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