Stretching like an undulating green carpet, the rich verdant forest shimmers in the gentle breeze. Suddenly, zipping through the air, barely skimming the tops, Jen Yu, sword drawn, races to duel with her opponent Li Mu Bai in the expansive and spectacularly green bamboo thicket.
Dressed in a flowing white robe and brandishing a gleaming sword, Li, head shaven and eyes simmering with anger, is ready. As though attached to an invisible zip line, he too races towards her through the foliage.
Equally powerful and extremely lithe, the two martial arts experts aim to settle scores, taking jabs at each other, withdrawing, traipsing over slender trunks that gently bend under their weight, the tops almost kissing the forest floor, before ending up eyeballing each other between crossed swords.
An iconic scene from the 2000 blockbuster and Academy award-winning Ang Lee action movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the treetop fight sequence between Jen and Li was picturised in the Anhui Bamboo Forest, in Eastern China.
And on a misty November morning there I was — not in robes or brandishing weapons of any kind — at the base of a hill looking up at a forest called the Yixing Bamboo Sea adjoining the Anhui Bamboo forest, listening intently to the guide who I was sure had a faint resemblance to Jen.
The Yixing Bamboo Sea is a veritable feast for a city-bred’s eyes. Stretching for some 120 sq km, the national reserve includes valleys and hillocks, and is blanketed by one of the fastest-growing plants that belong to the humble grass family.
We — a bunch of international media persons on an invitation from China Daily to explore Jiangsu province — had reached the forest early afternoon. Having heard much about the natural beauty of the area, I was particularly looking forward to this section of the trip. An unabashed nature lover, few things give me greater joy than exploring, or at least wandering through, wilderness.
‘Shh,’ the guide whispered, when I asked her if it was OK to take a short walk in the forest. ‘First, listen to the breeze caressing the bamboo, listen to the leaves rustling, listen to the trunks singing… if you are in tune with nature, you can hear the bamboo sing — it sounds like a chorus.’
I removed the earphones of my music player and cocked my ears, but I guess my system’s frequency was not in sync with the bamboos’ — all I could hear was the chatter of a gaggle of school kids nearby who had arrived on a field trip.
Hoping that being closer to the plants would help me ‘hear’ their music, I stepped off the tarmac road that wound its way up the hill to a viewing platform of sorts. Making my way into the forest, I breathed in the cool, pure air, gently touching the bamboo trunks while scrunching over the dry leaves. Wisps of mist were kissing the bamboo tops and in the light drizzle together with the soft breeze that was swaying the tall plants, the forest acquired a near fairyland ambience.
A plant that can grow about 4cm an hour — don’t stretch your hammock over a bamboo shoot and take a snooze lest you be prodded out of your slumber — the bamboo is hugely popular in China. So intertwined are the lives of the local people with this plant, that they use it to build shelters, as musical instruments, to make agricultural tools... even serving its shoots as a delicacy for dinner (it’s yum).
Easily one of the most picturesque spots in our itinerary, the bamboo forest in Jiangsu is a magnet for nature and Zen lovers. It quite literally has the power to make a visitor feel better: per cubic metre of air in the area boasts more than 15,000 negative ions – way higher than other areas of China — making the forest what a tourism brochure says is ‘the largest natural oxygen bar in China’. (For the scientifically inclined, normal fair-weather negative ion concentrations are between 200 and 800. The reason the air here is cleaner than the surrounds is because negative ions clear the air of mould, pollen, bacteria, viruses and dust particles by attaching to these positively charged particles in large numbers.)
After breathing in lungsful of the air that left me with a faint buzz in the head — which could have been due to the ions or simply because I walked up the hill — I headed back to our tour bus for the next leg of our journey.
Jiangsu, part of the Yangtze River delta region in eastern China, can leave you with more than just a heady feeling. A city that smoothly fuses the ancient with the modern, it has painstakingly retained a few elements that hark back to a glorious past while firmly and proudly embracing modernity and the future.
Considered a cradle of ancient Chinese civilisation with the largest number of cultural cities and heritage sites, Jiangsu is also the most densely populated province in China. Boasting a beehive of industries, not unlike other parts of the country, the squeaky-clean, well-organised province has ‘more than 120,000 foreign-funded enterprises and over 380 Fortune 500 corporations,’ says my little handout on the province.
A bustling city, Nanjing (population 8.3m), the capital of Jiangsu province, seems to have grabbed a lion’s share of the enterprises. The Nanjing Jiangbei New Area focuses on three industries specialising in integrated circuits, biological medicine and new energy automobiles in all valued at more than $680 billion (about Dh2.4 trillion), a pamphlet handed out to me just before I stepped off the bus to tour the area, said.
Ranked third (after Beijing and Shanghai) in terms of science and education, the city has a youthful vibe thanks to it being home to 53 colleges and universities and more than 30 cutting-edge laboratories. I didn’t see a lot of students outdoors, though — perhaps they were too busy researching in all those labs.
To showcase just how far Jiangsu had moved forward in terms of research and development in the medical field, we were given a tour of the National Health Medical Data Centre.
Asia’s largest gene sequencing base, it boasts half a dozen top-notch gene sequencing firms, including Novogene and Annoroad. ‘It’s a lot less expensive to do gene sequencing here than in most countries,’ said the guide.
Sure no one would want to study mine, I stepped out after a quick inspection, looking forward to the next place on our itinerary — the Nanjing Museum.
One of three major museums in the country, the Nanjing Museum itself needs to be in a museum — it has a history that goes back almost a hundred years. Spread over 70,000 sq m, it has over 430,000 pieces of history, some of which date back to the Paleolithic age.
While the artifacts are categorised according to the various Chinese dynasties and distributed across six cavernous halls, the museum can leave history buffs wide-eyed — and with sore feet, like I had at the end of the tour. Several areas of the museum had displays of Ming vases (the only thing I could identify without reading the plaques) and porcelain crockery literally fit for emperors.
If staring at bits of clay pottery and porcelain crockery is not your cup of tea, you can race through the halls to get an overview of Chinese history, pausing to stare at, among other things, pieces of furniture from the Ming dynasty, a humongous jade body suit with gold thread, a piece of an ancient brick wall that dates back to AD420 and awe-inspiring, eco-friendly oil lamps from the Han Dynasty.
An outdoors’ person, I was keener to explore the geography of China than stare at its history, so I prepped myself for the next day’s trip to Suqian.
To the north of Jiangsu, Suqian is one of the most ancient of cities in China boasting over a hundred historical relics, parks and cultural must-sees, including the Xiacaowan new stone age relic, the Santaishan Forest Park and two amazing lakes — Hongze and Luoma — not to mention the legendary Yellow river, the second longest river in Asia (after the Yangtze).
But it is the Hongze Lake Wetland Park that I found to be just out of this world. Nestling in the midst of spectacular natural beauty, the park also houses the Qianhe Garden and among other things, you guessed it, a museum.
Next day we set off to Yixing, a four-hour drive from Suqian. Known for its clayware, Yixing has been the capital of Chinese pottery since the time of the Song dynasty, circa AD960. Also known as the world of caves, the city boasts some 80 limestone caves and has a major tourist magnet — the Bamboo Sea scenic area.
A trip to Yixing is incomplete without experiencing the region’s rich tea culture. The tea gardens of Longchi Mountain are a sight worth enduring the hour-long bus ride from the city. A gentle drizzle had started almost as soon as we exited the bus for the short walk up a hill to a tea restaurant. Brushing past rows and rows of tea bushes that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, it was a sheer delight to stop to watch the mist gently rolling in from the east before settling on the tea bushes to lend the area an ethereal feel.
While many preferred to view this spectacular scene on a five-inch smartphone screen, I junked devices determined to enjoy the totally immersive experience capturing the moment only on my mind’s memory card.
A dance by masked performers was a precursor to the culturally rich tea ceremony. Towards the end of a detailed lesson in the elaborate tea ceremony by a hostess — which included pointers even on the right way to sit while the tea was brewing (on the floor or a cushion, legs folded under you, back straight) — I silently slipped out to meet and chat with the performers, albeit through an interpreter.
Next stop was the Qianshu Longyao Kiln. Dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties and shaped like a dragon, it is the only kiln that still fires pottery by traditional methods. Unfortunately for us, there wasn’t much work happening there on the day of our visit; instead, however, there was a lot of activity in another area. A traditional Chinese opera show was on followed by an extremely energetic dragon dance. Keen to be part of it, I along with a few tourists joined the tail end of the dragon, stomping our feet and giggling like school kids at an amusement park.
The penultimate day of our return offered one of the most fascinating and mind-expanding experiences of the trip — a romp through the Tianzhuang Ancient Street in Zhangjiagang. One of the most important cultural heritages of China, the street dates back to the 14th-century Ming dynasty. With small shops and houses lining narrow alleyways paved with stone, a walk down the street will instantly transport you to a time gone by.
Follow your nose to bakeries that continue to use ancient tools and kilns to bake delicious bread and stuffed buns. I did. The owners — an elderly couple — smiled and gestured to me to wait for a few minutes before they handed me a fresh-out-of-the-oven flat bread with herbs and creamy cheese — not unlike a manakish. It was melt-in-the-mouth sumptuous.
I quickly placed an order for two more. I offered one to Steve, a journalist from Thailand who was with us and was busy photographing the street and its people. He munched on it then turning to me said, ‘Really nice.’
Popping the last bit of the bread into my mouth, I thought to myself how perfect it would be with a bowl of chicken with bamboo shoots.
Getting there: China Southern Airlines has regular flights from Dubai to Nanjing and Shanghai.