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Off the beaten track
China - Eastern China
all data refer to year 1997

China: a personal anecdote
Beijing: the Capital CityCentral China
Traveller's Memories: index

The eastern coastal region of China takes in the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian. Within these provinces are the municipalities of two of the nation's greatest cities, Beijing and Shanghai. Also dotted down this densely populated coastal region are numerous sacred mountains, gardens and the burial grounds of some of China's greatest leaders and thinkers.
The most obvious gateway to the eastern provinces would be Beijing or Shanghai, although other options include Taiwan by boat or air and Hong Kong or Guangzhou by train, bus or air. In Hebei, Qinhuangdao's little-used airport offers flights to Dalian, Guangzhou and Shanghai. The rest of the provinces have air connections to a vast array of internal destinations. However Wenzhou's airport, in Zhejiang Province, is notorious for heavy fog. Buses working the eastern coastal stretch also connect all the provinces in this region and beyond.

Beijing and its port zone of Tianjin lie in the province of Hebei, which is traversed by a huge stretch of the Great Wall. The capital of Hebei is the railway-junction town of Shijiazhuang, which is notable only as a transit point. Places of greater interest include the temples and monasteries at Zhengding, just north of the capital, the 1300-year-old Zhaozhou Bridge, to the south-east, the temple-dotted woods of Cangyanshan, 80km south-west of Shijiazhuang, and the Imperial Summer Villa and numerous temples at Chengde. For a spot of European-style Victorian beach culture head to Beidaihe, east of Beijing, and Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea.

That little turtle head staring out into the Yellow Sea is Shandong, a relatively poor province beset by problems - not the least of which is the unpredictable Yellow River. Back in 1895 the problems were great enough to spawn the Boxers, an underground group bent on getting foreign devils out of China. These days, Shandong's most pressing problem is overpopulation. With an area of just 150,000 sq km, it's the third most populated province after Henan and Sichuan.
Taishan is the most revered of the five sacred Taoist mountains of China. Since the dawn of Chinese history, poets, writers and painters have found Taishan a great source of inspiration and have extolled its beauties. Today, however, the fact that it is a major Chinese attraction means that visitors rarely get a moment's peace to drink in the experience, but thankfully the pull of legend, religion and history is enough to make the climb or cable-car ride worthwhile. Taishan is not a major climb, but with around 6000 steps to negotiate, it can be hard work. The central route's bewildering catalogue of bridges, trees, towers, statues, inscribed stones, caves, pavilions and temples combine to take your mind off your aching calves.

Not far from the mountain is the town of Qufu, birthplace of Confucius (551-479 BC). Its massive Confucius Temple features a series of impressive gateways, clusters of twisted pines and cypresses, inscribed steles and tortoise tablets recording ancient events. One of the pavilions dates from 1190, while one of the junipers is said to have been planted by Confucius himself (though a Confucian aphorism about gullibility may descend on you if you believe this). The core of the complex is the yellow-tiled Dacheng Hall. The Confucius Mansions date from the 16th century and are the most sumptuous aristocratic lodgings in China, indicative of the former power of the Confucian descendants, the Kong family. The town itself grew up around these buildings, and was an autonomous estate administered by the Kongs. North of the mansions is the Confucian Forest, the largest artificial park and best preserved cemetery in China. The timeworn route features a spirit way of ancient cypresses, passing through the Eternal Spring Archway before reaching the Tomb of the Great Sage.

In a country where provincial capitals are rarely known for their beauty, Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu, shines. The construction work that's churning up the face of China seems to have affected this city less than most and it remains a place of broad boulevards and shady trees. This is just as well considering the oppressive summer heat that grips Nanjing, which is known as one of China's `three furnaces'. The city enjoyed its golden years under the Ming, and there are numerous reminders of the period to be found. One of the most impressive is the Ming city wall measuring over 33km - the longest city wall ever built in the world. About two-thirds of it still stands. On the slopes just east of Nanjing is the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum. Sun is recognised by the communists and the Kuomintang alike as the father of China.


China: a personal anecdote
Beijing: the Capital CityCentral China
Traveller's Memories: index
© Paolo Botton