Megan McCormick travels through the heart of third largest country in the world. China is home to 20% of the world’s population. It’s one of the oldest civilisations, and its future willundoubtedly be shaped in the 21st century. Though it’s been closed to tourism throughout much of the communist era, it’s now beginning to open it’s doors to travellers.
She begins her journey in Shanghai, which has been China’s trade centre for centuries. Megan takes advantage of her time in Shanghai to do a little shopping, visiting the bustling Nanjing Roadand Yu Yuan Bazaar, where gangsters from the opium trade used to hang out. These days the opium dens have been replaced by quaint little stalls, and the gangsters have been replaced by tourists. In the heart of the bazaar is one of the oldest Daoist temples in Shanghai. Daoism is a religion which is based around the power of the gods, magic and sorcery. It originated in China, where it has been years. It even survived the Cultural Revolution of 1966, when all forms of religion were banned by the communist state and hundreds of temples were destroyed.
Before leaving Shanghai, Megan wants to see some famous Chinese acrobats in action. She visits a school were young acrobats begin their training at the age of six or seven, learning to perform incredible feats by the time they reach adulthood.
From Shanghai Megan heads inland by bus to Suzhou. Suzhou has been the silk capital of China for over 1500 years and is also famous for its Chinese classical gardens, built as private retreats for very wealthy merchants. Megan takes a tour of one of the silk factories and learns a little about the production process.
Megan embarks on a ten hour train journey to the Huangshan region, known as the Yellow Mountains. She passes the time playing cards with the locals, before finally arriving in Tunxi. As well as being the gateway to the mountains, the town is also famous renowned for the medicinal shops that have evolved because of the herbs that grow on the outskirts of the town. Chinese medicine uses over 6,000 herbs and nearly a thousand animal and mineral products, all of which are to balance the Ying and Yang to bring harmony, health and happiness. Megan is prescribed a remedy of fermented bean with chicken stomach lining to combat a common cold.
The Yellow Mountains are one of the most beautiful sights in all of China, where poets and painters have come for centuries in search of inspiration. It takes Megan five hours to hike to the vantage point, but on arrival she’s disappointed to discover the view is enshrouded in mist.
From Huangshan, Megan continues west to Wuhanwhere she starts her 600 mile journey up theYangzi River to Fengdu. The Chinese call the Yangzi the ‘Long River’, and at 4,000 miles it’s the third longest in the world. Megan has the chance to watch work in progress on the largest and most powerful dam in the world, called the Three Gorges Dam. When it’s finished it will prevent massive loss of life sustained when the Yangzi periodically bursts its banks, yet it is also a highly controversial engineering projects as though no-one really knows what the consequences will be it will undoubtedly change life on the Yangzi forever.
From the dam Megan heads up Shennong Stream by longboat. This is one of the Yangzi’s 700 tributaries, which will be most affected by the flooding. She is invited to visit a local village which has been inhabited for the last 1000 years but 80% of the villagers have already upped sticks before their homes are destroyed. The project will also destroy some breathtaking gorges, some of the river species will become extinct and many archaeological sites will be lost forever.
Fengdu is known by the locals as ‘the city of the ghosts’, and legend has it that this is the home of the devil. It seems fitting that she should end my river trip here, as when the flooding starts, the legend of Fengdu will become a reality – it is one of the 140 towns, 13 cities and over 1,000 villages that will be given to the river.
Next, Megan makes her way to Chongging, the third largest city in China which is famed for its haze that obscured the city from the scourge of Japanese bombers during World War II. The old is where you can find Chongqing’s famous Sichuan Opera. Unlike in the west, opera has always been for ordinary folks and is performed on the streets and in the local tea houses. In the past opera was the main source of communicating Chinese history. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao used it to spread political propaganda.
Megan’s final stop is the ancient city of Xi’an. Xi’an was the Capital of China for 1,100 years and in the 8th century ithad a population of over 1 million people, making it the largest city in the world. It is here that the Silk Road began, connecting China to Asia and then on to Europe. The city is home to many muslims who are said to be the descendants of the Silk Road traders from the Arab world. Megan visits the courtyard of a Chinese style mosque which dates back to the 8th century, however she’s not allowed to enter the prayer hall as access is restricted to Muslims only.
For centuries, peasants in this area told stories of ghosts who lived underground. And in 1974 there were two farmers out digging a well when they came face to face with a 2,200 year old warrior. They had uncovered the Terracotta Army, one of the greatest archaeological sites of the 20th century. Over 8,000 warriors were built to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Emperor Chin, but only a fraction of the site has been excavated to date. He created a replica of his own army, which is why every single face is unique. It’s a breathtaking site, and an incredible end of Megan’s journey through Central China – past, present and future.
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