Roger Law packs his sketch­book and easel and sets off to find the land of swirling mists de­picted in Chi­nese art

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - China Holidays -

ONCE I trav­elled to China and bought paint­ings for just a few dol­lars. Those days are long gone; the na­tion’s bur­geon­ing mid­dle class is hav­ing an ef­fect on ev­ery con­sumer mar­ket, in­clud­ing that of Chi­nese art.

As you read this, mil­lions of the new up­wardly mo­bile will be clutch­ing their dig­i­tal cam­eras and visit­ing their own coun­try’s tourist hot spots, fol­low­ing im­mac­u­lately uni­formed Han women shout­ing at them through hand-held mega­phones. This is China on the move, with Chair­man Mao’s blue cloth head­gear re­placed by jaunty base­ball caps em­bla­zoned with the leg­ends ‘‘ No Prob­lem’’ or ‘‘ Olympics 2008’’.

It is not easy to es­cape the crush. On pre­vi­ous trips I’d had to fight for the last whiff of oxy­gen in Tianan­men Square and marvel, aghast, at the tsunami of con­crete that was threat­en­ing to en­gulf Shang­hai. This time, I wanted to find the old China de­picted on my wil­low-pat­tern din­ner plate: the land of swirling mists and im­pos­si­ble lime­stone moun­tains, with tiny tem­ples cling­ing to the ledges. To dis­cover this, my Chi­nese friends ad­vised, Yun­nan prov­ince should be my des­ti­na­tion: a place where it is still pos­si­ble to avoid the soul­less tourist trail, where train jour­neys are still com­fort­able, where lo­cal inns treat you as a guest rather than a com­mod­ity. That’s why I trav­elled there last year, paint­ing the China of old as I went.

I caught a train to Guilin via Guangzhou (old Can­ton), one of China’s most pros­per­ous and pol­luted cities. Ev­ery day is a bad-air day in Guangzhou; it’s one of those places worth stop­ping at only to change trains. And it’s a shame to get out of Chi­nese in­ter­city trains, as they are al­most Ed­war­dian in their am­bi­ence: clean, air­con­di­tioned and quaintly bour­geois, with their em­broi­dered table­cloths, lace cur­tains, white cot­ton seat cov­ers, ticket rit­u­als and smart guards’ uni­forms.

On one glo­ri­ous trip, I sat in the last car­riage with the rear door open, sketch­ing the 180-de­gree view of the re­ced­ing land­scape, the guard top­ping up my glass of green tea from his steam­ing ket­tle.

At a cor­ner stall in Guilin, I break­fasted on the best steamed dumplings I amever likely to taste. It was the only good thing that morn­ing. Fool­ishly, I paid to climb Soli­tary Beauty Park with sev­eral hun­dred other sen­sa­tion-seek­ers. The ex­pe­ri­ence was nei­ther soli­tary nor par­tic­u­larly beau­ti­ful. It’s not the view that takes your breath away but the steep climb to the top. Guilin has swarmed over much of its leg­endary moun­tain sur­round­ings and its swirling mists seem to be com­posed mainly of cig­a­rette smoke ex­haled by Chi­nese tourists. Aside from its stu­pen­dous dumplings and an im­mac­u­late Sichuanese restau­rant called Yi Yuan, the place was too built-up, too heav­ily touristed, for me.

Catch­ing the first ex­press bus to Yang­shuo was a bril­liant de­ci­sion. There, with the help of Frances, the man­ager of the Morn­ing Sun Ho­tel, built in a tra­di­tional style around a court­yard with an ad­join­ing art gallery, I was by next morn­ing in pos­ses­sion of not only a bi­cy­cle but a hand-drawn map. I set off into the coun­try­side, quickly run­ning out of not just tar­mac but map.

Ped­alling along dusty tracks in a vista of small, well-tended fields with hayricks and peas­ants till­ing the soil, I was soon lost in mists of mel­low fruit­ful­ness.

Well, fruit­ful in some ways. While in Hong Kong I had pur­chased a small elec­tronic trans­la­tor, which I thought might help in sticky sit­u­a­tions. It sounded like a won­der­ful con­trap­tion, in the­ory. Hav­ing tapped in a ques­tion (for in­stance: ‘‘ Where am I?’’), the trans­la­tion mag­i­cally ap­pears on the screen in Man­darin and is pro­nounced in Chi­nese Dalek. In re­al­ity, any peas­ants I ap­proached in­vari­ably col­lapsed in a heap of toothy laugh­ter, then called their mates from the sur­round­ing fields for an en­core.

Trans­la­tor gizmo aside, the only mod­ern de­vices to dis­rupt the 18th-cen­tury agrar­ian idyll were the work­ers’ shiny new mo­bile phones and the mini Eif­fel Tow­ers atop the lime­stone peaks to pro­vide re­cep­tion.

Peas­ants in tra­di­tional hats worked the fields, oxen am­bled by and lunch was a ripe, juicy pomelo, like a gi­ant grape­fruit, bought from a vil­lage lady.

Cy­cling around the coun­try­side was sur­passed only by my boat trip. In Xing­ping, the Li River winds through green-topped moun­tains and, even if this was not the in­spi­ra­tion for the wil­low pat­tern, it will cer­tainly do: there are bridges, weep­ing wil­lows and lovers. As I boarded the river craft, the boat­man held up a 20 yuan note. The land­scape on the note ex­actly matched the scenery in front of me. For the next two hours I was in the pic­ture, float­ing through a Chi­nese brush paint­ing.

My main mis­sion ac­com­plished, I back­tracked to Guilin and on to Nan­ning, then took the overnight train to Kun­ming. There, I awoke to a city full of colour and walked to the flower and bird mar­ket where the trees lin­ing the streets form an over­ar­ch­ing canopy, speck­ling the traders and the Sun­day crowds with golden sunspots. The city is on the old Silk Road trad­ing route, so there are mosques and Mus­lims among the Bud­dhist tem­ples.

Af­ter visit­ing the Yi Hu Chun Tea House over­look­ing Kun­ming’s lively Green Lake Park, and get­ting my nat­u­ral high from its tea, it was time to move on­wards and up­wards to the Bam­boo Tem­ple. The tem­ple houses hun­dreds of metic­u­lously painted, al­most life­size sculpted fig­ures.

Stylised ocean break­ers crash down the walls and dozens of surf­ing Bud­dhas catch the waves on a strange variety of mounts: danc­ing crabs, pranc­ing prawns, uni­corns and blue dogs. The quirky fig­ures are a tour de force of car­i­ca­ture.

In one of the many restau­rants be­long­ing to the Jiang Brothers’ chain, I sam­pled Kun­ming’s fa­mous over-the-bridge noo­dles. All that was left to do was search for some Chi­nese cal­li­graphic scrolls. This was not as sim­ple as it might have been a decade ago. The new scrolls on of­fer in the tourist gal­leries looked overly slick, while the an­tiques seemed sus­pi­ciously fresh.

Thank­fully, I was in­tro­duced to a fine cal­lig­ra­pher in the Up­river Loft stu­dio com­plex, where I bought a pair of scrolls in caoshu (cur­sive script) that had a wild, ab­stract qual­ity to them.

My fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, Dali Old Town, was not only high, at 2166m , but pic­turesque. It is bor­dered by the Jade Green Moun­tains (Cang Shan) and is very tra­di­tional. Any new build­ing or restora­tion has to con­form to the old ar­chi­tec­tural style: wa­ter still flows through the streets in open cul­verts and, rather than this be­ing seen as a dis­ad­van­tage, it is re­garded as quaint and charm­ing.

When a Chi­nese en­tre­pre­neur has made a tidy sum he tends to han­ker af­ter an idyllic spot in the coun­try. This ex­plains why many of Bei­jing’s most suc­cess­ful artists are buy­ing sec­ond homes in Dali.

I took a lo­cal bus along the lake up to Yousou which, on Fri­days, holds the largest mar­ket in Yun­nan. It sells ev­ery­thing from mounds of red-hot chill­ies to bun­dles of vo­tive wood­cut images printed on tis­sue pa­per.

Al­most any­thing is avail­able. You can get your teeth drilled very cheaply by street tech­ni­cians us­ing adapted sew­ing ma­chines, or buy pretty em­broi­dered shoes.

Next day I set off to walk in the moun­tains and be­fore long reached an im­pos­ing fortress gate­way with ticket sell­ers out­side dressed like Widow Twanky. Cu­rios­ity got the bet­ter of me and I paid up to find I had en­tered a film stu­dio, fea­tur­ing ev­ery kind of Chi­nese set­ting imag­in­able: vil­lages, city streets, sec­tions of the Great Wall and the For­bid­den City along with Genghis Khan’s en­camp­ment.

While kung-fu demon­stra­tions raged in the court­yard inside the er­satz Im­pe­rial Palace, vis­i­tors could dress up as an em­peror or his con­cu­bine for ‘‘ hi­lar­i­ous photo op­por­tu­nity’’.

It wasn’t the last coun­ter­feit I saw. On the flight home, the stew­ard showed me her haul of de­signer-la­bel good­ies: all copies. In the new China, there is very lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween real and fake.

Any­thing can be re-cre­ated: well, al­most any­thing. There will al­ways be the scenery: the green-topped hills that will never change their con­tours, the wil­low trees for­ever droop­ing, just like those on my pat­terned plates back home. Daily Tele­graph, Lon­don

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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