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The Great Haul

Actor and former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan takes his family on a backpacking trip around China and discovers a nation rapidly inventing itself.

I thought the days when your children asked “have we really been in space, dad?” after a spectacular theme park ride were over. But, no, it seems China provides the very same rollercoaster ride. Our fluky upgrade to first class was the surreal kick-start that our seven-week jaunt needed. What was to follow is hard to describe – China is simply otherworldly.

We are family backpackers – we hop on a plane, train, bus and turn up somewhere like ordinary backpackers, only there are six of us. We are: grumpy father, organised mother, three female adolescents and one explosive boy of 11, spending 24/7 together. Add to that the cocktail of one-nation China and you have enough energy to defy gravity.

Beijing, our first destination, is in the grip of a beautification process in preparation for the 2008 Olympics as every square metre is being renovated. They will, of course, keep the hutongs (the old alleyways), the temples and palaces, but the rest os being turned into a glass and metal jungle of extraordinary proportions.

What takes a year to do in Blighty would take about a week in China. Plus, the trains are fantastic (if you can get a ticket), the food is mostly excellent, fresh and healthy, and communication is easier than you would imagine for such an alien language, although it helps to have a mobile phone.

The highlight of our first week was a 10km trek along the Great Wall. Built 400 years ago to keep out the Mongol hordes, it is now one of the world’s greatest landmarks, but although we were pursused by water and souvenir sellers – oddly there were no other tourists – we had one of the wonders of the world to ourselves.

As we failed at the first attempt to get train tickets – there are, after all, more than 10 million internal Chinese tourists – we flew to Urumuqi in Xinjiang, north-west China, the land of the Muslim Uyghurs and the old Silk Road trade route. Our middle daughter, Katie, celebrated her 15th birthday on a Kazakh’s yurt (half a tepee) on the banks of Tian Chi, or Heavenly Pool, a lake halfway up a mountain in the middle of a desert. A cake of pink wafer buscuits and raisins was shared among the local villagers.

A three-day excursion took us into oilfields fringed by luscious grape valleys, sites of long forgotten dynasties and to Turpan, the hottest spot in China (49.6C), where we scaled the sand dunes at dawn to see the Flaming Mountain, so called because the 100km range really looks as if it is on fire.

Unfortunately, we were flaming, angry, that is, the next day, after discovering two of our backpacks had been “jacked” from the bus along with our return plane tickets – perhaps now we would never be able to return to our world.

In the land of a one-child policy, sadly accepted by young and old, a four-child family is a focus of celebration, and there is no better place than on a 36-hour train journey travelling “hard sleeper” (this is a misnomer, it is actually quite a comfortable open carriage with six-berth sections). Every smile you offer is greeted with a bigger one in return and, within a few hours, the Duncans were spread around the various berths swapping food, playing games and giving impromptu English lessons. The only frightening thing about train travel in China is getting on board – when the barrier is lifted, there is a ritual stampede to find your carriage.

Our destination, Xi’an, was my son Arthur’s main reason for coming to China. He wanted to see the terracotta warriors, and he was not to be disappointed. Although the Chinese are busy building for the future, the oldest civilisation in the world goes back a long way, and this surviving monument, thousands of life-size pottery soldiers whose mission was to protect an emperor in the afterlife, is quite extraordinary. We even met one of the farmers who discovered them in 1974. I told him that I was pleased that his grandfather hadn’t found them because now they would be probably be in some British or European museum.

In China, you pay for most things in cash: a new car requires a small backpack of notes, a house equals a suitcase load, and for six replacement return airline tickets to London, a large wad masquerading as a pot belly.

At the start of our fourth week, we were heading south through Sichuan, where giant pandas, giant Buddhas and little chillies that make your tongue tingle for hours were the focus of our entertainment. Soon after, we embarked on a very old bus for the tortuous route to Lijiang in south-west China. The torture included broken fuel pipes, avoiding landslides due to continuous rainfall and bouncing in and out of potholes for 14 hours (although in a few years it will probably be a smooth, four-lane motorway).

Bordering Tibet, in the province of Yunnan, Lijiang is home to the Naxi minority, and the old city, the only part to survive the 1996 earthquake, is the tourist Mecca that travellers descend on. Despite the large groups of Chinese tourists maniacally following their guides the place somehow manages to retain its charm. This is probably due to the warmth of the Naxi people who embrace you like you are the first foreigners they’ve ever met.

One such encounter led us to stay in a Naxi family home in a village below Jade Dragon mountain, which during the rainy season constantly swirled with clouds. This was a time of powerful images and sensations, the closeness of an environmentally aware community, a child never put down, handed from grandmother to uncle to cousin, 5,000 horses for sale at a rainy market, a temple with Buddhist monks blowing great horns, the taste of the fresh vegetables, the healthy animals … you get the picture. It was clear to all of us as we said goodbye that most of the world is dysfunctional and perhaps here lies the secret of true happiness.

Decisions had to be made: shall we sail the Yangtze before the Three Gorges disappear into a great lake which will power the biggest dam in the world and produce 10% of China’s electricity or … there was no alternative. Everywhere is a long way, and to reach the city of Chongqing to book the cruise required two days’ travel.

By now, my offspring were tiring of my requests for reactions for the camera and video diaries. Lucy, our eldest, had several bouts of both homesickness and a sickness of her father but, like all semi-adults, it is a condition that fluctuates between love and hate.

It had been raining rather a lot and our journey up the Yangtze was to be short lived; in fact we only saw two gorges as the river was surging and the boats were unable to continue. Lakes were bursting their banks and states of emergency were declared.

We did manage to visit a waterside town called Fengdu, appropriately called “the ghost city” – which it will undoubtedly become in 2003 because it will be completely underwater. All over the town, graffiti-like information sprayed on walls marks the date and the impending level of water, and a large sign counts down the days, next to a shop displaying a model of a brand new town to be built somewhere else. The old men in the park talked, spat and played ma jong as if nothing was going to happen. It must be so difficult to imagine that the place you have known all your life is disappearing inch by inch, and one day will be no more.

We did get to see the cause of this eerie phenomenon, a dam that will hold back the waters of the Yangtze, which have flowed fairly unhindered for tens of thousands of years. In the dusky gloom loomed a giant wall surrounded by a city of construction workers.

August 23 was a date we always had in mind to reach Shanghai because it was Arthur’s 11th birthday and this was the place where he wanted to celebrate it. We all liked the idea of something familiar, so we headed for “the tallest hotel in the world”, the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, and treated ourselves to a birthday breakfast which cost more than the previous week put together. Staring out from the 54th floor over Pudong, the Manhattan of Shanghai, it is hard to believe that the sea of skyscrapers was nothing but boggy farmland only 12 years ago. Before the communists came to power, Shanghai was an international metropolis, swarming with every aspect of humanity, good and bad. Mao and the Cultural Revolution ended all that and put some equality back into the lives of the people, but since 1990 the cycle of human divergence has begun again and, if you believe the hype, Shanghai has set it sights on being the greatest city on Earth. We stayed in the first hotel ever built in China – it also had the first light bulb and the first phone call. Perhaps we were the first family to be locked in our room because the handle came off the door.

With only a couple of days left before we returned to Beijing, it was time to reflect on our China odyssey. The girls were ready for home and dreaming of not being stared at, although Chinese takeaways may rate highly in their future diets. Arthur will miss not being the centre of attention from the thousand of Chinese mothers who wanted to adopt him. Annie and I will probably take a while to reassemble our minds back home, regain some personal space, wonder where all the people are and why no one is shouting, and we may go and buy a train ticket … just because you can.

Twenty-first century China is a phenomenon – nothing like you would expect it to be. We often imagine countries as they were in old photos or films and not as they are now. I did not find it oppressive, and most of the Chinese we met did not feel oppressed; it seems many of those outside China have an outdated concept of this nation. They are a proud, positive, industrious people, and they live firmly in the present.

With more than 1.3 billion people to contend with, China does have its problems: there is a great disparity of wealth, and environmental catastrophes are just waiting to happen. But you feel that the dynamic Chinese will solve these problems while the rest of us waffle on at Earth Summits and threaten war to protect our own interests.

It can only become easier to travel independently in China as time passes – many of the young generation speak some English, so you do not need to travel with expensive tour groups selling the mysteries of the Orient. Book a cheap flight and take the kids to see the future.

-The Guardian 30th November 2002

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