We’ve had a number of bus trips on our way around China: Wushan to Yichang where we embarked on our Yangze cruise; from mega-city Chongqing, where we left the Yangtze, to Chengdu; and Chengdu to Leshan in Sichuan province. Later in our trip we travelled by bus near beautiful Guilin in the southern, semi-tropical area of China. I’ve enjoyed watching the countryside we’ve passed through.
Most of the areas of China we’ve seen are very fertile and have been farmed for centuries. I’ve marveled at the diversity of crops grown on small landholdings. Between Wushan and Yicheng I could identify cotton, rice, corn, sweet potatoes, soyabeans, cabbages and fishponds, as well as other crops beyond my farming knowledge.
Around Chengdu there are even more fishponds, as well as rice, citrus fruits, grapes, tea, tobacco, many kinds of vegetables and even strawberries. No land is wasted and at least in the areas we’ve visited each farm had a wide variety of crops. In the idyllic landscape of southern Guilin, the rice that’s such a staple in this part of China had just been harvested,
lotus plants were grown for the roots that are a delicacy in Chinese food
and farmers were growing ornamental plants for the landscaping that’s so evident along city streets and highways and in parks. In particular, there were plantings of osmanthus, the ubiquitous flower of Guilin that's used to flavour sweets and drinks as well as for decorative street planting.
So different from farming in Australia. This kind of farming is one of the few cases in China where the scale of the activity in almost unimaginably small (though more diverse) than its Australian comparison.
Xi'an by night
We visited Xi’an – best known for the nearby Entombed Warriors Museum. I’d been expecting the warriors to be a highlight of the trip - and they were. What I’d not expected and what proved to be delightful was the night lighting in the streets and buildings in Xi’an. Clearly, people are encouraged to use the streets in the evenings as places of enjoyment and relaxation. Monuments marking the city's long and illustrious history are extravagantly flood-lit,
the streets are lined by lamp-posts whose supports are incised with tone poems by famous poets; both private and public buildings are fancifully lit; and the trees in small parks edging the streets are a riot of colourful fairy-lights;
There’s a block long series of fountains that ‘dance’ to music that we were told was the biggest dancing fountain in the world. The ancient city wall that surrounds the old city centre is edged with lights and on our Saturday night in Xi’an we found a group of people from a surrounding town performing the local dances at one of the gates to the wall.
When space is at such a premium, the public spaces become an extension of people’s living areas.
Fengdu and the afterlife
We'd been informed that one of the onshore trips that was part of our Yangtze cruise was to be to Fengdu Ghost City. Given that the flooding of the Yangtze had depleted many of the old riverside towns and cities of their population and occupations I'd anticipated that the excursion would demonstrate some of the devastation of the Yangtze project.
I was very wrong. The reality was more mundane, more complex and more puzzling. For more than two thousand years (so it is said) a series of temples that reach one above the other on a hill on the northern bank of the Yangtze has been known as the 'Ghost City'.
The temples, statues and gardens rather confusingly (at least for a Westerner) combine the cultures of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism with the mystique of ghosts. Nowadays, the atmosphere is more reminiscent of a theme park than a place of devotion. Most of the structures are modern, sometimes gaudy rebuildings, and the Ghost City is approached by running the usual gauntlet of tourist shops and hawkers. The complex is meant to illustrate hell with displays of demonic images and torture devices. It reflects the notion that good people will be treated well in the afterlife and bad people will be punished by going to hell - though its major emphasis is on the latter.
There are images of devils and those being tortured - to my Western sensibility many of them were reminiscent of the paintings depicting hell by fifteenth century Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch.
Fengdu Ghost City is now only a tourist attraction - more fun for the locals than for the Westerners who are more likely to be left puzzling out the significance of the site. I guess the attraction of 'hell' as a tourist destination is no more to be wondered at than the current Western fad for movies and books about vampires and the supernatural more generally. Still, Fengdu Ghost City left me wondering.