Adelaide travel writer Vince Ross takes us on a journey beyond the bright lights of Shanghai and Beijing through a provincial China which is as fascinating as it is enticing.
Like the silhouette of a beautiful woman seen through a silk screen, China has the ability to captivate the senses like few countries in the world.
I think it has something to do with its heady combination of modern dynamism and history, its ability to aggressively pursue its future while celebrating and deeply respecting its past
It is an impressive mix that was made obvious on a road trip through Henan and Shanxi Provinces, China’s heartland.
Away from the international showpieces of Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong, my wife Lee-Anne and I expected to see modest villages and rural farmlands. That we did.
But we passed through those vistas on wide, endless freeways alive with modern vehicles (particularly black Audi’s, made in China, of course), trucks, tankers and heavy equipment.
They were heading to – or coming from – regional cities that easily dwarf little Adelaide (where we live), and its 1.2 million people.
These regional cities all had the concrete skeletons of high-rise buildings collectively shooting from the earth like asparagus. Yes, China’s economic success story is impressive.
But what impressed us more was its people’s reverence of the past.
And coming from a country like Australia, which has established a niche on this planet over little more than 200 years, China has a lot of past.
Its cultural fabric has been woven over thousands of years, and if you want to appreciate where China has come from, there’s no better place to start than its cultural touchstones, the temples, grottoes and shrines of one religion above all others – Buddhism.
In China, despite its suppression by the communist government from the 1950s to the 1980s, Buddhism has existed, and since the death of Chairman Mao Tse Tung in 1976, has flourished within a rapidly changing social and political climate.
Today, estimates place the number of Chinese Buddhists at anywhere between 660 million and 1 billion people. The depth of these religious roots is breathtaking.
We loved the White Horse Temple, built in 68AD. Twelve kilometres from Luoyang in Henan Province, Buddhists throng to pray on the first and 15th day of every lunar calendar month, marked morning and afternoon by processions of chanting, shaven-headed, orange-robed monks.
But if the Shaolin Monastery and Temple complex, 80km south-west of Zhengzhou, founded in the 5th Century, is impressive, and the Longmen Grottoes, carved into cliff faces on both sides of the Yi River, 16km south of Luoyang, over a 200-year period from 494AD, is amazing, then there is only one word to describe the Hanging Monastery, built into the side of a cliff hundreds of metres above the floor of Jinlong Canyon, 75km south-east of Datong.
The beautiful monastery, its ancient artwork including ageing timber panels painted with friezes of singing birds, appears delicately balanced in the face of the winds that roar through the canyon.
We fell in love with it. It is exquisite.