The hills are alive

22:14, Feb 08 2011
China
CHINA DOLL: A dancer plays her pipe during a performance in Guilin.

Every culture uses metaphor - it's how we all make myths and tell stories - but the Chinese are especially devoted to it.

I start thinking about this while staring at Elephant Hill in the southern city of Guilin.

Guilin has a big reputation in China for its scenery, which comes from its situation among countless low limestone hills. Viewed together from any vantage point in the city, these form a truly picturesque sight across the horizon, their silhouettes overlapping and fading into the sky like a sort of ink drawing.

They stand on their own in terms of beauty, is what I'm trying to say.

But here we are up close at Elephant Hill, so-named because a curved top, a hole in its base and a position by the Li River give it a slight resemblance to a pachyderm taking a drink.

Actually, some of my compadres won't even grant that - claiming they can't see the elephant at all. Thinking of Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants, I'm going to say I can see it, but I'm still struck that the image has become so locally famous.

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An hour later, and we're inside some cavernous limestone caves which have been lit up roughly the same gaudy neon hues that New Plymouth uses for its annual Festival of Lights.

Here the comparisons come thick and fast: a lion cub, a head of broccoli, a swallow, an owl, a cityscape, a butterfly. Is there any form a stalactite can't take?

"Use your imagination," our guide, Sue, says whenever we doubt her.

I'm in China for a week, and figurative leaps like these are so common, and so variable, I almost forget them as soon as they arrive. Nine painted horses on that hill? Sure. A phoenix and a dragon intertwined in that piece of pumice? Fine.

But then I don't forget them. There's something about this constant imagining which is kind of great, kind of open-minded, so I keep remembering.

My time in Guilin is bookended by brief stays in Beijing and Shanghai, which are absorbing in different ways.

Beijing means ticking off some of the more famous destinations on the planet. Hours after landing from Auckland, we're at the Forbidden City, so-named because it was no place for commoners during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1644 and 1644-1911).

Huge parties of domestic tourists, all with the same orange or purple caps on, cluster around guides with megaphones before rushing up to see the chamber-rooms of emperors and concubines.

The place is vast, containing something like 9000 rooms in a 720,000-square-metre area. Some buildings have terrific names such as The Hall of a Thousand Military Glories. I briefly consider getting a Chinese tattoo of that across my shoulderblades, with "man" replacing "hall". Then I realise what a terrible idea that would be.

The next day, we are astride the Great Wall at Mutianyu, one of several sections of the famous palisade open to the public.

It has had a lot of restoration work, but it is still something to lean against a crenellation that helped keep out a Mongol horde.

Almost as good as the wall is the little restaurant we visit nearby - a schoolhouse transformed into an eatery with big fusion meals made from local produce. I'm not sure what happened to the children, but my kedgeree is delicious.

Shanghai, on the other hand, is all about the money, as the locals will tell you. So we spend three hours bartering for knock-offs, before going to the Bund for a fancy dinner (the view is the sci-fi seen on adverts) and finishing the evening by checking out the bars in the upmarket Xintiandi district ($10 for a beer).

We eat well. Actually, that's grossly understating it. Everywhere we go in China, our party of six leaves behind an obscene amount of fine uneaten food, usually ordered by our guides who have outlandishly big appetites and matching senses of hospitality.

I'm a fish-eating vegetarian, which isn't ideal for Chinese cuisine, but I'm never hungry. We eat at a place near Tiananmen Square that specialises in faux meat, even pork belly. Then it's to an opulent Beijng restaurant designed by Frenchman Phillipe Starck, where French, Indian, Mexican and Chinese motifs combine. (Overkill is sort of the idea.)

Near Guilin, we drip into a place halfway up a mist-covered mountain that does a mean line in chilli sauce, and then we're eating on a riverboat en route to a tourist town called Yangshuo.

Actually, that boat turns out to be the one black mark on a week of good food - cold French fries are the best part of a ropey meal.

Yangshuo itself, however, is a highlight. Still surrounded by those limestone hills, we spend our evening there watching an outdoor show designed by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the same guy who came up with the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympic Games.

It's also the only place we visit where the traffic isn't oppressively bad. Elsewhere, even in Guilin (population 700,000), we spend eternities on buses just travelling what seems like a few blocks.

It's on such trips that you find out why China has such a reputation for traffic and pollution. In Shanghai, the air is so thick with brown fug that we can hardly make out buildings a few hundred metres away.

Of course, that's partly a byproduct of how much action there is in the country at the moment. I was in Shanghai in 2008, when the focus on the 2010 World Expo was just beginning, and the transformation this time around was clear: new piazzas by the Bund, new office buildings, and then all the international pavilions.

Granted, places like the Bund don't give much away about China. They're its glittering surface, but they are still great fun, and it turns out they make for good metaphors too.

Looking out to the futuristic Pudong business district, there is one tower that looks just like a bottle opener, another that looks like a psychedelic spaceship, and plenty more that could be anything else you would care to imagine.

Tom Fitzsimons travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand.

FAST FACTS

Go: To Guilin in the southern province of Guangxi. Its scenic hills are justly famous, even if the city itself is more ordinary. Take a bamboo raft trip on the river, but watch out for your shoes and pants. Venture a little further to Yangshuo, for a lively backpacker hangout.

Stay: The Shangri-La in Guilin is true luxury, while the Bamboo Garden Hotel in Beijing is a great oasis in the centre of the city.

Visit: The Forbidden City is spectacular, if a little crowded in places, while the markets on Nanjing Rd in Shanghai are worth a visit, especially if you like to barter.

Eat: Lunch at the Mutianyu school house near the Great Wall is fantastic, while for a fancy dinner and a great view, it's hard to beat Mr and Mrs Bund in Shanghai.

The Dominion Post