Friday, September 02, 2005

Something Old, Something New

Hubei province isn't much of a tourist destination, but it contains two places that I have wanted to see since the start of the trip. The first is the mountain temple complex of Wudang Shan. I've met many people who haven't heard of it, but to any aficionado of kung fu movies they will instantly recognise it as the birthplace of Taijiquan (or T'ai Chi) and the perennial adversary of Shaolin (to hip-hop fans the name may be recognisable due to a famous rap band/posse/crew?). And because everybody goes to the Shaolin monastery I had to check out Wudang Shan and its crazy Taoist monks. The mountain monastery complex (remember, shan means mountain in Chinese) is very pretty with the requisite number of cliffs, peaks and isolated temples, most dating from the 15th century; unfortunately it's undergoing a major refit with tons of workers and scaffolding all around, which slightly detracted from the whole spiritual atmosphere that one expects after seeing the ending of Crouching Tiger. The place was also lacking in T'ai Chi masters jumping buildings in single bounds and fighting evildoers, though the town at the foot of the mountain has a sizeable foreign community made up of new-ager types learning martial arts from local, wizened masters (I even met this Australian guy who was planning to stay for 3 and a half years!). The town also has a nifty street of shops specialising in swords, spears, halberds and other metal, pointy objects whose main purpose is to hurt, maim and dismember (pretty cool actually). However, most people that you ever see practicing T'ai Chi are of the geriatric variety and they don't look very threatening at all. Actually you see a lot of these older T'ai Chi practitioners throughout China, especially in the earlier hours of the morning hogging the parks, and some of them are remarkably supple.

So that's the old. The new is close to the town of Yichang. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised as it's a town of only 4 million inhabitants, which is rather paltry for China (personally I'm intrigued as to what all these people actually do). The town is grim and boring, but it is the gateway to the 3 Gorges Dam, the world's largest construction project. (For the pedants out there the dam will be the largest in the world with the highest peak electricity generation capacity, but will lie in second place behind the Itaipu dam for annual production. That way both will be able to claim to be the biggest.) The sight of it was definitely impressive as it loomed out the haze that has been following me for the past couple of weeks. The haze made it impossible to see the entirety of the dam which gave it an almost ethereal, otherworldly quality. Being the organised fellow that I am I thought I could just turn up and be shown around the construction site by a personal guide ... and I wasn't wrong. Sort of. Officially you have to book on a tour, but the people in the next-door town have a nice little cottage industry going on showing tourists around by taking them through the "back door". So there I was clambering over barbed wire fences and wriggling through holes in walls, which was probably as exciting as seeing the actual building site itself. I'm still undecided about the dam itself. On the plus side it will produce the equivalent of 18 nuclear power stations-worth of electricity, may help ease flooding downstream and allow oceangoing vessels to sail 600km further upstream. On the downside it has hidden what was unarguably one of China's natural wonders and there is a possibility that the whole thing will silt up in the not-too-distant future. But then, that's the price of progress I suppose.

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