Travel: From the birth of Mao's utopia to true Shangri-la

Stephen Green takes the train to the Chinese town of Yan'an - where a revolution was made

In the black-and-white museum photos, Yan'an is a barren, other- worldly place, just the right kind of setting for establishing a soviet. Spiritual purity seems to seep out of the Shaanxi hillside caves, the dusty airfield, the pictures of a young Mao lecturing true believers. Sixty-four years ago, after the Long March away from the Nationalist armies, the ramshackle remains of the Chinese Communist Party arrived here in this remote northern Chinese town, where they began experimenting with a revolution, experimenting and planning a "New China".

This was the China that its billion peasants dreamed of: agriculture freed from predatory landowners, health and education for the masses, democracy and a united people led by Mao Tse-tung. For the years before the final push towards Peking in 1949, Yan'an was the socialist capital, controlling vast swathes of northern China and providing Mao time enough to consolidate his control and formulate his own brand of Marxism. If the People's Republic of China - celebrating its 50th anniversary this October - can be said to have been born anywhere, it is Yan'an.

When I got there earlier this year, clambering off the train, people stared at me without embarrassment, obviously wondering if I had missed my stop seven hours ago, back in Xian. As I stood awkwardly arched on the bus into town, Yan'an suddenly felt less than I had expected. Naive thoughts of sandy yellow caves, clear skies sheltering that famed Pagoda, even a special "socialist" feeling were all rapidly dispelled by mud, drizzle and a town which didn't much care about history any more. The bus passed at least two disused factory compounds as we followed an empty river. The grey clouds just didn't seem able to let enough light through.

I started my one rainy day in Yan'an with breakfast: a stew of roughly sliced noodles in Ma Jun's small restaurant just down the road. I occupied one of the three tables and heaped chilli into the bowl while an old character slumped, sleeping I guessed, on table number two. Like many in modern China, Jun's husband had been laid off from a state factory, and while he pursued an undefined trade in Xian she had also taken up business.

The Chinese have coined a phrase to describe this all too universal experience - they call it to xia-hai, to fall into the sea from the safety of life in the state sector. Many learn to swim, others tread water, some simply sink. Jun was friendly, if a little bemused, as she explained things in the clearest Mandarin she could manage. The Yan'an tourist trade had died and with it the town. Her children's school had started demanding $12-a-term fees, while the restaurant business was unrewarding since everyone had plunged into this particular part of the ocean at the same time. The loss of political status had meant that the provincial government was apathetic to Yan'an's fate and Peking had long stopped relocating industry into the area. Coal-mining was one of the few options left, and you could smell it.

After breakfast I headed towards the surrounding hills, walking through the main town, across the near-empty river on some planks, through a small informal shantytown, and then up a cliff path. The town sits at the juncture of two river valleys, yet there is no greenery. From the streets the surrounding valley sides, filled with house facades, seemed to promise something more in touch with the Yan'an of the propaganda pictures. The ancient cave- dwellings cut into the mud-rock now have wooden house-fronts, fenced-off yards and often flat grassed roofs. Hatted chimneys emerge occasionally.

Thoughts of primitive purity, however, were short-lived. The gullies between the houses act as latrines for dogs and children. At the bottom of one of the paths I stopped to watch locals drawing water from an improvised well. I turned down the offer of a cup of tea from one of them as politely as possible, and wandered off.

After a number of barking dogs put me off more trekking, I turned back down to the Revolutionary Museum, a grand building full of Long March photos, maps with

criss-crossing arrow lines and the odd gun, soldier's uniform and pair of Maoist spectacles. I wandered around, casually trailing a group of young Party cadres, dominated by a guy in a cheap Godfather suit. The guide accompanying them parroted an official commentary, not even broken when she pointed out famous faces among the pictures. I recognised a short Deng Xiaoping but the others passed me by. Apart from us, the museum was empty. I bought some old postcards of Mao and his cohorts for a few pennies and stepped out into the rain.

Yanan must have been a glorious place in the days of the Chairman. Thousands of blue-suited followers would flock into the museum, take pictures of themselves in front of the giant statue of the Great Helmsman, and boast proudly of their pilgrimage at their work-unit back home. Most of China's Mao statues have now been quietly taken down - no fits of Eastern European statue-vandalism here - but this one remains, dismally grey, as though it stopped signifying anything much so long ago that it is hardly worth the effort to remove it.

Near the museum a group of low-lying buildings make up what is left of the Revolutionary HQ, the place where Mao, Chou En lai and other hallowed figures lived and worked. It resembles a little African mission compound, with simple living quarters surrounding a central meeting hall. Mao wrote many of his key essays here, and much of what he wrote was later cobbled together to form the infamous "Little Red Book".

Mention that you've actually been to Yanan to any Chinese under 30 and you'll be met by a mildly incredulous gaze. Everything it represents is foreign to modern China. It couldn't have been more quickly forgotten if it had been simply airbrushed out of the history books. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping began engineering market reforms, the Communist Party has looked to economic growth and sound management to gather support. For 20 years this quiet revolution has delivered the goods - stock markets, bankruptcies and McDonald's.

Had Yanan simply been left out of all this? I couldn't be sure. In the afternoon I went to take a closer look at the Ming dynasty Pagoda on the east bank of the river. Sitting above the sluggish mess of a town, I wondered if a propaganda department had existed in Peking, specially dedicated to reinventing this backwater as worthy of the ideological Eden that the photos portray.

But in contrast to those dreams of the 1940s, present-day Yanan is still groping, unexpectantly, for modernity. It was unfortunately the epicentre of the wrong revolution - but one day in the future, when coal finally gives way to manufacturing, when Mao tourism revives ironically and when the prosperity creeps in from the coast, it'll be Deng Xiaoping's revolution that saves Yanan and not Mao's. Whether the People's Republic of China will survive another 50 years to witness those events is quite another matter.

ON THE TRAIL OF MAO AND SHANGRI-LA

GETTING THERE

For the south-west of China, it is slightly quicker to fly via Hong Kong. For Yan'an, fly to Peking. Return fares from London to Peking can drop below pounds 400 with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) or Air China (tel: 0171-630 0919). Return fares to Hong Kong are slightly more expensive.

Getting to Kunming or Yan'an depends on time and money. Train travel can take several days (comfortable berths are best booked in advance through local travel agents). Internal flights are frequent and safer than in the past, but not as cheap as trains.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Visas are required and are available from Chinese embassies. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa. Embassy of the People's Republic of China (tel: 0891 880808; calls cost 50p per minute).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker