dazu Rock carvings

But I would like to share the "legend of the country girl", subject of one of the carvings, as reported to me by a local guide. I found it moving.

A beautiful country girl is invited to town by a bunch of boys she does not know. She does not want to go because she is shy, but they insist so much that she relents and accepts to follow them. And that's when her troubles start...

Once in town they take her to a party and force her to dance. But she is weak because of pregnancy and after many hours she collapses and aborts her child. Soon thereafter she dies of grief and goes to hell. Here she gemerates five hundred children with all the demons she meets in the ghastly place. Nonetheless, she never forgot her one child on earth and wants revenge against the town boys for her lost child. Strong of her afterwordly powers, she goes back to the town where she died, attends more parties and every night she eats a local child.

After this had been going on for a while Buddha Sakyamuni decides to intervene, sneaks up to her and kidnaps one of her 500 children. He then goes to pay a visit and finds her in a desperate state of mind and asks her why she is so cruel since, after all, she now has 500 children. What does she think of the mothers of the children she eats, Buddha asks her. She understands and stops eating children, at which point Buddha returns her kidnapped child to her. She then loved all children of the world for the rest of her life and became a goddess of children!

Recommended reading: This one below is one of several books on the Dazu carvings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the best of the bunch, great binding, good photographs and detailed descriptions, in English, of each one of them. It is expensive: there are cheaper versions of this book but this is the one to buy if you can afford it. It is impossible to convey the sheer size and majesty of the carvings in pictures, but this is as close as it gets.

In the US and worldwide buy it here:

In the UK buy it here:

My guide tells me another legend, which I struggle to understand: a woman who had a chicken was sent to hell because during her lifetime she had fed this chicken lots of prime food. In doing so she made the chicken fat. One man thought the fat chicken would be very tasty, killed it, cooked it and ate it. If the chicken had not been fed so well she would not have looked so mouth-watering and the man would not have eaten it. OK I'll need some time to think this through.

It is a rainy day, and the long bus ride makes a few of us doze off... I stay awake, mostly, and from my seat at the front of the vehicle keep looking at the two flags our nostalgic driver has glued to his dashboard...

Nostalgic driver...

After the visit to the carvings' site we go for lunch, but first we stumble into another great temple. The Longevity temple, built in 1178, and now again in use after decades of neglect during Maoist times.

In the evening we board our cruise ship, the "President", for a 3-day run down the Yangtse, which in some languages is referred to as the Blue River, the longest river in Asia and the main artery of life in China since time immemorial!

01 May 2011

8. - 1 MAY: Kunming Western mountains, flight to Chongqing

Morning to the Western Mountains, it’s May 1st, officially Workers' Day in China, so EVERYONE is out enjoying the sunshine and the city parks. There are so many Chinese tourists, and not a few foreigners, that it is literally difficult to move around in the park.

Hundreds of souvenir stands line up the walk from the parking lot to the site, and with tons of junk I spot a few nostalgic items, like Mao’s little red book, sold here in countless versions and many languages. I have already a few copies at home from my last trip, so I pass, and anyway prices are going up for the real ones, printed when Mao was alive. I suppose they must be getting scarcer, even though billions must have been printed during the Cultural Revolution.

Interesting talk with our guide Xu. He says Kunming is becoming a sought after destination for retirement: good climate (between 15 and 30° C year round, they don’t use much either heating or A/C), less crowded than the big cities of the coast, lower prices. Lots of effort to clean up the air, many scooters are now electric, cost about 400 euros and 5-6 euros per month in recharges. There is fresh fruits available year round, the red earth is rich and fertile, also lots of tobacco as cash crop. Quite a few from the West are moving here as well, he says, though that is more surprising to me.

I see a lot of police around, Xu says it’s because of drugs, we are near the “golden triangle” here and there is smugglers coming in from Burma.

Short visit to old downtown Kunming, just a street or two with a few old buildings and a live pet market that are included in all the tourist itineraries. Nothing much at all. Kunming is a new, vibrant and growing city, pretty impressive.

I am irritated by some of the comments of my companions who express regret that the good old times are gone, when homes in China were made of wood, there was no electricity, no cars, no plumbing... the usual litany of "it was better when it was worse".

More interestingly, I meet a couple of friendly old ladies, it is very hard to understand each other but they speak a few words of English and make it a point to underline to me that they are christians. They can say so more or less openly now, but remember well the times when they feared for their lives...