TRAVEL / Memorable Journeys: The first Chinese restaurant: Michael Wood: From Xi'an along the Yellow River

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CONFUCIUS, he say: the best bit of film-making is done without a camera - namely, the 'recce'. In June 1990, when Michael Wood had to reconnoitre the landscapes for Legacy, the television series that he wrote and presented, he enjoyed a recce to be reckoned with: down the Yellow River.

'The Yellow River - Huang He - is the heartland of Chinese civilisation,' he explained. 'It passes three of the five sacred mountains, the birthplace of Confucius and the Chinese meridian.' Almost 3,000 miles in length, it flows towards the Yellow Sea. It derives its name from the colour of soil which blows in from Mongolia. Formerly known as 'China's Sorrow' because of lethal floods, it is now tamed by dams.

There are no passenger boats making their journey downstream; Wood and his translator followed its course by hired car and by train. 'This is a journey that any visitor to China can do. Outwardly, China isn't a militarised society; what struck me was how free as a Westerner you were to travel.

'My journey started in Xi'an which has been a capital city at various times. The terracotta army is just outside it.' This is where, in 1974, thousands of life-size figures were discovered in the ground, soldiers standing guard over the tomb of the first Emperor of China.

From Xi'an they drove on to Luoyang, a former Ming Dynasty city near the Long Men caves, a gigantic Buddhist monument. Their route led between the river on their left and the mountains on their right. 'Sometimes the ridge was a whaleback, sometimes like knuckles, sometimes like jagged teeth, with fairy-tale peaks rising out of the plain,' he recalls.

'We had lunch at Hua Shan and met a couple of monks. Right by the mountains were factories with vast chimneys going straight up the side of the gorge. It is a modern city in beautiful countryside with the most awful pollution. We barely saw the sun all day.'

Song Shan, the central sacred mountain, was next. The countryside here resembles the Lake District. 'All over it in the olden days were Taoist and Buddhist monasteries. The great Kung Fu monastery, Shao Lin, is in a valley here. We also went to the temple built in 1000BC by the Duke of Zhou.'

A couple of stops down the line was Kaifeng, the capital city of the Sung Dynasty, a period during which Chinese science and printing was at its height. 'It is an out-of-the-way place now and not so modernised. This was where the Chinese restaurant culture developed. The idea of sitting down together at tables in public - and choosing from a menu with two or three hundred items - was described for the first time here.'

You can still eat at the Ma Yuxing Bucket Chicken Restaurant (Est 1153). The name derives from the legend that the establishment moved to Nanjing and then returned - taking its sauce in a bucket. They do takeaways here, too.

Crossing the vast bridge over the Yellow River, Wood drove north to Anyang, home of the semi-mythical Shang dynasty. The last king of this line was a bloodthirsty tyrant who was eventually overthrown. 'He put on his jade suit and walked into the fire. They excavated the site in the Twenties - and the stories were true. Then we pushed on to Qufu, the home town of Confucius, an absolute must. The walls were knocked down recently but you have still got the Great Temple of Confucius, one of the three great works of Chinese architecture.'

Taian is two hours drive away, below Taishan, the eastern sacred mountain. 'You walk to the temple - Taimiao - and out on to the Sacred Way. You see the wayside shrines and pagodas on the pinnacles. All of the Diamond Sutra, the famous Buddhist text, is carved on the boulders with water pouring over it.'

'It's a symbolic landscape, a landscape to Paradise. You go through the 'South Gate to Heaven' to emerge in a higher world. It leads to a big temple to the Goddess of the Mountain and, on the top, the Temple of the Lord of the Azure Cloud.

'In the evening there was a magnificent banquet given by a hotelier. They brought out the local hooch. We had toast after toast to everything from my forthcoming child to Anglo-Chinese friendship. We were plastered.'

Sobering up, he drove the next day to Tsinan, back on the Yellow River, from where he took the train to Peking and the plane home. 'Months later I went back to make the film and afterwards I felt I was leaving something of my heart there.'

(Photograph and map omitted)

Comments