Tessa Keswick

Diary - 8 November 2003

Text settings

This is the best time of the year to be in northern China. The monsoon is over and the summer temperatures are cooling down in Beijing and Shanghai. It’s the best time for food, too. ‘The peaches are in season in Beijing now,’ is the very first thing Fumei says as she greets us. ‘And in two weeks’ time we can eat fat hairy crabs in Shanghai.’ We find acres of grapes and melons being harvested in the Xinjiang oases, the raisin houses are bulging and baskets of juicy figs fill the markets. Trees lining the avenues are bowed down with pomegranates and persimmons. In Anhui province, the rice harvest has been laid out to dry on any available surface — even at the edge of motorways. The third tea crop is being prepared.

Not so long ago it was rare to find a good meal in China; now it seems hard to find a bad one. Camel’s hump in Turfan may be daunting. Lily Ho — the Chinese Madonna — has an elegant restaurant in Shanghai, which serves sliced rabbits’ ears. These may be an acquired taste, but throughout modern China the variety of food is a revelation.

Twenty years ago, while staying in the smartest hotel in a large provincial city, I woke up to find a rat the size of a Cadillac staring me in the face. That doesn’t happen any more. Even government-owned hotels now aim to please. And getting around is more comfortable too. ‘Soft class’ on the railway means a spacious modern compartment for four with a clean duvet and pillow, along with boiled water and air-conditioning.

Some things take longer: it is better to draw a veil over lavatory conditions in China as the Chinese seem to have a different relationship to human waste than Westerners. How long will it be before this too becomes a thing of the past?

Resolve is all. The road may suddenly have been washed away, but vehicles will bounce across country regardless. The departure time for your train may be altered at random, but an alternative will probably be provided with some speed. Your plane may be turned back with a fault, but another will be waiting on the tarmac. But resolve can also be terrifying, particularly on the roads. Everyone drives too fast. Cars dodge in and out between the huge trucks, all of which drive in the middle of the road, regardless of which direction they are going. The streams of bicycles at the side of the road flow down the dim streets without lights.

Modern China appreciates practicalities and adores prestige. Not only are the size and quantity of new buildings breathtaking, but living conditions are also improving throughout the country. Hundreds of new parks are being created in Beijing. And everything is done so mind-bogglingly quickly. Fumei returns to her house one afternoon and scolds the taxi-driver for taking her to the wrong place. But he hadn’t; since she had left that morning gardens and trees had been planted and an elaborate water scheme installed. A new billion-dollar German magnetic railway capable of carrying trains travelling at 300 miles an hour to the new international airport has been completed in less than a year. At present it is booked up three weeks ahead.

The grandest of the grands projets being built anywhere in the world is the new Beijing opera, theatre and concert-hall complex designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, whose deputy showed me round. The extraordinary buildings will be folded into a vast glass and titanium egg-shaped casing set in a 30-acre lake site next to the Forbidden City — the power centre of Beijing. You will reach the auditoriums by walking through tunnels that go under the lake, the waters of which will be visible above your head. Four thousand workers are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about $100 a month to complete this feat of technology within two years. The French call it the ‘goutte d’eau’.

The opening of the latest art movie Warriors of Heaven and Earth is the first Chinese joint venture with Columbia Pictures. The critics took a dim view of the film for its Buddhist sympathies. ‘In China we believe that man solves problems himself, not through other powers,’ says Shuqi. But in China today the attitude to the metaphysical is unpredictable. No architect dares to ignore the advice of the feng shui geomancer. The Buddhist Lama temple in Beijing bustles and thrives while Confucius’ Temple is in a pretty worrying condition. Christian churches are usually locked, and the old synagogue in Shanghai has been turned into a gaudy restaurant.

Throughout the autonomous province of Xinjiang, the Muslim faith is strong. But I never heard a single muezzin calling from the many well-attended mosques. On pressing the question I was eventually told by my Muslim guide, ‘I think the reason you hear nothing is because the microphones are turned down.’

On the advice of I.M. Pei we visit Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui Province. These great mountain pinnacles are the inspiration for early Chinese landscape paintings. They are also the scene for the swirling mists and cloud seas visible in the popular film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. To get to the top, you either whoosh 6,000 feet above the clouds in a modern cable-car or you can climb the vertical steps. Some choose to be carried by the gallant coolies who otherwise bear hundreds of kilograms up the steep mountain face. As in the pictures, they balance truly huge weights on either side of a thin bamboo pole. The journey up takes the porters five hours, and they work day and night to service the three hotels at the top of the mountain. The cable-car takes eight minutes.

It was staying at Huang Shan that I encountered some more Chinese magic. I asked a qigong (air power) doctor there to look at what had become an intractable problem in my back and neck. After one hour of particularly mysterious treatment, a condition hitherto resistant to all known Western medical science appears to have been resolved by this master. He knew what he was doing — halfway through the treatment he paused to wipe his brow and double the cost.