Travel: Leaky yurts, falling rocks and still it's a marvel

Chinese new year: MY ROUGH GUIDE
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BEST DISCOVERY

Putuoshan. It is pretty rich to talk about "discovering" anywhere in such a crowded place as eastern China, but the tiny offshore island of Putuoshan had not featured prominently in the major guide-books when I first went there, and backpackers were few and far between. The island has no private cars, no urban hubbub and is dotted with giant old temples. Benign monks loiter among the massive camphor trees in the temple forecourts, greeting the visitors who come asking the Goddess of Mercy for grandchildren. This was also the only place in China that I visited where one could talk about sandy beaches, wooded hillsides, rural hikes and ocean panoramas of blue waters and islands. Although it was January a warm sun shone, as if by miracle. I stayed in a hotel that was a converted monastery.

MOST INTERESTING HOTEL

Zhejiang Hotel, Hangzhou. Set among shining green tea plantations outside town, this hotel provides a rare flash of humour on the part of Chinese bureaucracy. One wing of the hotel used to be the private home of the now disgraced former leader Lin Biao who, as Mao's appointed heir in the early 1970s, was killed after allegedly instigating a plot against his boss. Today you can take a tour round Lin Biao's old rooms, to see the one-way windows and the soft padded lampshades (which could cause no injury if dislodged from above by assassins). What I found hilarious was that a Chamber of Horrors had been installed in the bunkers beneath the building, in an attempt to capitalise on Lin Biao's deeply sinister reputation as a doer of evil.

BIGGEST LET-DOWN

Suzhou. The fact that this city is regarded by most Chinese as the country's premier tourist attraction is more a reflection of Chinese literature and history than of current reality. It used to be a city of gardens, canals, white-washed houses and hump-backed bridges. People came here to write odes to the moon's reflection and to reflect on the mythical origins of ponds and crooked rockeries. Today, however, the gardens remain but most of the rest of the city has been bulldozed. And even though the gardens are undoubtedly classic specimens of the genre, they can seem pretty trivial to the uneducated eye.

UNBEATABLE BARGAIN

No one ever gets a real bargain in China because the local people are far too astute but one of my cheapest pleasures was taking a donkey-cart ride out of the remote oasis city of Turfan, in the north-western deserts of China. The countryside was a strange combination of Central Asia with touches of rural France; a world of dusty tracks, vineyards, wheatfields, shady poplars, running streams and smiling Uigur families. I sat on a Kashgar kilim on the back of the cart talking in bad Chinese with the young driver as we plodded round at something less than walking pace.

MOST USEFUL PHRASE

Probably "My God, your English is excellent" or possibly (if you are speaking Chinese) bu shi - "no it isn't" - which is what you should say every time anyone tells you how excellent your Chinese is. Such simple inter-racial pleasantries are a huge novelty for many Chinese and will win you a lot of friends.

MEMORABLE MEAL

During a rainy, two-day group tour of the Inner Mongolian grasslands, I stayed in a grotty, dripping yurt with a group of Japanese students and was subjected to various "authentic" Mongolian entertainments such as wrestling and horse-riding stunts.

Amid all the dross, the evening meal was the high point: a banquet in a large tent, comprising a truly colossal spread of dishes and attended by waitresses carrying silver goblets of a nauseatingly powerful white spirit which we were compelled to drink to the sound of ritual Mongolian chanting.

GREAT MISTAKE

Karakoram Highway. I learnt something rather important while attempting to cross by bus from Pakistan into China over the Karakoram Highway, namely that the bus company takes no notice of the weather, even when conditions are blatantly adverse. We set out to cross the 15,000ft pass in teeming rain and within a couple of hours had entered an area of falling rocks. The road was soon blocked in both directions, and we eventually had to abandon the bus and walk back the way we had come, in a blizzard, while attempting to dodge rocks that were flying down like bombs. Oddly enough, the fact that this must surely happen whenever there is rain never seems to prevent the buses from setting out in the first place.

BIZARRE MEETING

I visited the obscure port town of Weihai in Shandong Province to meet some contacts of an English friend called Mark who had once spent a year teaching English there. As soon as I arrived I found strangers coming up to me speaking amazingly good English. "You know Mar-Ke?" they said. "Mar-Ke is a great and famous man in Weihai. Why has he sent you?" It transpired that the whole town had been inspired by the presence of the former English teacher to extraordinary feats of linguistic excellence.

As for the people Mark had actually taught, these were now captains of industry throughout the province.

n Jeremy Atiyah is co-author of the forthcoming 'Rough Guide to China' with Simon Lewis and David Leffman. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', which is published three times a year by Rough Guides, 1 Mercer St, London WC2H 9QJ. A free 'Rough Guide' goes to the first three new subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

Putuoshan. Accessible by an 11-hour ferry trip from Shanghai, or a four-hour trip from Ningbo. The Shanghai ferry costs about pounds 13 per head in a cabin for two. On the island, the converted monastery the Ronglei Yuan Hotel costs as little as pounds 5 a bed in a four-bed room. Upmarket hotels include the Putuoshan Zhuang (doubles from pounds 40).

Zhejiang Hotel. On the road to Longjing, half an hour from central Hangzhou. Doubles from pounds 25.

Suzhou is an hour-and-a-half from Shanghai by train. A "soft" (first- class) seat costs pounds 1.

Turfan. Donkey-carts with driver can be rented in town for between pounds 1 and pounds 3 an hour.

Inner Mongolian Grasslands. Tours can be booked from the city of Hohhot, and cost about pounds 25 for a two-day tour including transport, food, entertainment and yurt.

Karakoram Highway. Buses from Sust in Pakistan to Tashkurgan, China, between May and Nov. The seven-hour ride costs pounds 15.

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