I first fell in love with China at school with Penguin translations of Chinese poetry, which opened up a land I never dreamed existed. I first got to see China in the early 80s. I remember most of all the hospitality of the people; that has not changed, but in myriad other respects it’s a new world since I first travelled there. Here are the places I especially enjoyed while filming The Story of China – and my hopes for their future.
CITY OF CANALS: SUZHOU
“There are two paradises on earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou,” runs a Chinese proverb. So why not visit them both in one trip? Just inland from Shanghai is Suzhou, where you can stay in a converted Ming merchant’s house. Despite
the ring of high-rise flats (I hope President Xi made it a New Year’s resolution to get a grip on planning), the old city of canals and alleys is still a delight with its pagodas, exquisite gardens, restaurants and silk shops.
LAND OF WRITERS: SHAOXING
Whizz on the high-speed train south to the West Lake of Hangzhou – and then go on to Shaoxing, China’s city of writers. Here you can stay in lovely hotel under Dragon Mountain, which was the house of the Ming Proust Zhang Dai, who wrote movingly about the last days of the Ming dynasty. It’s a nice place to stroll: visit the family house of China’s greatest modern writer, Lu Xun.
FIVE-PAVILION BRIDGE: YANGZHOU
Northwards, it’s a short hop to Nanjing, one of China’s great historic capitals, where there is so much to see. But you should also cross the river to Yangzhou, where Marco Polo lived for three years in the 1280s. There’s a beautiful heritage hotel in the middle of the old city, the Five-Pavilion Bridge (pictured above), museums, and the Puhaddin tomb and mosque on its hill, which looks over the old Grand Canal.
SACRED MOUNTAIN: HUIZHOU
This region is 500km inland from Shanghai – though reachable by plane, bus or train – and boasts the fabulous landscape of Huangshan, the loveliest of China’s sacred mountains. You can stay in old houses in the heritage villages of Xidi and Hongcun, but for a real treat, book a night in the ancient city of Huizhou, at the September Huizhou Inn: the top rooms look over the rooftops to the surrounding hills. From here, you can visit the old river port of Yuliang, and your host Wang – a Sherlock Holmes fan – can organise a boat upriver into untouched wooded landscapes and villages that are still only reachable by water.
TERRACOTTA ARMY: XIAN
Some travellers are put off by Xian, as it is very busy and very touristy, but it’s still fascinating. The Terracotta Army, of course, is a must. But there’s also the Wild Goose Pagoda, where the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang returned from India with pack-loads of manuscripts and began his great translation programme.
Take a bike round the top of the Ming walls, and explore the backstreets and the Muslim food markets. My favourite place is Xinjiao, a monastery on a wooded hillside saved from destruction in the Cultural Revolution by Zhou Enlai – the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China – himself. Xuanzang’s ashes are buried here. I just hope the urban blight of south Xian stops before it reaches this heavenly spot. (Take note, President Xi!)
HISTORIC CAPTIAL: BEIJING
If you’ve seen the “red” smog alerts closing schools and factories in Beijing, you may well pale at the thought of holidaying here – but it’s still one of the world’s most historic cities. There are so many interesting nooks and crannies, and the Altar of Heaven is one of the world’s great sites. Beyond the city are amazing things, too: the Ming tombs, the Great Wall, the Palace at Jehol [now known as Chengde]… The list is endless. And after your long day’s sightseeing, as the autumn chill descends, warm up with a hot chocolate by the lakeside in the bohemian Houhai quarter.
MOSQUES AND MANSIONS: KASHGAR
A world away from Beijing (it takes around seven hours to fly from the city), Kashgar has boomed since I first saw it in 1984, but it’s still a picturesque central Asian crossroads with mosques and mansions, and the legendary Sunday market. Stop in nearby Turfan to see ruined desert cities, the caves of Bezeklik and the Flaming Mountains.
NIGHT MARKET: KAIFENG
Finally, back to the Yellow River Plain, the heartland of Chinese civilisation: the “Middle Land” (Zhongguo) that gives China its name in Chinese. I have always liked Kaifeng, an out-of-the-way provincial place when I first stayed 30 years ago, but the greatest city inthe world 1,000 years ago during the Song renaissance. On the main street is the Buddhist Xiangguo temple with its leafy courtyards and its own temple orchestra. Plus it does excellent vegetarian lunches! But the old city is the most fun: in its warren of alleys are Christian churches, all-women mosques (with female imams) and even China’s last Jewish community. At night the market streets are crowded with little food stalls where they cook by lamplight. My only fear: that the planners will soon start knocking down Kaifeng’s delightful warren of crumbling alleys tomake a new heritage tourist site. cities, the caves of Bezeklik and the Flaming Mountains.
The Story of China continues on Thursdays on BBC2 at 9.00pm