This Green Land

Written by May 12, 2006 12:05
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Martyr's Park

Changsha has to be the absolute greenest of provincial capitals in the whole of China. It's the one place in the country where the near-jungle of the countryside seems to lie forever poised to leap on the metropolitan areas and overtake human developments. Wandering through Changsha's suburbs, you can feel it: the crackle of leaves bursting through the boughs of trees above, the moss creeping over old stone homes with ivy on its back. The people too seem to dash about the city like many legged things, and it causes one to wonder if the spicy food they gulp down like motor fuel acts as a propellant for the fervour and bravado in their character.

As such, Changsha is an ideal place to enjoy Chinese public parks. Changsha is full of green spaces, and the parks are exceptionally verdant. Martyr's Park, in the northern central suburbs, is a superb case in point - entry is free (a gate to the north and the south are both serviced by bus route 303) although some attractions within the park have their own door charge. The most compelling of these is the Flower Show and Costume Exposition just inside the north gate, which charges RMB 10. All kinds of flowers bloom about the walkways, and traditional houses styled on Chinese ethnic minority architecture grace the open areas. Within these, traditional garments from each of China's minority peoples are displayed in cases, and some are worn by actors who perform a dance show every day.

Not far from here, a great lake lies open to the sky, densely populated with boats in good weather. Having seen many parks on traditionally decorated lakes in China, I can vouch for the fact that this one's a particular beauty. Strolling along the lakeside is quite invigorating: there's a tall pagoda overlooking the water, nicely balanced by the Changsha TV tower behind the trees on the shoreline - and small marble bridges cross the islets. A large, odd-looking covered bridge is especially spectacular.

The monument after which the park takes its name - the Martyr's Memorial Obelisk - is a nice marker but not the park's greatest attraction. Commemorating those fallen to win freedom for all Chinese people, at the base visitors can sit on the perfectly sculpted grass areas and play at the fairground attractions gathered in the vicinity. Martyr's park is a most charming escape, and one of Changsha's best-kept jewels.

Aiwan Pavillion

One thing about which Hunanese people are eminently proud is the fact that the great leader of the Chinese people, Chairman Mao Zedong, is a native of the province. It's in Changsha that he studied, in the university right on the western bank of the Xiang river, and here where he began to realise his destiny as one of the most influential people in Chinese history.

Even the greatest amongst us - and perhaps they in particular - have need for moments of solitude, and in that regard, we all have our favourite places for being alone to reflect. Mao was lucky in that close to his university was the ideal spot - a small, beautiful construction on a densely forested mountain park just behind campus - Yuelu Shan - called the Aiwan Pavillion.

Yuelu Shan is an exceptional location with manifold sightseeing attractions, and the complex of natural forest and traditional buildings stretches a good way above the river banks. Park entrance is RMB 15 and visitors will be at leisure to explore the entire reserve, with more than enough to entertain for a full day.

Entering from the east gate - in the park's northeastern corner - will lead visitors to a cable car that will carry them close to the summit of Jianfeng Shan, seemingly the highest point in the region, and with an enchanting view of the Xiang river. It's also close to the city's broadcasting antenna, a weird construction which itself is visible from the river and makes an odd protrusion onto the skyline.

Most visitors, however, will choose to enter the park from the southern gate - the entrance is right next to the campus where Mao studied, and is within a short walking distance on a forgiving upward slope to the Aiwan Pavillion.

For me, it was my first time to see the pavillion or the park at all, and so I was very curious as I made my way through the southern gate. I'd already been quite charmed by the look of the park, and fancied I could already feel some connection with the father of Chinese Communism, taking the same path he would have up from the university, watching out to my left and right as the reserve's brush and forest seemed to press closer and closer. The park's plantlife is positively jungle-like, and the further I trod, the more I felt far away from the rush of modern Changsha behind me. Mao would have been alone; I shared the road with a crowd of travellers looking for the same insight as was I. Despite this, I felt as lonely as a visionary seeking solitude, for amongst those heavy trees, I felt irremediably quietened in spirit.

I certainly hadn't expected the pavillion to be as small as it is - it's been made too much of by the Party as a political shrine to a beloved leader. This in no way detracted from the loveliness of the thing - a simple, one-level platform decorated with bright red pillars and a pretty traditional canopy - in the centre was a simple stone table and four short benches around each side. I'd seen many such places in China, and superficially this was no different. Sitting, however, at the table, one can see very clearly the stone tablet which has been set in the ceiling and which features Mao's calligraphy - a poem by China's poet laureate Du Fu, after which the pavillion takes its name, which means 'Lovely Evening Pavillion' or 'Loving the Evening Pavillion'

There's no reason to wait until evening to enjoy the Aiwan Pavillion - with its surrounding delicate green woods, the outspread surface of a pond swelling with willow fronds before it, and the otherwise quiet and luscious scenery, it's easy to understand why Mao himself felt at peace here, poised as he was on the outset of his fate as the liberator of China from foreign and domestic oppression.

The Aiwan Pavillion takes around 10 minutes to get to from the southern gate, but after a half hour's reflection here, there's no reason why not to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Yuelu Shan. There are a few other pavillions and monuments, and a small temple not far from the Aiwan Pavillion called the Lushan Temple - next to a small spring. Yuelu Shan is full of these - towers, old burial sites and traditional structures - perhaps this is the one single place in Changsha where a visitor will feel, much as I did, in the middle of a Chinese fairytale garden.

Xihu Lou

I've always wondered why it is that, with so many extraordinary examples of traditional Chinese architecture to be found all over the country, modern architecture in China is so uniformly bland. Stocky concrete apartment blocks have gone up all over the north, and in Beijing every single street is almost indistinguishable from the others. Throughout the south, tall straight buildings thrust stubbornly into the skies, covered in bathroom tiles and looking about as smudged as a grubby bathroom at that. Why not revive the classic curves and sensuous lines of the olden days, when every important building was a masterpiece and every tower as gracious as a temple?

Someone in Changsha stole my idea, much to my delight, and I was lucky during my stay in the city to not only see the place, but to dine there. Xihu Lou (West Lake Tower) is a complex on the scale of a palace - and looking exactly like one too - and it's all one big restaurant. As I was being driven through the northwestern suburbs of Changsha, I couldn't help but notice it - bright, red, fresh, and enormous - it stuck out from the grey-white suburban blur and I enquired if it was a museum. No, I was told, it was where we were having dinner

We passed through the main gates, which were not unlike something at the Forbidden City, and ascended to the stairs where we were to catch our first glimpses of the restaurant's central lake - they seriously have constructed a lake amongst the individual towers that make up the restaurant - its waters a deep, natural green, and diners can even see traditional Chinese gondolas on its surface.

Waitresses were clad in old Qing period garments, and willows swept their boughs over ornate rock formations at the edge of the water. Walkways, bridges and lantern-lit pathways led between the dining chambers, decorated with fine, antique-style furniture. Being a vegetarian, I was seated next to one of the guests of honour - the head Buddhist monk from the Shaolin Temple, no less - and we sat discussing the finer points of Buddhism and traditional Chinese culture as servants from another age delivered exquisite dishes on fine porcelain.

Dinner at Xihu Lou isn't suitable for everyone's budget - but I was much pleased to have my visit to Changsha end on such a refined note. It reminded me that the culture of the ancient buildings I loved to visit throughout China is still alive today, and could at any moment create afresh those exquisite styles of long ago.

 More Changsha Travel Reviews
1. On the First of May MISHEN from NZ May 6, 2006 08:05
2. Great Wall KEVINWARDCFC from IE Apr 24, 2006 04:04
3. Before Recorded Time in Hunan MISHEN from NZ Oct 22, 2005 11:10
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