China: Striding in the steps of Kublai Khan

By Jim Eagles

Pink dragons and magnificent history go side by side at Lanzhou, writes Jim Eagles.

Workers restore the old temple. Photo / Jim Eagles
Workers restore the old temple. Photo / Jim Eagles

Halfway up Bai Ta Mountain a group of workmen were sitting on the roof of an ancient pavilion having a ciggie break.

The old tiles had been stripped off the roof leaving just the bare rafters, but the colourfully decorated eaves, with their intricate designs intended to keep evil spirits at bay, and the walls, beautifully painted with birds and flowers, showed this to be a building of age and distinction.

I was puffing a bit, after slogging my way up the steep path, so I was glad of the excuse to stop, check out the skeleton of a traditional Chinese building and see something rare in New Zealand: people smoking on the job.

There was an equally interesting view below with the mighty Yellow River at the foot of the mountain and the bustling city of Lanzhou rising from the haze on the opposite bank.

These days Lanzhou has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted place in China, but there are still remnants of the years when it was a key stopping point on the Silk Road.

In the superb Gansu Provincial Museum, for instance, there are ancient statues of camels, horses and carts, displays of the equipment used by the traders, the musical instruments they carried with them, samples of the goods they traded and exhibitions about civilisations along the route.

The undoubted star of the show is a magnificent bronze of a galloping horse on the back of a flying swallow - known as the Flying Horse of Wuwei - which dates from 25BC and has been chosen as the symbol of Chinese tourism.

But I was also impressed by a beautiful piece of patterned silk, produced during the Western Han dynasty some 2500 years ago, which would surely have had customers in Europe reaching for their gold pieces.

There's more of the city's storied past to be seen along the banks of the Yellow River though, inevitably, most of what's on offer is very modern, including tourist attractions, fun parks, cafes and a couple of giant pink dragons a few hundred metres long.

Among the attractions is a reconstructed water mill which has two giant waterwheels to raise water from the river about 5m into a wooden shoot and uses that to power a millstone. For a few coins I was allowed inside the millhouse where I was able to tip kernels of corn on to the revolving stone and watch it ground into a fine meal.

Next to the mill a whitecapped Hui man - a member of the local Muslim minority - was offering rides down the river on an extraordinary raft made out of inflated pig skins. According to him this was a traditional kind of boat but I didn't feel tempted.

Instead we walked across the oldest bridge across the Yellow River, the Zhongshan Bridge built in 1907, and climbed a steep path to the most famous of Lanzhou's relics, the 800-year-old White Pagoda, probably built on the orders of Kublai Khan, high on Ba Tai mountain.

The path up the mountain was quite a challenge to my old legs, especially on a wet, humid day, and to be honest the white pagoda turned out to be light brown and not particular exciting to look at.

But there was plenty to see in the other buildings along the path.

The highlight for me was seeing the reconstruction work on the old temple. It was all very authentic, with not a power tool in sight.

In fact, if it hadn't been for the fact that the workers were wearing hard hats and overalls, it would have been easy to imagine they were toiling away on behalf of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan ... that and the cigarettes they were puffing away on, because in 1638 use or possession of tobacco was made a crime punishable by decapitation.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times a week between Auckland and Singapore, and then onwards to 62 destinations in 34 countries, including China.

Getting around: World Expeditions operates its Silk Road expedition from Beijing to Samarkand via Lanzhou in April, May, August and September. Ring 0800 350 354 or visit the site for more information.

Jim Eagles travelled the Silk Road with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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