China has its own Andrew Lloyd Webber (Week II)

A geological phenomenon in southwest China is more than 400 kilometres of towering limestone rocks covered in vegetation. It’s a spectacular landscape. Thousands of these hills soar into the sky, weathered and carved by the wind and rain, often taking on the shape of a man fishing, an elephant drinking water, or a woman feeding her baby, or eager friendly creatures looking down at you (the Chinese are wonderful for encouraging you to look at natural shapes in caves and mountains and say; ‘use your imagination, what do you see?’ ). These cone-shaped wonders become in effect a ‘forest of hills’, and their beauty is doubled as they are reflected in the River Li, which winds though them like a blue silk ribbon.

Another characteristic of the Chinese is their love of having their photograph taken. It is very hard to get an Irishman to stand in front of a camera and smile; and point a camera at an Irish teenager and he would rather leap out the window of a speeding train. But a Chinese man, woman, teenager or child will happily strike the most gushing pose, and hold a smile for ever as cameras click, clunk and whirr. My colleague Dr David O’Sullivan and I were the only Europeans on a flotilla of boats gently moving down the Li. Water buffalo looked up from the shore as we passed, and fishermen, in light bamboo boats, encouraged their black-winged cormorants to bring silver fish back to their hands.

Our Chinese passengers were as thrilled as we were by the spectacular scenery, and never tired taking photographs of themselves in a hundred poses against the changing landscape. When eventually they had exhausted every possible angle, a few got the courage to ask us if we’d mind if they included us in a picture. This started a whole new outburst of clicking and whirring as probably everyone on board (200? ) stood beside us individually or in small groups, giggling and grinning, and had yet another picture taken.

Food and water was passed around, accompanied always by the heart warming Chinese smile. The five hour trip from Guilin to Yangshou was made special because we shared the excitement, the beauty, and the serenity of this magical place.

A great symbol

The last time I was in Beijing it was a year before their Olympics, and the traffic was chaotic. Not only was it dangerous to cross the road, but cars, trucks and cyclists appeared to be in one snarling gridlock. The traffic in Beijing today has practically somersaulted for the better. Strict enforcement of allowing only certain numbered car-plates on specified days, has freed up the traffic dramatically. There is a noticeable increase of new busses, and I understand the Metro has improved. I haven’t the courage to hire a car in Beijing yet, but taxis are cheap, and speed you to your destination traffic-jam free.

Much of the city is modern, but walk down most alleyways and you see the old courtyard houses, so called because when you step through the decorated front gate, you see an open yard around which are several homes, where families live as communities. These were once the homes of civil servants, who now prefer to live in the high rise apartment blocks which dominate the skyline, and stretch into the hazy horizon.

The historic sights in this great capital city are worth seeing at least twice. The Forbidden City, so called because it was from this impressive harmony of buildings and squares, 24 emperors ruled for nearly 500 years in seclusion and mystery. The Temple of Heaven, with its perfect circular tower, where the Emperor communicated directly with the gods to ask for a good harvest. The city’s many parks with their scented trees and flowers, are filled with people sedately exercising, flying kites, waving coloured cloths from sticks, throwing hoops at each other; while streams of school children smile and wave on their way through to see the great treasures of their history.

Then, just one hour from Beijing, the Great Wall, begun 100 years before Christ, with its forts, and watchtowers, built to keep invaders out, and for the rapid transport of armies along its surface. It dominates the plains and mountains for almost 2,000 miles across northern China. Much of it has crumbled, but you can see and feel its formidable strength, and walk along its hilly ramparts for miles. There is perhaps no greater symbol of China’s abhorrence of outside interference than the Great Wall.

Immense spectacle

But the natural and unique beauty of the river Li with its thousands of hills reflected in its waters, has inspired something more than paintings and poetry. A new Andrew Lloyd Webber has developed a spectacular series of images influenced by the landscape that is attracting thousands of spectators for two shows every evening at Yangshou. Hang Yimou, the same man who presented the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics 2008, explores the culture of the people and traditions of the Guangxi Province across a two kilometre ‘stage’ on water, with the hills in the background.

Clever lighting and sound effects effortlessly make this huge panorama setting both intimate (for an charming legend of a local prince who falls in love with the moon ), and vast, dramatic, spectacular scenes include what appears to be a 1,000 fishermen in their bamboo boats fishing with long red cloths. The performance is called Impression San Jie Liu ( Google it and see what I mean ), and is a totally knockout experience of dance, music, lighting and sheer beauty. It attracts a nightly audience of 4,000. It is all perfectly organised in the Chinese manner. Busses queue to enter their allotted place, passengers wait outside their bus until they are led by an attendant with a coloured flag and their seat. As we left at the end of the show, we passed the long line of new busses waiting in order for their place to be vacated for the second show. It all works smoothly, and effortlessly. But it also signifies the new China. The Chinese love immense spectacle of this sort, and Mr Yimou has a hit on his hands. The new China encourages entrepreneurship, and Mr Yimou must be leading the band, and making a fortune.

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