THE TRAVEL GAME
Traversing Tibet An overland journey, from Beijing to Xi'an by overnight train (then a short hop by air) and from Xining (Qinghai province) overnight to Lhasa, Tibet on the recently-completed Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The journey then continues southwest to Gyantse, then west through Shigatse, Everest Base Camp and down to the Nepalese board and so to Kathmandu. Enthralled from an early age by Heinrich Harrer's epic narrative of his Seven Years in Tibet, I skirted around the Chinese-occupied Tibetan heartland in my own earlier travels, visiting Nepal, Ladakh (India), Bhutan, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces (China). In 2014 I was offered an opportunity to experience the 'real thing'; Tibet at present is not accessible for spontaneous, individual travel.
Taiwan, a Chinese puzzle The tea leaves must fill one-fifth of the pot and before tasting, the tea aroma is sampled by inverting a taster cup into a small bowl. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat. A fusillade shatters the serenity of the arcane tea house ritual. Is this the end game, the invasion threatened ever since 1949? No, simply fat strings of firecrackers exploding to herald the last day of Lunar New Year festivities. Traffic slows for the trailer-mounted, larger-than-life, deities hauled through city streets by temple volunteers, then ploughs on through dense clouds of smoke and eardrum-shattering explosions. Yes, the mainland Chinese are now landing in force: package tourists disembark daily by the thousand from the direct flights which now hop across the Straits. This peaceful invasion threatens at times to overwhelm Taiwan's natural and cultural heritage.
The drinks are served in urinal-shaped vessels, and my Szechuan Hot Pot simmers within a miniature bidet. Welcome to the Modern Toilet, a chain restaurant in Taipei which plumbs new depths of tastelessness. Meanwhile at the sumptuous Silks Palace restaurant, adjoining the National Palace Museum, exquisitely presented dishes draw inspiration from the priceless antiquities housed in one of the world's finest collections of Asian art. Often overlooked, Taiwan - the other China - can certainly overturn the preconceptions of a first-time visitor.
Henan, Heart and Soul of China Often flat as a board, the plains of Henan are lined with poplar plantations, dotted with fish farms and fields of winter wheat: at first glance, little reason to linger. Since the time of the Shang the Yellow River basin has nurtured one Chinese dynasty after another, their capitals rising and falling in turn. Cities like Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, stitched together by expressways, repay a closer examination of the legacies of thousands of years of Chinese civilisation. And if the locals warm to you, they just might reveal their ancient culinary arts too: fried scorpion, anyone?
In Shanxi, Loess is More. The province 'West of the Mountains' is a land of loess, the rugged dun-coloured country sandwiched between the Great Wall and the Yellow River. From the Loess Plateau a fine, loose soil washes down countless gullies, relentlessly silting up the Yellow River. Farmers have always struggled here, but merchants prospered for centuries by trading tea, salt, silk and grain between Mongolia to the north and the ancient cities to the south. Buddhist sanctuaries surviving on mountain slopes, clinging to canyon walls or nestled in caves reward the traveller, as do walled cities and thousand-year-old pagodas.
Shangri-La rediscovered. By the eager people's bureaucrats of South West China's remote Diqing Region, that is. Author James Hilton might turn in his grave at this appropriation of the verdant valley existing solely within his imagination, but to arrive on this easternmost outlier of the fabled Roof of the World, an austere 3,000-metre steppe, does afford a glimpse of life in the Tibetan heartland
Tigers leap where angels fear to tread in Yunnan's Tiger Leaping Gorge. Gazing over the top of my cement-walled stall in the pit toilets at Half Way House guesthouse, I look up to the sublime majesty of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, whose 5,000-metre snow-dusted crags blush musky pink in the chill of a mountain morning. The Feng family are out feeding their pigs and goats - and frying up breakfast pancakes for those privileged to share these mountains with them.
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