The Daily Telegraph - Old China, catch it while you can
November 4, 2006

Away from the bright lights and buzz of the cities, it is still possible to find the charms of a bygone age.

All the headlines out of China are about what's sexy, shiny and brand spanking new, from the radical stadiums bubbling up in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games to the razor-sharp design and technology of Shanghai, now gearing up for the World Expo in 2010. China knows the world is watching and it is out to prove it is a modern, 21st-century competitor.

But in this race for the latest and most cutting-edge, the traditional images of China are fading away - or being bulldozed. Travelling to China to see the skylines of cranes and innovative architectural projects is undoubtedly exciting, but many travellers also have a deep-seated longing to find the classical clichés of a country. Call them stereotypes, but there is also something satisfying about seeing the timeless images, whether it is the moon-shaped gateways leading into courtyards of plum blossom, the haunting sound of the two-stringed erhu or schoolchildren cycling past in their blue and white uniforms.

I was on a quest to find the remnants of China's cultural legacy. Given the 5,000-year history of civilisation here, you could be forgiven for thinking this would be straightforward. But since the end of rule by emperor, China's heritage sites have taken a relentless beating from civil war, failed economic reforms, the utterly destructive Cultural Revolution and, more recently, rapid modernisation (to the detriment of anything in its path). There are still monuments of classical Chinese achievement - such as the Summer Palace and Forbidden City in Beijing - but they are now increasingly overrun with tourists, removing the very peace these places were meant to instil in the visitor. That said, it is still possible to touch and feel the China of old.

Here are some of my discoveries

The walled city of Pingyao in the industrial heartland of Shanxi province is exceptionally well-preserved. All four sides of its grey, crenellated walls are intact and inside are architectural styles from five centuries, including fine examples of courtyard mansions and imposing banking premises. Pingyao is located halfway along the old trade route between Beijing and Xi'an, and by the mid-19th century was China's financial heart (the country's first bank was established here). The town looks likely to grow in importance again, with the tills ringing with tourist dollars this time.
Since Pingyao attained Unesco World Heritage Site status in 1997, visitor numbers have been slowly increasing, especially as the Chinese themselves have begun to travel for fun. Ten years ago, those Chinese travelling by train were on business or visiting relatives. Now that they have more holidays and disposable income, millions of them are exploring their vast homeland. Improved infrastructure is encouraging tourism, too. A new four-lane highway connecting Pingyao with some of China's largest cities has helped to double tourist numbers in the past few years. That has brought welcome income and less welcome crowds, says Du Xiaojie, a local reflexologist, who recently opened a traditional Chinese medicine salon to cater for visitors.
"I don't like the crowds or noise," Du told me, "but I make much more money now than when my family was farming. Without the tourists, I wouldn't have any business."
Du Xiaojie soaked my feet in hot water infused with pungent herbs, offering me jasmine tea and kneading various pressure points. "Pingyao is more prosperous now," she said. "We have to be grateful for that, but we miss the old days when life was slower and we had more time to spend with family. This is the best way to stay healthy and happy."
For a medium-sized city, Pingyao still offers a peaceful retreat into a bygone era. The walls keep out the traffic and keep down the pollution that every other modern Chinese town suffers. Its six gates are closed in the daytime, allowing only bicycles, small electric carts and whirring rickshaws into the narrow lanes. Most people walk though, strolling down the main drags lined with souvenir stalls, where savvy street traders offered to write my name on a grain of rice or carve me a marble seal using Chinese characters. There are classical hotels and traditional teahouses furnished with lacquer ware and faux antiques. The Chinese are increasingly aware that they have lost much of their cultural legacy and are trying to preserve what's left, even if some of it is reproduction. In Pingyao, there is a serious effort to keep tourism development along traditional lines.
My guide, Xiao Shan Luo, affirmed that there is enthusiasm and wariness about the benefits of mass tourism: "We have so little left, we have to be careful," he told me. "You cannot find much of old China now. Pingyao may be one of the last places in the country like this."
Pingyao does still have that timeless quality about it. I walked down the back streets and narrow alleys, peeping through open front gates to see courtyards with cloistered gardens, wooden pillars, intricately carved tiles and family altars. I watched children helping to make jiaozi dumplings for supper; an old woman grinding chilli peppers on her doorstep; friends massaging each other's scalps to increase circulation; and a circle of men gambling at cards.
I do not know how long the Chinese will continue this tradition of sharing their lives on the street with their neighbours. Already in the big cities, residents are retreating indoors as their homes become nicer and the streets become busier and more polluted. But, for now, I could join locals on the pavement, eating bowls of fried rice with ginger, watching life pass by.
One of the loveliest walks in Pingyao is around the four-mile perimeter of the city walls. Between the turrets, I looked past the tiled rooftops - beyond the protective walls - at the grey blocks of flats and dreary offices. The modern buildings were pushing right up against the flanks of the Ming Dynasty walls, which are now trying to keep out a different kind of invasion. Five hundred years on, the marauding tribes have been replaced by the equally terrifying march of progress.

Water towns of the east coast
Here on the doorstep of Shanghai, I found the sleepy old canal towns of the southern Yangtze Delta. Each town is built along classical Chinese lines, with timber homes and traditional horse-head-shaped brick walls, and moon gates leading into courtyard beyond courtyard. Between the residences run cobbled paths, arching over the canals as stone bridges, brushing past the upswept roofs with decorative eaves. Cruise slowly past the waterside architecture on elegant wooden paddleboats, or take to the cobbled lanes to explore the artisan workshops. The water towns were built more than 1,000 years ago when Beijing and this region were closely linked by trade along the historic Grand Canal. Here, residents use the canals as they have for centuries, buying food from boat traders, washing their clothes in the waters and hopping in small boats to visit their neighbours.

Zhujiajiao - An easy half-day trip from Shanghai, just 30 minutes from the international airport. Zhujiajiao is a small water town with cobbled lanes, a lattice of canals and dozens of stone bridges. Stroll down Xin Road, the town's main street, where local artisans make straw hats and waterside restaurants serve up regional specialities, including beggar's chicken and chou dofu, translating to "stinky tofu".

Wuzhen - Just over an hour from Suzhou, Wuzhen was once one of the richest water towns in this region, lined with beautiful Ming- and Qing-style homes and famed for its folk arts and crafts. Wuzhen is split by modern urban growth into an east and west area. In Wuzhen East, there are workshops such as the rice wine distillery, a pottery kiln and an indigo-dying fabric centre, as well as regular performances of traditional Chinese opera and shadow puppet drama. Wuzhen West offers a hands-on cultural experience where visitors can stay overnight and enrol in activities such as tai chi lessons, instruction in Chinese calligraphy and the art of Chinese cooking. The Ancient Pharmacy offers traditional Chinese therapies, including acupressure, acupuncture, reflexology and herbal medicine treatments.

Xitang - A couple of hours' drive west from Shanghai, Xitang is famed for its arched bridges and winding streams, its whitewashed old buildings and narrow lanes, its Ming- and Qing-era architecture and unique ceilinged corridors. On Sundays the town is packed with escapees from the city, strolling and relaxing in its numerous waterside restaurants and taking in the scenes where Tom Cruise was to be seen last year during the filming of Mission Impossible III. It still has the feel and beauty of traditional China and on weekdays the pace slows further. "Xitang is like the limpid and melodious music of a flute," said an advisor working for Unesco (the town has applied for World Heritage status). "People need to appreciate it with their heart."

Old Town of Lijiang
Down in the south of China, I visited Lijiang, close to the border with Tibet. Ten years ago, the city was destroyed by a strong earthquake. The government rebuilt the Old Town, faithfully reconstructing the wooden buildings and cobbled paths from the rubble. That was a good investment. Last year, four million tourists - 10 times the local population - travelled to Lijiang.
The Naxi people, the largest local ethnic group in the region, are one of the biggest draws. They still speak their own Dongba language and use one of the world's only pictograph scripts. They seem as worried as they are grateful for the impact of tourism on their traditional way of life. One young man, Ting Hong, told me that feelings were mixed among the community. "My grandparents are not happy. We had to give up our fields because they were too close to a tourist attraction," he said resignedly. "I don't think that's fair but I can't change anything. Besides, I'm proud that so many people are interested in coming to see where we live."
For all the fears - and undoubted development - Lijiang has retained an authentic ancient feel, with rickety wooden buildings, a criss-cross of canals and a colourful market. Many of the Naxi people who live here still wear the traditional costume of embroidered navy aprons, carrying baskets on their backs. Their local orchestra is the last remaining in China able to perform ancient Song dynasty melodies, preserved through the centuries.
Forever a centre of trade and commerce, Lijiang has become one of the best places in China for souvenirs, from machine-made pashminas for £1 to handmade Naxi embroideries for more than £200. There are also restaurants serving up steaming bowls of delicious beef noodles, flavoured with numbing red peppercorns and potent chillies.
In the main square, I climbed up the stairs to the third-floor balcony of a restaurant and looked down at the hubbub. The town's rooftops spread out like waves. Beyond the Old Town, I saw the rolling Jinghong Hills and the snowy peaks of the Yuanlin mountains. Lijiang is not only a charming historical town, it is also a perfect base for exploring the countryside, as well as the rural villages, where the Naxi live mostly undisturbed.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with CTS Horizons (