Thursday afternoon we flew from Xi’an to Wenzhou, which is a southern port city that’s not on most tourist itineraries. Indeed it does not even rate so much as a mention in the Rough Guide to China, but it has a population roughly the size of London and is a major centre of manufacturing and business. We have spent two nights here at the invitation of one of our son Nick’s close friends, Eddy, whose family run a thriving men’s shoe business here. And it has been completely fascinating to see another side of modern China as well as having the chance to visit the extraordinary Yandang Mountain.
Since our flight landed over two hours late (thanks Air China) Eddy drove us straight to a very plush restaurant to meet his parents, little sister and cousins. We felt singularly under-dressed for one of the most lavish meals that I have ever eaten, with an astonishing array of seafood and other delicacies served in a private room and accompanied by the first fine wine (from France, of course) that we have had since arriving in China. The deep-fried crab was particularly good, and I hope that my appreciation was understood despite Eddy’s father having no English (and my Mandarin after a fortnight here being restricted to ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’.)
We spent the night in an exceptionally comfortable international hotel, which had me musing on the remarkable range of accommodation, from this to the desperately poor agricultural guest house, that we have stayed in over the past fortnight. Friday morning Eddy and his uncle picked us up for the two-hour drive to Yandang Mountain, south of Wenzhou and the area’s outstanding attraction.
Yandang Mountain is in fact a range of volcanic peaks in a national park. The rock has been eroded into astonishing shapes that uncannily echo the classic images of Chinese painting, and since the tops were wreathed in most when we arrived it was all beautifully evocative and atmospheric. I realise that London has been enjoying a heat wave but we seem to have been followed across China by torrential rain, and sure enough the heavens opened as we stepped out of our minibus.
The first attraction we were to see was a spectacular waterfall which involved a kilometre-long walk on a tourist trail in the woods. Although we bought plastic macs from a stall – which inevitably were far too small for us – we were drenched by the time we got to the waterfall. At least standing in the spray at its foot couldn’t make us any wetter.
After lunch in one of the local restaurants we took another path into the rocks. By this time the rain had stopped and there was a heavy humid heat. A hired English-speaking guide pointed out to us the images that could be seen, sometimes with rather a lot of imagination, in the eroded rocks: “Two elephants”, “Cock and hen fighting”, “Rhino looking at the moon”. Apparently it is very popular to come here on moonlit nights to see the silhouettes of the rock formations.
At the end of this pathway was a tall cave formed by a deep split in the rock. Inside this a Buddhist temple has been built on seven distinct stories, with a fine tall Buddha on the highest level, 403 steps up. There were other Chinese tourists around but we didn’t see any other westerners during the whole day, which somehow made the experience a little more special.
By the time we had driven back to Wenzhou there was no time once again to get changed before going to the house of Eddy’s parents for dinner. So we turned up in shorts and T-shirts, and with very wet feet. They were, however, kindness itself in welcoming us to their mansion in a gated community that has the feel of an upmarket English estate. The architecture is far closer to our Georgian ideals than it is to Chinese traditions, although the house is decorated throughout with marble and other fine stones.
Dinner was again delicious – and expansive, stretching across more than twenty meat and fish dishes that arrived without the sense of structure that we are used to. Fish followed meat followed seafood, although we did finish with a kind of warm fruit salad soup as a desert. Eddy had warned his parents that perhaps our tastes were not yet sufficiently sophisticated to enjoy chicken feet, duck heads or thousand-year-old eggs, but we thoroughly enjoyed everything offered to us. Now it’s on to Ningbo, where Nick and Eddy have been studying for the past year, and I have been scratching this out on my iPad travelling on a bullet train at 195 km/hr past Chinese paddy fields.