Friday, November 27, 2009

Gastronomic Tour

CHINESE cuisine is renowned for its eight major distinctive styles: the cuisines of Shandong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu in eastern China; Anhui and Hunan in central China; Sichuan in western China; and Fujian and Cantonese cooking in southern China. Each style has anything from dozens to hundreds of delicacies developed over many centuries.

Differences in climate, environment and ingredients mean each city makes distinctive dishes based on a traditional menu, ranging from West Lake fish in vinegar gravy and fried shrimps with Longjing tea in Zhejiang, to wontons and Chongqing hot pot in Sichuan. Moreover, each family develops special recipes according to individual tastes. It is no exaggeration to describe the variety of Chinese food as almost infinite.

In recent years, thanks to a more stable and affluent lifestyle, people's desire to explore China's various cuisines has grown, and there are now more than 4 million restaurants across the nation. Cooks are devoted to the study of culinary art, and search through the old to bring forth the new.

However, behind the prosperous Chinese food industry, gastronomists worry that the distinctive characteristics of various cuisines are being obscured and regional differences are slowly fading.

Delicious Cantonese Cuisine

Cantonese and Sichuanese cuisines are the only two styles that still retain their authentic tastes. To have real Cantonese cuisine, you must go to Guangdong or Hong Kong.

Located in south China and facing the South China Sea, the subtropical climate makes Guangdong ample in rainfall, evergreen in seasons and abundant in food products. The freshness of ingredients in Cantonese cooking is an absolute priority.

If you want to eat like the Cantonese, a Guangdong-style breakfast is a must. In recent years it has expanded to more than 1,000 varieties, though each restaurant commonly provides a choice of not more than 20 dishes. These usually include shrimp dumplings, chicken feet, barbequed pork buns, starch sausages, and various forms of congee and noodles.

Shrimp dumplings and chicken feet are particularly noteworthy specialties that are not only popular, but are considered indicative of a restaurant's overall quality.

According to historical information, shrimp dumplings originated in the 1920s in Wufeng Village on the outskirts of Guangzhou. The area was rich in seafood products, so the boss of a local family teahouse made use of these readily available ingredients. He took fresh shrimp meat as stuffing and high-quality glutinous rice flour as a wrapper, and made delicious shrimp dumplings. The dish was so popular he couldn't meet demand. Over time shrimp dumplings have become one of the most representative snacks in Guangzhou teahouses.

While fresh shrimp meat is undoubtedly the major selling point of this dish, the quality of the wrapper should not be overlooked. Unlike dumplings in northern China that use flour, the outside of shrimp dumplings are made with the material obtained from scouring off wheat gluten. Consequently the wrapper is white and fine, and slightly transparent after steaming. If the wrapper is thin enough, the pink stuffing will be partly visible, making one's mouth water.

Although shrimp dumplings are the basic refreshment for every Guangdong teahouse, their making demands quite challenging workmanship. First, the materials must be of superior quality. Authentic stuffing consists of both raw and cooked shrimp meat, fat and shredded bamboo shoots. Processed flour with lard, salt and water also feature in the mix. As mentioned above, the wrapper should be thin and transparent, and the finished dumpling wonderfully juicy in texture.

To please hungry diners, today's cooks stress the size and integrity of the shrimps, but tend to ignore the other ingredients. To suit modern healthy diets, the indispensable lard has been greatly reduced, or in some cases is no longer added. As a result, the texture often becomes dry and dull.

The shrimp dumplings in Guangzhou's Flory City Restaurant are generally recommended by connoisseurs. Although the price of RMB 30 for six dumplings, or RMB 18 for three, is a tad expensive compared to average prices in Guangzhou, the dumplings are of superior quality.

Much like Guangdong's dumplings, the texture of chicken feet is unique. There's not much more to them than bone and marrow, and people generally don't regard the feet as a dainty dish.

Throughout its 2,000-year history, Guangdong food has been based on maintaining the taste of the primary ingredients, so supplementary materials that cover the central flavor are usually avoided. Chicken feet are an exception. They are usually deep fried and pickled with fermented soybeans, oyster sauce, soy sauce and other strong spices before being steamed. The resulting soft texture and dense flavor means people can't help salivating.

Fine materials, excellent skills and fresh tastes are the cornerstones of Cantonese cuisine. Since there are more than 4,000 famous dishes from this southern province, it's hard to really give a summary of the wealth of delicacies on offer.

Spicy Sichuan Cuisine

"Spicy" is usually the first impression diners have of Sichuan cuisine, but actually authentic Sichuan food should be salty. Chongqing dishes still maintain the area's original salty taste, while Chengdu cuisine has evolved over hundreds of years into today's well known spicy fare.

Located in a basin in west China, Sichuan is mild and moist in climate, with little difference between day and night temperatures. Ancient people in the area had to pickle food with salt to preserve it. Spice was then added to increase its delicacy.

Another explanation for the local food's spicy nature is that pungent seasoning helped cover strong smells. Beef and mutton have long been a major part of Chinese people's diets, so strong seasoning was commonly used to remove the odors produced by these meats. With the evolution of agriculture and poultry breeding, the importance of covering unpleasant aromas has faded. Sichuan's damp climate remains an issue however. Gastronomists believe eating chili can help drive away the "chillness and moisture" that characterizes the local air by accelerating blood circulation and warding off damp vapors. Spice also stimulates one's system, making it an "effective medicine to cure depression" in a province where winters are often clammy and foggy.

In recent years, urbanites across China have become addicted to the "excitement" of chili, and Sichuan-style cooking has become popular everywhere. As a result, Sichuan restaurants are now common in most Chinese cities and towns.

Chengdu cuisine is the center of Sichuan cooking, and has become a synonym for luxury. This is evident not only in the sumptuous decoration of local restaurants, but also in the city's food, which has become known as "New Sichuan cuisine." The best area to sample the latest in Chengdu cooking is Xiyanxian. The Chengdu hot pot on Qintai Road is also considered very authentic, while the Chuandonglaojia Restaurant near Laochengguan Road is well known for its more traditional Sichuan fare.

Twice-cooked pork is a must-eat home-style Chengdu dish that embodies the essence of Sichuan cuisine. The famous dish derives from ancient offerings. Pork placed on altars as an offering was usually lightly cooked, and after the ceremony it was unwise to stew the cold meat again. Instead, people would quick-fry it, stirring the meat with garlic shoots. Hence the name twice-cooked pork.

To make genuine twice-cooked pork you must use rump meat, green garlic shoots, broad beans from Pixian County, fermented soybeans and 10 other supplementary materials. The size of the pork slices is also important. It should be three cm long and 0.3 cm wide. The meat should be stewed until it is medium rare. It is also important to get the temperature of the oil and seasonings just right during the stir-frying to achieve the perfect color, aroma and taste.

Elegant Zhejiang and Jiangsu Cuisine

Hangzhou and Suzhou are the centers of Zhejiang and Jiangsu cuisines respectively. Chefs in both places pay close attention to freshness and tenderness. The key difference between the two styles is that Zhejiang cuisine involves more vinegary tastes, while Jiangsu cuisine is sweet.

The two adjoining provinces have formed China's most prosperous and richest area since ancient times, and have long attracted wealthy merchants and scholars. The climate is mild and humid, and numerous rivers ensure there are plentiful ingredients available.

Songhelou Restaurant on Suzhou's Shantang Street is the best place to enjoy Jiangsu cuisine, and Louwailou Restaurant near Hangzhou's West Lake is best for Zhejiang cuisine. Both Zhejiang and Jiangsu cuisines place great emphasis on offering diners a pleasing environment in which to eat, but elegant scenes are hard to find these days in the busy urban districts of Hangzhou. Even the time-honored Songhelou Restaurant is now surrounded by the bustle and noise of the city's busy downtown area. In contrast, Louwailou Restaurant is surrounded by a pleasing environment of hills and lakes.

Gastronomists also recommend another restaurant on Longjing Road, called Yiyuan Longjing Manor. This picturesque private manor is surrounded by a concentrated dose of Hangzhou scenery. There is no menu and diners need a reservation. All food materials are purchased directly from farmers, and dishes are cooked using firewood and without additives, gourmet powders or sugar. Meals are meticulously prepared, with the pork braised in brown sauce for three days and the duck stewed for a whole afternoon. Sixty staff members labor to provide exquisite meals for just 12 tables a day.

Among China's eight famous styles of cooking, "classical" Shandong cuisine has now melted into the new school of Beijing flavors. Anhui and Hunan cuisines have similarly blended with Sichuan dishes and lost their distinctive color.

Coupling and Uncoupling Chinese Style

DECADES ago, in the era of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), love and marriage bore a heavy political burden; the little red book (Quotations of Chairman Mao) was presented in place of a wedding band, or generally served as a token of love and engagement. Imagine how outlandish it seems to young people today to read love letters that pine: "I hope you can arrange your work, study and life well, so as to sustain your ideals and revolutionary zeal, and not degrade into an uncouth and lowly person." But such sentiments were typical 40 years ago in decent young men and women, who often delivered revolutionary pep talks instead of whispering "sweet nothings."

The 1950s: Untying the Knot

Marriages were mostly arranged by parents in the days before the founding of the PRC in 1949, often with the help of go-betweens. Many newlyweds saw their better half for the first time on the night of the wedding. Polygamy was also widely practiced in these times, but in 1950 New China brought down its first legal instrument to establish monogamy and protect freedom of choice in partnering – The Marriage Law.

The law stipulated: "In cases wherein one party insists on a divorce, a permit shall be granted after mediation efforts by the relevant people's government and judicial department fail." The blowback was a surge of divorce suits in the early 1950s. According to research conducted by Yue Qingping, a professor at Peking University, in some places divorce cases accounted for as much as 90 percent of all marital legalities. Furthermore, records show that by the middle of 1952 New China handled a total of 993,000 divorce cases, most of them involving arranged unions.

In the decade following, the new marriage freedoms and a more equitable family life style gradually prevailed as the norm in China. However, mainstream ideology still encouraged young people to subordinate their personal affairs to the needs and interests of the nation, and young people became secretive and reticent about their romances. Zhang Yongchuan, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was a student at Central China Engineering Institute in the mid-1950s, and his wife was his schoolmate at the time. He recalled that he could only manage dates with his lover at the school balls, and behave towards her much as he would to any other schoolmate. Campus romance was forbidden, and violators were expelled.

The 1960s and 1970s: Married to the Revolution

Not long after the Chinese broke from the shackles of the feudal tradition, love and marriage became rooted in the political drama that followed. Now they had the choice, the criteria young men and women used to assess a future spouse were "redness" and "expertise" – a sound and spotless political background as well as special working skills. Love letters of the period were also full of revolutionary vernaculars. Some families even broke up under political pressures. For example, a wife from a worker's family would divorce her husband from a capitalist family in order to cut any connection with adverse political ties, thus protecting her children from discrimination by association. Sociologist Wu Changzhen summarized, "Couples divorced in the 1950s mainly to shake off arranged marriages, in the 60s to sever unwanted class ties, and in the 1970s to get away from the wrong political factions."

Sex was insignificant in choosing a marriage partner during that period. For most people, "sex" simply meant continuity of the family line, and carnal knowledge wasn't widespread. Extramarital sex was an ethical crime of sorts, met with severe punishment. One of the earliest post-"cultural revolution" films, Corner Left Unnoticed by Love (1981), represented such a period: in the plot a young man and woman in the countryside fall in love, and one thing leads to another. Discovered by villagers, the woman commits suicide and the man is imprisoned as a rapist. The movie won the 1982 Golden Rooster, the highest film accolade in China.

The 1980s and 1990s: Secret and Illicit Loves

The movie Love on Lushan Mountain (1980) broke the taboo against kissing that arose during the "cultural revolution." The scene rekindled the nation's passion for liberty in affairs of the heart, and the first to jump on the bandwagon were the college students, who worshipped love as the point of existence. Though courting on campus was still forbidden at the time, many students conducted romances under the radar, finding reasons to study together and hiding their love letters in books. When night fell, they stole out to find quiet and private spots for their trysts.

The Marriage Law was revised for the first time in 1980, and certain legal requirements for divorce were dropped. Correspondingly, beginning in the 1980s, China's divorce rate continued to climb – from 341,000 pairs in 1980, to 800,000 pairs in 1990, and to 1.2 million pairs in 2000, according to Professor Wu Changzhen. Though people had more freedom to legally split from a spouse, ethical adjudication still held sway at the time. Professor Wu cited a case he came across where a teacher had a long-term extramarital affair going and appealed eight times to the local court for a divorce; each time he was rejected for "lack of evidence proving the emotional breakdown of the couple."

In 1983, China enacted the first marriage law that dealt with Chinese-foreign couples. At the time many people resorted to unions as a way to go abroad, and most cases involved young Chinese women and much older foreign men. "An age difference of 25 years was commonplace," recalled Zhao Xiuying, who worked for 22 years as a clerk at the Chinese-foreign marriage registration office of the Shanghai Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau.

In 1977 when Shanghai came across its first case of international marriage registration, the local civil affairs bureau rejected it until Deng Xiaoping personally intervened. Only a year later the city registered 148 Chinese-foreign marriages, and the figure has topped itself every year since. The registration process was very complicated then, requiring approvals from different government departments, and even references from the workplace and neighborhood committee of the Chinese applicant. It usually took a month before any couple was awarded their marriage license.

New Millennium: Tolerance and Privacy

Sociologist Li Yinhe considers the period from the late 1990s to the early 21st century a watershed in love and marriage, a time when the Chinese experienced a social revolution that included attitudes toward sex. Courting and emotional attachment came out of the closet, and the Internet played a significant role in the process. An extensive marriage survey was conducted between 1996 and 2000 by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences involving 800 couples in Shanghai, Gansu, Guangzhou and Heilongjiang. Results told the tale that 3 out of 4 married couples tied the knot within half a year of dating. In 2007 students from the School of Psychology of Beijing Normal University conducted street intercept interviews in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and found that 10 percent of the 1,204 married respondents got to know their spouse through Internet chatrooms.

In this period, dating on campus became common, and premarital sex was tolerated. In 2008, the Shanghai Andrology Research Institute questioned 5,234 students in 14 colleges and universities in the city. More than half of them had dated; 81.4 percent declared they were not against premarital sex; and 20.2 percent of men and 10 percent of women admitted they had engaged in sex.

Love and marriage became increasingly a private matter, reflected by changing marriage registration procedures. Before 2003, all marriages and divorces had to obtain a letter of certification from the applicants' workplace or neighborhood committee. Today, only a residence booklet and ID card are required for a marriage license, and an additional certificate gets you a divorce. The registration process in both cases takes no more than 20 minutes.

In the 1990s, keeping a mistress became vogue for "successful" men. The 2001 Marriage Law Amendment increased the amount of compensation that could be demanded by the wronged party in a divorce case. "Adulterers are penalized both financially and legally (cheating is grounds for divorce), but denial of a divorce suit is not an option regardless of who is wronged and how, as it inflicts pain on both sides," explained Professor Wu Changzhen. He concluded that the Marriage Law evolved to become more humane over the decades, "leaving legal matters to law, and ethical issues to ethics," as he put it.

The phenomenon of May-December unions with foreigners also changed in the late 1990s. In most cases, the age difference was within a normal range; both the spouses tended to be well educated; more Chinese men began to marry foreign women; and an increasing number of couples chose to reside in China after their nuptials. By 1994, annual international marriages hit a plateau at about 3,000 pairs. Meanwhile, divorce cases started to climb again. Still, the conventional Chinese mind places the family above romantic love. An exploration of changing values in Guangzhou, based on surveys from 1990 to 2008, showed the primacy of family harmony was upheld by a constant majority of more than 90 percent, while the rating of romantic love continued to decline, ranking 11th, a rank lower than "money" and "career development."

Professor Yue Guo'an of Nankai University holds that satisfaction with the quality of the Chinese marriage is at the upper end of the scale. The previously mentioned Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences study (1996-2000) backed that assessment: 22 percent of the respondents described their marriage quality as low; 75 percent, medium; and 3 percent claimed to have that elusive high-quality, perfect union.

The same survey also showed that most marriages were stable however, even if, in most cases, not anchored in romantic love. More often than not, Chinese couples are more devoted to their children than their spouse, and take less time indulging themselves than they do their offspring. Nearly half of the respondents considered sex "of average importance" in their marriage, while 26.2 percent rated it as "relatively important," and 8 percent as "very important." Though 49.4 percent went on record as being satisfied with their intimacy in bed, more than one-third of the respondents confessed they did not exchange endearments or engage in erotic play with their spouse at other times.

The status of the Chinese wife in her family is steadily rising. Looking outward somewhat, the level of gender equality in a Chinese family is much higher than that of Japan, the ROK or other Asian countries, but lower than Sweden. A report issued in February 2009 by MasterCard International revealed that 79.9 percent of women on China's mainland claimed they controlled the family finances. This explains why advertisers in China usually target the gentler sex.

Contemporary Life in an Ancient Town

Tang Zhaohui named his small eatery after the town in which it is located – Furong, or Hibiscus. But you might regard it as a case of blasphemy against a beautiful Chinese image if you look around: the space of less than 20 square meters is congested with eight low tables and the smell of food, while the tabletops feel oily and the glasses look sooty.

Furong is a small town in western Hunan Province with a history of more than 2,000 years. Two decades ago it was called Wangcun, or King's Village, because it was once the home of a local tribal king of the Tujia (one of China's 56 ethnic groups). In 1986, it became the shooting location for the blockbuster film Hibiscus Town. Ever since the formerly quiet, unknown village of Wangcun has been known as Hibiscus Town and has bustled with swarms of visitors.

Tang Zhaohui, clad in a checkered blue shirt and black cloth shoes, is a spare man in his 40s. He was born in this ancient Tujia village, which sits against a hill and is surrounded by water on three sides. A stone path traverses the rising slope, forming the town's main thoroughfare. On either side sit local plank houses with tiled roofs. I peeped into one house and saw a dark room scattered with sacks of grain, dirty clothes, and pots and pans.

Some of the houses date from the 18th century. Their backs are propped up by logs and are suspended over a river, while the fronts face the town's central stone path. Most of the front rooms have been converted into shops, hung with cured fish and pork and assortments of Tujia garments, ornaments and cultural relics.

Old villagers still wear embroidered blue Tujia costumes. Some sit or squat by their gates, looking blankly at passing tourists, or eating from big bowls of rice. Now and then villagers carrying bamboo baskets on their backs walk past wandering visitors. They present a sight usually associated with village scenes from decades ago.

Over the past 30 years of reform and opening-up, many traditional dwellings have been pulled down to make way for a modern lifestyle that the Chinese people have long admired and desired. Fortunately, some out-of-the-way and economically backward villages have survived. "The rapid development of tourism in recent years has helped protect some old and characteristic villages like Hibiscus Town," said our tour guide Shi Mei.

But living in the old part of the town means backwardness and cramped conditions for locals. Rich villagers have moved out of the old neighborhood into reinforced concrete buildings. Detached from the lives in their home village, they long for urban conveniences and fads, indulging themselves in Internet bars, billiard games and new clothes and digital gadgets. A wall poster I saw in one of the new neighborhoods showed that there was a modern dance performance at the weekend.

I found a group of local youths drinking loudly in Tang's Hibiscus Restaurant. "Most of the boys in the town go to cities to work as casual laborers when they grow old enough to take care of themselves, and after they return home, they behave as if they were sophisticated adults who have a good knowledge of the world and have picked up the habit of smoking and drinking," said Tang Zhaohui.

Fenghuang (Phoenix) is another well-preserved antique water town in western Hunan. Local life has lost its tranquility and unsophisticated nature since curious urbanites and foreign travelers discovered it and turned it into a hot tourist destination. The town's narrow slab-paved streets are congested by tourists and vendors selling souvenirs and local products. When night falls, the riverside streets and stilted plank houses are illuminated by neon lights, and deafening rock music from dimly-lit bars disturbs the ancient town's tranquility.

Tuojiang Family Inn is one of the oldest accommodation facilities in Pheonix Town. "A decade ago there were only four inns in the town – now no one knows for sure how many there are," sighs 60-year-old inn keeper Teng Shulian. "The town is not the beautiful Fenghuang I knew in the past."

Compared with Phoenix, Hibiscus Town is a latecomer to tourism. Will locals like Tang Zhaohui lament the lost beauty of their village after another decade of the tourism boom? For the time being, Tang fancies urban comfort more than the rustic charm of his hometown. In response to my admiration of Furong's beauty, he comments, "What is there to see in the village? It is the city that is really beautiful."

Urumqi-- Where Different Cultures Meet

Some 3,000 years ago, certain settlements in present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region were sites of prosperous transcontinental commerce, with merchants coming from as far as Greece, Rome and Arabia. Many passed through Xinjiang on their way to China's central plains.

By the second century, this trade was arousing much interest from the Chinese authorities, who believed commercial activities with foreign countries were advantageous in more ways than one: they could make the country richer and the border areas safer. With encouragement from the authorities, more merchants and goods came via the Old Silk Road. About 1,300 years ago, China's political center moved west to present-day Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. This move highlighted the strategic, as well as commercial, significance Xinjiang was to have. In 702, the Tang Dynasty emperor had a fortress built 13 kilometers south of contemporary Urumqi to station his army. Migrants were encouraged, and with an increasing population, the fortress developed into Luntai County, the beginnings of present-day Urumqi.

In more recent centuries, the luxuriant grassland around Urumqi attracted nomads from the Mongolian Plateau, who came with their herds to make this place their home. It was common to see Mongolian yurts and cooking fires built on top of three small rocks. Fragrant milk scented the air while herds of livestock grazed on the grasslands. This is how the area gained its name, Urumqi, which means "an ideal pasture."

Over the last 100 years, Urumqi has undergone a rapid transformation, from a place of herdsmen, farmers and traders to a cosmopolitan city. As recently as the early 1950s, herds of sheep could still be seen on the city's roads, and with the exception of the odd government vehicle, cars were rare. In fact, before every government building were hitching posts for people to tie their horses, which were by far the most common form of transport. Today these scenes are long gone. Contemporary Urumqi has a population of 3 million, forests of high buildings, and streams of motor vehicles flowing through its streets.

Some things have remained unchanged though. The city still comprises a diverse culture of 47 ethnic groups, including descendants from the ancient Huns, Turks, Persians, Khitans, and others from the central plains. Different cultures brought different beliefs, and Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism and Taoism are all still practiced today. Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and Taoist temples are seen side by side on the same street, the various chants emanating from their interiors creating a multicultural chorus.

Sightseeing in Urumqi

The Museum of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

A large and comprehensive museum with a strong local focus, it features regional traditions, unearthed relics, Urumqi history, and ancient human remains.

Add: 132 Northwest Rd

Opening hours: 10:30 to 18:00 in winter

9:30 to 19:00 in summer

10:00 to 18:00 on weekends and holidays

Free entry.

The Nanshan Scenic Area

On the northern slope of Tianshan Mountain range, 60 kilometers from downtown Urumqi, or two hours' drive by bus, lies an unbelievably beautiful pasture where tourists can be carried away by the unique life of the Kazak people. Watch their horse races, the snatching lamb competition, and the famous "girls' chase" -- a game not seen anywhere else. Local food and drinks are found in abundance, including milk tea and roast mutton.

Open between May and September

Ticket: RMB 30

The First Glacier

The source of the Urumqi River, this glacier is located in a mountain 125 kilometers southwest of downtown Urumqi. The glacier is thought to be 4 million years old, and is surrounded by over 150 modern glaciers. Its distinctive features dating from the Ice Age have earned it the moniker a "living fossil."

Opening hours: 9:30 to 17:30

Entrance fee: RMB 15

The Tianchi Scenic Area

Tianchi Lake is an ethereal barrier lake formed by glaciers 110 kilometers north of Urumqi. It is 1,980 meters above sea level. Though the lake is not large, it is 105 meters deep in some places. It is like a mirror, reflecting the image of the surrounding forest. The snow-capped mountain to its rear serves as a wonderful backdrop to this unforgettably idyllic scene. This area is very cool in summer, and is an ideal skiing spot in winter.

Entrance fee: RMB 47

International Bazaar

A place to shop, entertain and dine. Located in Erdaoqiao, the bazaar has a floor space of 100,000 square meters, making it far bigger than its counterpart in Istanbul, Turkey. Diners can enjoy local cuisine while being entertained by singing and dancing. The 12-Mukam performance, which appears on UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list, and the thrilling Dawarz wire-walking performance, can also be seen here.

The Grand Mosque of Shaanxi

The largest mosque in the city, this site of worship was first constructed during the reign of Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty, and rebuilt in 1906 by Hui people from Shaanxi, who pooled money to cover the construction costs. The building is in a different style from most mosques in the area.

Add: 10 Yonghezheng Lane, S. Heping Rd

Opening hours: 8:00 to 16:00

Entrance fee: RMB 10

Tatar Mosque

Built using donations from Tatar people in 1897, this is a major place for Uygur, Tatar and Uzbek religious services. Foreign visitors are allowed to view the Islamic service from the mosque's rear. With permission, female tourists are allowed to enter. The mosque is more than 3,000 square meters in size, with a worshipping hall large enough for 1,000 people to attend a service at the same time. It is beautifully decorated, with many gorgeous carvings and paintings on the pillars of the front veranda.

Add: Southern end of Jiefang Road

Opening hours: 10:00 to 14:00; 15:30 to 17:30 in winter

9:30 to 13:30; 15:30 to 17:30 in summer

Entrance fee: RMB 10

Food in Urumqi

The Granny An's

With 20 years' business behind it, this restaurant serves typical local dishes like steamed buns in mutton soup, and mutton dumplings. A popular place, diners often have to wait for tables.

Add: 19 Wenyi Rd, Tianshan District (opposite to the Hongyuan Mansion).

Tel: 0991-7885046

Bodun Fast Food

A restaurant in typical Uygur style, with strong Islamic-flavored decor. Recommended dishes include mutton with hand-picked rice, fried potatoes and meat, fried mushrooms, roast steak, and mutton soup. Alcohol and smoking are not permitted inside the restaurant. Koran music provides a pleasant aural backdrop. Business hours start at 14:00.

Add: 119 Yan'an Rd, Tianshan District (opposite to the Silk Road Hotel).

Tel: 0991-2557353

Hotels in Urumqi
Hoi Tak Hotel is a five-star establishment located in downtown Urumqi, very close to the famous Erdaoqiao Market.

Add: 1 Dongfeng Rd, Urumqi

Tel: 0991-2322828

Standard room: RMB 760 per day
Xinjiang Grand Hotel

A four-star establishment, also in downtown Urumqi.
Add: 168 N. Xinhua Rd

Tel: 0991-2818788

Standard room: RMB 456 per day.
Other Tourist Attractions

Mori County Forest

A forest of diversiform-leaved poplars, a tenacious ancient species, can be found in Mori County at the edge of a desert. The forest covers around 800 acres, and holds some 27,000 trees over 400 years old. The tallest trees are six meters high and their trunks are so thick it takes three people to embrace them. People say this forest is at least 65 million years old.

Flaming Mountain

Flaming Mountain got its name from the famous Chinese classic Journey to the West. It is in the Turpan Basin, running east-west, and is dark red in color. In summer, when seen against the scorching sun, the mountain seems to be on fire. This is the hottest place in China, with temperatures reaching nearly 50 degrees centigrade. No life can survive here, but in nearby valleys luxuriant vegetation and fruit trees can be found.

Opening hours: 10:00 to 19:00

Entrance Fee: RMB 10

The Ruins of Jiaohe City

Lying 10 kilometers west of Turpan, Jiaohe sits just north of where two rivers meet, which gives the town its name. In ancient times this settlement used to be the capital city of a small state in central Asia. Most of its buildings date back more than 2,000 years. The town was abandoned in the 15th century. The remains are said to be the largest earthen town in the world, covering around 250,000 square meters. All of the buildings, including temples, government offices, pagodas and houses, are made from earth. The tallest is as high as a contemporary three-story building.

Opening hours: 9:00 to 18:00

Entrance fee: RMB 20

The Ruins of Gaochang City

Forty-five kilometers east of Turpan lies the former capital of an ancient kingdom damaged in warfare at the end of the 13th century. People inhabited this town for 1,500 years. Most of the buildings are gone, except for two ancient temples that still stand at the southwest and southeast corners. Inside the ruined city is a small irregularly shaped castle, known to local people as "Khan's Castle."

Opening hours: 8:00 to 17:00

Entrance fee: RMB 20

Kizil Thousand-Buddha Cave

Kizil Thousand-Buddha Cave is in Kizil Township, 60 kilometers from the county seat of Baicheng. Its construction began in the third century and continued until the ninth century, making it the earliest Buddhist grotto in China. The cave features many beautiful frescoes, paintings and sculptures in good condition. These art works once led the development of Buddhist art in China's interior and they incorporate styles from Indian and Persia.

Opening hours: 9:00 to 16:00

Entrance fee: RMB 35

The Remains of Loulan City

The remains of Loulan City lie in northeastern Ruoqiang County, 300 kilometers from the county seat. In ancient times, this place featured highly developed farming, herding and fishing. It was also a stopover on the Old Silk Road. However, around the fourth century, this wonderful town suddenly disappeared from the map. Today, all that can be seen are the remains of some ancient buildings, including dilapidated yards and a tall Buddhist pagoda.

Opening hours: 8:00 to 16:00

Entrance fee: RMB 5

Lake Kanas

A typical moraine lake 1,000 kilometers north of Urumqi. In the Mongolian language, Kanas means "beautiful, rich in resources and mysterious." Three wonders of this lake are much talked about: the mysterious lake creature, the Buddhist light in the clouds, and a kilometer-long dam of dead trees. Rare species of pine and poplar can also be found here. This place is a paradise for photographers, and the best time to visit is from July to October.

Opening hours: 9:00 to 14:00; 16:00 to 19:00 on weekdays

10:00 to 15:00 on weekends

Entrance fee: RMB 130 between May 1 and October 15

RMB 80 between October 16 and April 30

Dallying in Dali: Romantic Getaway

FOR the Chinese, Dali always calls to mind a love story. Located in the far west of the southwest province of Yunnan, the city has provided the perfect backdrop for romantic trysts in hundreds of movies. If we can say that art imitates life, what it says of Dali is true.

War and Peace: The Romance of a Glorious Past

About 2,200 years ago, the South China Silk Road and the Tea-Horse Trail met right here in the old town of Dali, the seat of the Dali Kingdom. Caravans of merchants from China, and various parts of the world gathered at its markets, intermingling Eastern and Western influences. The seventh to mid-13th century was Dali's six century "heyday," serving as a political, economic and cultural center in the area. According to several American scholars, it was one of the 14 major international metropolises in the world at that time. Its importance declined after Kublai Khan and his Mongol armies swept over the kingdom and subsumed its affairs from their newly established Yunnan Province headquartered in Kunming, the current capital. An ancient monument that honors Kublai Khan's conquest of Yunnan still stands in the central square there.

Wars have left other traces. The northern and southern gate towers of the walled town still stand, and at 7.5 meters high, sections of the old city wall still allow visitors to look out over the town and the outside world. But Dali's residents and guests are more concerned with beauty and leisure these days. Springs coming from Cangshan Mountain flow through its checkerboard civic layout. Stone slabs pave the streets and the lanes that lead to every household. The locals, mainly of the Bai ethnic group, have made this home for about 4,000 years, and their culture has also infused the streetscape; they like and respect the color white, their namesake, considering it to embody all that is good. A popular hobby among the local residents is cultivating flowers, which they use extensively to decorate their houses.

With the development of local tourism, the town has assumed a mantle of modernity and internationalism. About 10 million travelers land here every year, bringing wealth to locals and vitality to Dali's public spaces. Travelers of every skin color and tongue crowd its streets as in ancient times, browsing and bargaining for goods that interest them – from small aromatic sachets to large marble screens, and from hand-made wind chimes to Dali stone statues. There are also quiet and private nooks, like the book shops, bars, cafés and art salons on Foreigners' Street that welcome contemplative minds, or those just in the mood for simply drinking in the life passing by the window.

Calling to Mind Wind, Flowers, Snow and Moon

In Chinese, the word "romance" stirs up images – it is almost synonymous with wind, flowers, snow and moon, all of which are found in abundance in Dali.

Wind we don't usually associate with a town blessed by mild weather. However, Xiaguan is downwind of a giant draught, not only powerful, but as changeable and subtle as a lover's thoughts. When you walk into the wind, your hat might suddenly drop to the ground in front of you instead of at your back. The restless air also has many voices – sometimes metallic and loud like a horn, others mellifluous like a flute.

The "flower" image refers to Shangguan, a local plant said to have been extinct as early as the 13th century. But its beauty is legendary; descriptions of it have been passed down from generation to generation. People say the flaming flower had five colors – red, yellow, blue, white and purple. In blossom, it was as big as a water lily, and had a fragrance as sweet as osmanthus, which could be detected for miles. The fruit was hard and black, used as a decoration for high-ranking court officials.

Snow is no stranger to the residents of this low-latitude area, surrounded by the 19 peaks of Cangshan Mountain where the average altitude of a peak is about 3,500 meters. The summit of the mountain is perennially covered in the "white stuff." It is so close to the sky, drifting clouds seem to brush the snow gently as they pass.

Cangshan is the source of Dali's famous marble – in Chinese marble is actually called Dali Stone, as Cangshan produces the best marble in China, even in the world.

Spring is the best season for mountain climbing. Green trees, colorful flowers and meandering streams soften the hard ascent into the sheer pleasure of nature's panorama. Between every set of peaks flows a stream, and the 18 streams finally pour into Erhai Lake.

The lake is like a pearl resting between Cangshan Mountain and the tableland where the town sits. It reflects both natural and man-made beauty. In the evening, one moon dusts the sky with pale light and another glints sharply in the water. The few islets close to the lakeshore are ideal for trysts. Old banyans spread out their branches like giant umbrellas, shielding lovers from winds and rain. Small caverns hidden in steep cliffs are stumbled on unexpectedly by those who care to take a boat out and do a little exploring – those who don't mind the bats and birds that is.

One of the smallest islets, named Lesser Mount Putuo, is regarded as the seat of Dali Buddhism. The Bai and 26 ethnic groups live here, nurtured by Erhai Lake, and have formed their own unique religion and forms of worship. Different from worshippers in China's eastern provinces, Tibet, or even other places in Yunnan, Dali people particularly respect the Goddess of Mercy. They have constructed a grand pagoda in her honor on the round islet.

In nearby Erhai the traveller can find many scenes of interest also, like the Butterfly Spring. Since it was featured in a 1950s'movie, this 50-sq-m pool has become a must-see for tourists, especially honeymooners or others in love. Early every April when the first flowers bloom, thousands of butterflies swarm an old tree that overhangs the lake from shore to shore. It is spectacular to see chains of butterflies – linked head and tail – hanging from branches down to the surface of the pool.

The three white pagodas standing lakeside on the slopes of Cangshan Mountain are emblematic of Dali scenery. The main one with a height of 69 meters was built in the mid-ninth century. About three hundred years later, it was joined by two more 42-meter-high pagodas, forming an isosceles triangle. The pagodas have stood there for a millennium, intriguing many archeologists and architects. But for travelers, they are just like Dali itself – grand but simple, amicable but mysterious.

China's Ancient Breweries:

A Tradition Thriving in Towns from the Yangtze to Yunnan Province

CHINA'S history of making distilled drinks dates all the way back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.). Some scholars argue its provenance is more ancient still.

Traditional alcoholic beverages in China fall into two categories – baijiu, or spirits, and huangjiu, or rice wine. Both are made of grains, primarily sorghum and rice. The former is the product of several rounds of distillation, while the latter is directly brewed from the raw materials, and therefore contains less ethanol.

In several provinces breweries have a longstanding reputation. The top-grade baijiu mostly come from Guizhou, Sichuan, Hunan and Shanxi provinces; and no place makes better rice wine than Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. Since water is critical to the flavour of a brew, most old breweries are located near tributaries in mountainous areas.

Moutai, the National Drink

Maotai (Moutai) Town sits by the Chishui River in Renhuai City in northwestern Guizhou Province. The river rises in northeastern Yunnan Province and empties into the Yangtze River after flowing 500 kilometers through Guizhou and Sichuan, thereby supplying water for producers of a dozen famed liquor brands in China.

Sequestered in a steep valley and traversed by a torrential river, Maotai Town is warm in winter and dry in hot summer, a climate that is congenial for microorganisms necessary for fermentation. The Chishui River is crystal clear and greenish blue, as a result of the rich minerals in its water. Industrial plants are banned in the river area to prevent pollution, leaving the water clean for drinking.

The town of four square kilometers sprawls up the mountain like a huge honeycomb. Buildings, tall and low, huddle on the precious level plots of mountain slopes. Of its population of 20,000, half work for the Moutai Distillery Co., Ltd.

Besides the state-owned Moutai Company, there are 400 to 500 distilleries of various sizes in the town, founded by either former company employees or families of current staff members.

The making of Moutai largely follows traditional techniques, which are no secret in the town, and are therefore used in every distillery. With the same source of water and other materials, all local-made liquors are of fair quality. But that of Moutai Co., Ltd. stands above the other brands for the precision manifested in every step of the brewing, better expertise in blending and longer storage.

Liquor shops outnumber businesses of any other kinds in the town. Many of them sell bulk liquor, which is contained in big jars sealed with plastic sheeting. Every jar bears a sticker notifying the content's brand and grade. And a notebook on the wall by the counter displays the price for each of them – ranging from RMB 10 to 360 per kilo.

Yu Jican established a distilling workshop a decade ago. Now its annual production capacity stands at 20 tons, and its cellars have expanded from four to eight. Liquor making is a business where returns come slowly: a brew is good for drinking only after being sealed and kept for at least three years. But the good side is a brew will never decay, and instead grows better in taste with the price rising commensurately with its age.

Yibin, a Living History

Yibin in southern Sichuan Province is the spot where the Minjiang and Jinsha rivers converge into the Yangtze River, and hence it merits the title Number One City on the Yangtze.

When people fly to the city, first thing passengers catch sight of on the ground below is a mega-sized bottle of Wuliangye, the second best known spirit in China after Moutai.

The Wuliangye Group in the city operates in two areas, the old production district in the downtown area and a 10-square-kilometer new district in the suburb, known as the Capital of Liquor, which is open to tourists.

The highest spot in the new production district is the Jiusheng (Liquor Saint) Hill, from which people can look down at the world's two largest brewing workshops and a breathtaking sight of 6,000 fermenting pits at the foot. Beyond them is a 50-meter-tall grain warehouse built in an ancient style. It consists of two rows of 16 colossal white columns sitting on eight platforms and crowned by traditionally designed pavilion roofs. The columns are hollow, and each accommodates as much as 1,250 tons of grain. Next to the warehouse is an ancient pagoda. Below is the century-old Anle (Peace and Joy) Spring, which supplies the factory. A well has been dug at the site, reaching 90 meters downward to the aquifer sustained by the Minjiang River. The gigantic bottle-shaped structure is a complex, its neck forming a water tower, the belly accommodating a power distribution station, and the bottom housing a water pumping station and a test center.

Despite its massive size and a legion of sleek buildings, the new district has yet to produce liquors as good as those from the old district, which comprises a few old workshops scattered around the city.

One of these workshops is Changfasheng in Gulou Street, one of the best-known Qing Dynasty distillers. It now has 30 fermenting pits, two dating from the Ming Dynasty. Other traces of its hoary past include woodcarvings on its wall decorated in traditional patterns of interlocking flowers and a phoenix with peonies.

Another old workshop is located at the sites of the Qing distilleries Lichuanyong and Deshengfu at the northern city gate. It has 27 fermenting pits, three dating from the early Ming Dynasty. Recent excavations prove that they are among the oldest of their kind in China.

The above two workshops of Wuliangye has been making liquors continually for 600 years, the longest period recorded in China. Their fermenting pits are also the oldest and best preserved.

According to historical records, Sichuan Province was the leading liquor producer and consumer a century ago. Liquor shops first appeared in Yibin in the early Ming Dynasty. They retailed what they brewed. By the Qing Dynasty four distillers – Lichuanyong, Changfasheng, Zhangwanhe and Deshengfu – thrived and purchased 12 fermenting pits that had been in operation since the Ming Dynasty.

Today Changfasheng (meaning Long Prosperity) remains a cluster of low, dimly-lit and moth-eaten wooden huts that were built in the Ming Dynasty. A strong smell of lees infiltrates every room, where most work is done manually to ensure the authentic flavor of the drink.

The Wuliangye Group considered moving the old workshops to its new district, but soon found that their products degraded inexplicably in the new location. "There are more than 20,000 fermenting pits in our new district, which are all covered with sediments from the old pits. In addition, we employ modern technologies to replicate the microorganism condition of the old pits. But to our disappointment, the new pits just cannot produce as good quality liquor as those from the old ones," said He Yu, deputy chief of the company's old district. "Approximately 40 percent of the yields of the old pits are grade one, but the rate is near zero for new pits."

The Wuliangye Group considered moving the old workshops to its new district, but soon found that their products degraded inexplicably in the new location. Hand-made rice wine excels machine-made brew, because its fermentation is done in natural conditions, overseen by experienced brew masters.

Shaoxing, Home of Rice Wine

Rice wine is a beige or brown alcoholic drink. The color is the result of chemical reactions between sugar and amino acid, or comes from caramel.

Shaoxing people prefer rice wine, which is lower in alcohol and mellower. "Good rice wine can be shelved for 10, 20 or 50 years, and it grows better with the passage of time. But inferior brews have a short life span," said a local brew master whose favourite is 10-year old rice wine. "After a decade all flavours – sourness, sweetness and fragrance – have fully mellowed and been perfectly mixed and finely soaked by the liquid. Take a sip, whisk it around the mouth before letting it down the throat. That's real enjoyment."

Jianhu Lake, 10 minutes drive from Shaoxing, supplies water for all rice wine producers in the city. Regardless of its shrinking size over the past decades, the quality of its water is largely intact. To illustrate the superiority of Jianhu water, Pan Xinxiang, director of Pagoda Brand Rice Wine Co., Ltd., flipped a coin into a glass of water from Jianhu Lake. The glass was full to the brim. The water surface rose, but not a single drop spilled over the brim. Pagoda is one of the few rice wine breweries that still adhere to traditional manual production. That's why its products have long been ordered by choosy Japanese importers.

According to Mr. Pan, hand-made rice wine excels machine-made brew, because its fermentation is done in natural conditions, overseen by experienced brew masters who closely monitor every step of the process, and make adjustments accordingly.

Gao Xiushui is such a brew master, nicknamed Brew Mind by locals. He started the career as a 16-year-old apprentice and has been in the trade for over 30 years. "Till today I never dared boast that I made the best liquor." For the water, rice and weather vary year to year. "In a cold winter, the period of fermentation has to be longer, and when temperatures are higher, the time has to be shorter," Gao explained, adding, "For the past 30 years I cannot remember any year when the temperature was the same as the previous year, so that I could repeat exactly what I had done earlier." Gao relies on his instinct, attributing every successful year to the "blessing of Heaven."

Dongpu is a town 30 minutes' drive from Shaoxing. It was a brewing center a century ago. Though distillery workshops can no longer be seen today, the tradition of home brewing has continued, and the sight of elders sipping from coarse clay bowls is not uncommon.

Old distilleries have been converted into civil residences, including that of Qing revolutionary Xu Xilin (1873-1907). Stacks of liquor jars still adorn his yard. Every family makes a dozen jars of rice wine every year. They are sealed and stored for one or two years before being served. This milky home brew is free of caramel, but exudes a smell as inviting as those brews manufactured by professional hands.

Lhasa, Land of the Gods

Yumbulagang Palace.

DAZZLING sunshine radiates from a cloudless sky; gilded temples with dim butter lamps flickering inside day and night sprawl along rolling snow-capped mountains; pilgrims, whirling prayer-wheels in hand, throw themselves flat on the ground with every step they take towards shrines as prayer-banners flutter overhead. These are the kinds of sights that distinguish Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, from any other city in the world.

Though constructions of steel and concrete have appeared in the 1,300-year-old city, none can challenge the grandeur of Potala Palace, visible from any spot in the city. The palace attracts swarms of Buddhists and tourists every year.

Lhasa means "holy land" or "land of the gods" in Tibetan. The city was originally called Rasa, a combination of Ra, meaning goat, and Sa, meaning earth. The name derives from a story related to the construction of Jokhang Monastery. In the 7th century Songtsen Gampo planned to build the capital of his Tubo Kingdom in a valley, whose outline resembled a recumbent Raksasi, or she-demon. The king's wife Wencheng, a princess of the Tang monarchy, proposed building a palace and a temple on the demon's head and heart respectively. Potala Palace soon rose where the devil's head was supposed to be. But on the spot holding her heart lay a fathomless lake. Over many months earth was carried in by goats to fill the body of water, but progress was slow. One day the goats jumped into the lake to fill it with their own bodies. Their sacrifice so moved the Buddha that the chasm magically folded, and Jokhang Monastery was soon built on the site.

With the growing prominence of Jokhang Monastery, more and more Buddhist monks and followers streamed in, many from neighboring countries such as India and Bangladesh. Consequently more temples, hotels and homes were built in the area. Meanwhile Potala Palace was expanded, giving more buzz to the rising city on the plateau, which gradually got a new name: Lhasa.

The Tubo Dynasty tumbled in the mid-9th century. During the same period a Buddhism-cleansing movement flared across Tibet, resulting in the closure of all Buddhist shrines, including Jokhang. Lhasa lost its political and religious weight, and didn't regain it until centuries later. In 1409 Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug Sect, convened the Great Summons Ceremony in Lhasa. He gradually expanded his influence to the whole plateau, and established a theocratic regime. Lhasa has remained a regional capital to the present day.

Palkhor Monastery.

The palace is perched 3,770 meters above sea level on Marbori Mountain (or Red Mountain) in central Lhasa. It is the highest and largest palace complex on Earth. Potala means "the island where Avalokitesvara lives" in Sanskrit. Before 1959 the compound served as the residence and office of the Dalai Lamas, making it the heart of Tibet's theocracy. Since the 7th century it had been inhabited by nine Tibetan kings and 10 Dalai Lamas. The main buildings are the White Palace (the living quarters) in the east, and the Red Palace (comprising stupas of the Dalai Lamas and Buddhist shrines) in the center. The tall white-painted wall in front of the Red Palace is the Sunning Buddha Stage, where giant Buddhist paintings are hung during religious festivals. A panoramic view of the city can be seen from here. Potala Palace holds a wealth of antiques. Visitors have to book entry at the western gate of the palace one day in advance, entitling the purchaser to three tickets the next day.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 4:00 pm

Admission: RMB 200 from May 1 to October 31, and RMB 100 from November 1 to April 30

Barkhor Street

Barkhor in the old district of Lhasa is a famous circumambulation path and commercial center. It is the area where the city's past is best preserved. Barkhor Street was originally a loop around Jokhang Monastery, but the name now refers to the whole old neighborhood surrounding the monastery.
Drepung, Sera and Ganden Monasteries

Dating from the 15th century, Drepung Monastery on the western outskirts of Lhasa is the largest and highest ranked shrine of the Gelug Sect.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 2:00 pm

Admission: RMB 45

Sera Monastery is known for the Buddhist doctrine debate among its monks, which commences at 3 pm every day.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 4:00 pm

Admission: RMB 45

Ganden Monastery, 40 kilometers from Lhasa, was founded by Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug Sect, in 1409, and is therefore known as the origin of the Gelug Sect.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 4:00 pm

Admission: RMB 40

Jokhang Monastery

This monastery is Tibet's most magnificent extant construction of the 7th century and the oldest wood-and-earth structure. Its style is a mix of Tibetan, Tang, Nepalese and Indian elements. The gem of its collection is a gilded life-size copper statue of Sakyamuni at 12, which was brought to Tibet by Tang Princess Wencheng. Other precious items include the thousand-meter-long murals Princess Wencheng Coming to Tibet and Construction of Jokhang Monastery, as well as two Ming embroidered Thangkas about Guardian Deities.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 6:00 pm

Admission: RMB 75

Norbu Lingka

This resort in the western suburb of Lhasa was the Xanadu of the Dalai Lamas. First built by the fourth Dalai in the 1740s, it underwent constant expansion over the following 200 years, and ended up being 360,000 square meters in total, with 374 rooms. It is the largest man-made resort in Tibet, and boasts the best scenes and largest number of historic sites.

Opening hours: 9:30 am - 6:00 pm

Admission: RMB 60

Other Tourist Spots


Namco in Damxung County is the largest inland lake in Tibet and the highest salt-water lake on the planet, lying more than 1,000 meters higher than Lhasa. Believed to be the territory of Chakrasamvara, lead God of the Esoteric Sect, Namco is a holy land of Tibetan Buddhism, and receives pilgrims from tens of thousands of miles away. The ideal period to see Namco is from June to September. Heavy snow cuts the road in October and November.

Opening hours: 6:00 am - 6:00 pm

Admission: RMB 80 (RMB 5 more for admission to Tashi Island).

Basum Co

Basum Co is a freshwater lake 390 kilometers east of Lhasa, 3,538 meters above sea level. Though tucked deep in the folds of mountains, the reputation of its enchanting mountain and water views reaches far into the outside world. Tsosum Monastery sits on the island at the heart of the lake and is a major shrine of the Ningma Sect. The traditional Lake Circling Festival is held around June 1 every year.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 4:00 pm

Admission: RMB 20


The 2,100-year-old Yumbulagang in Nedong County, 191 kilometers southeast of Lhasa, was the first royal palace in Tibetan history. It used to be the summer palace of Songtsen Gampo and Princess Wencheng. The frescos in the palace record the early history of Tibet, including legends about its first king, first building and first farmed land.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 6:00 pm

Admission: RMB 30

Samye Monastery

The monastery in Chanang County southeast of Lhasa is known as the first real monastery in Tibet. Dating from the mid-8th century, it was the first Buddhist institute in Tibet served by regular monks. This means it was complete with the Three Treasures of Buddhism — Buddha, Dharma (laws and teachings of Buddha), and Sangha (monks).

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 6:00 pm

Admission: RMB 40

Yamzhog Yumco

This lake 70 kilometer southwest of Lhasa is one of three holy lakes in Tibet. The other two are Namco and Mapham Yutso.

Tashilhunpo Monastery

The largest monastery in Xigaze, Tashilhunpo has been the headquarters of the Panchens since the fourth Panchen. It is one of the six major monasteries of the Gelug Sect, the others being Drepung, Sera and Ganden in Lhasa, Kumbum in Qinghai Province, and Labrang in Gansu Province. Tashilhunpo holds the funerary stupas of late Panchens. Its Qamba statue, more than 26 meters in height, is the world's largest indoor bronze Buddhist figure. Its casting consumed 110,000 kilograms of bronze and 250 kilograms of gold.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

Admission: RMB 55

Palkhor Monastery

Built at the dawn of the 15th century, Palkhor Monastery in Gyangze County co-hosts three sects of Tibetan Buddhism — Sakya, Kadam, and Gelug — making it significant in Tibet's religious history. Its buildings are typical of the design of lamaseries in the regions known as "Rear Tibet" during the period from the late 13th to mid-15th century. The nine-story Palkhor Pagoda is a spectacular stack of approximately 100 shrines painted with more than 100,000 Buddha figures. It is therefore also called 100,000-Buddha Pagoda.

Opening hours: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

Admission: RMB 40

Ruins of the Guge Kingdom

Located in today's Zanda County, this kingdom of 1,300 years ago made significant contributions to the economic and cultural development of Tibet. It was a pivot on the path of Buddhist transmission from India to central Tibet as well as a hub of trade between Tibet and neighboring regions. The kingdom passed its throne down through 20 kings, before mysteriously disappearing in the 17th century. The ruins stretch up a 300-meter-high hill, consisting of palace sections, 879 cave homes, 445 houses, 58 watchtowers and 28 pagodas.

Admission: RMB 400

Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon

The Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon at the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River is the longest and deepest of its kind on earth. In the uninhabited region at its mid section are four clusters of waterfall groups, many with a fall of 30 to 50 meters. The gorge spans nine natural belts from ice and snow to tropical monsoon forests. It is therefore bestowed with a stunning variety of species, including two-thirds of the higher plants, half of the mammals and four-fifths of the insects in Tibet, as well as three-fifths of the large fungi of China. The gorge is a synthesis of glaciers, staggering cliffs, sinister swamps and a billowing river. With much of it never marked by human feet, the region is dubbed the "last spot of secrecy on earth." The best season for travel is May to October.

Metog Nature Reserve

The reserve in Metog County in southeastern Tibet is actually part of the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon. Its terrain rolls up and down drastically, from the 7,756-meter Namjagbarwa Peak and 7,151-meter Gyalha Palri Peak, to lowlands of 750 meters. On a swath of barely 40 kilometers the altitude can vary as much as 7,000 meters. Rivers and waterfalls gush between peaks, creating breathtaking scenes. Covering 460,000 hectares, the area has the largest and best preserved virgin forests in China.

Xueshengong (Snow God Palace) Restaurant

This business by the western wall of Potala Palace on Beijing Middle Road is one of the top Tibetan restaurants in the city.

Tel: 0891-9003803

Xueyu (Snowland) Restaurant

This restaurant at 4 Tibetan Medicine Hospital Road serves a choice of Tibetan, Western and Nepalese dishes.

Tel: 0891-6337323

Zangjiayan (Tibetan Family's Feast) Restaurant

A home-style eatery, this restaurant is run by the descendant of a chef who served Tibetan nobles. Signature dishes are hand-served mutton chops, seafood hotpot, blood sausages and baked wheat buns.

Add: 75 Eastern District of Tuanjie Xincun

Tel: 0891-6332886

Gakla Metok Bar

Located in an old house with a sun-drenched yard and a candle-lit shrine, the building is said to have been the residence of the twelfth Dalai's parents. The current owner is a painter, who not only offers his visitors palatable food but also a nice collection of Tibetan handiwork, books and music.

Add: 127 Beijing East Road.

Makye Ame Bar

Makye Ame means an expectant bride in Tibetan. The bar is a snuff-colored three-story building on Barkhor Street. It is said to have been the place of trysts between the legendary sixth Dalai Lama and his expectant bride, where poems of romance were composed. The top story offers a nice view of bustling Barkhor Street.

Guangming (Brightness) Sweet Tea House

One of the best places in Lhasa to try Tibetan sweet tea. A cup costs merely RMB 0.3.

Add: Tibetan Medicine Hospital Road

Accommodation in Lhasa

Banak Shol Hotel

Founded in 1984, this is among the oldest and best known Tibetan-style hotels in Lhasa.

Rate: RMB 180-200 per standard room, RMB 25-40 per bed

Add: 8 Beijing East Road

Tel: 0891-6323829, 6338040, 1398915605

Dong Cuo International Youth Hostel

This hostel also features Tibetan style decoration.

Rate: RMB 30-50 per bed

Add: 10 Beijing East Road

Tel: 0891-6273383


Shambhala Heritage Hotel

A luxury hotel with traditional-style courtyards, Shambhala promises its customers a noble experience both in terms of meals and accommodation.

Rate: RMB 580 per standard room

Add: 7 Jiri Erxiang, Lhasa

Tel: 0891-632653

China Loves Magic!

Magicians from all over the world descended on Beijing in late July for the World Championships of Magic (WCM), aka Magic Olympic Games. "For the first time, this elite magic event came to a developing country," notes Lin Jian, vice president of China Acrobats Association (CAA). The convention is the 24th staged by FISM (International Federation of the Society of Magicians) but a singular coupe for the Beijing WCM, where Lin also works as secretary-general and director of the 2009 organizing committee.

The New Magic

The habitual venues of the WCM have all been within Europe where it has been staged every three years since its inception. No surprise, since the knowledge and practice of magic before 1900 was defended and promoted by a trade guild with publications in America, England and several European countries. The first modern social organization of conjurers was the Society of American Magicians, formed in 1902, but it was 20 more years before the International Brotherhood of Magicians was born. The constitution for FISM wasn't hammered out until 1948, but from the first member society in Lausanne, Switzerland, it built up to 81 member societies in 44 countries, and its conferences enjoy worldwide fame to this day. One of its key missions is to organize the WCM, providing a stage for top quality magic acts.

Eric Eswin, president of the International Federation of Magic Societies (FISM), recounts that as the membership became more "internationalized," the FISM decided to step out of the old continent into parts of the world where magic as entertainment had a huge fan base. "We have watched Chinese magic and visited the CAA," assures President Eswin, "and we have 100 percent confidence in China's organizing ability. Looking at the hosting of the Beijing Olympic Games, I know we made the right decision."

Watch and Learn

It appears it wasn't just organizational competence that tipped China's bid to host the international event. Participants at the Beijing 2009 convention surpassed 2,000. "The interest in magic is, in a way, linked to the development of our society, economy, culture and technology," ventures Lin Jian. "People are pursuing the mysteries of life now that the necessities are taken care of. They're happy to pay to see a magic show, or even to get lessons in magic tricks." Lasting six days, from July 26 to August 1, the convention's many competitions, performances, props, displays, and master's symposium buzzed with the keen and the curious.

"The scale of the Beijing event was almost the same as those held in Europe; the world's magicians are bringing in over 600 shows. Chinese competitors alone featured seven conjurers," Lin Jian says proudly of the improvement in Chinese representation. "But the large-scale magic show is one that developed slowly on the mainland because our magicians rarely attended international contests."

Modern Chinese magic has made laudable progress in the last decade, but still lags behind developed countries. "We began exchanges with foreign counterparts in the 1990s when taking part in events organized by the Society of American Magicians. In 2000 we applied for a membership in FISM," said Lin Jian, "because this convention not only allows learning and exchange, but also provides a theater for promoting our own brands of magic and magicians."

The big finale was a performance by ten top stage magicians held for eight consecutive days at a Beijing venue last August. Feats of telekinesis, levitation, and a Houdini-like underwater escape act won standing ovations and cheers.

Sleights of Hand and Mind

Most people regard magic as fascinating but a recent investigation carried out by China Youth Daily Social Research Center indicates they also believe it is good for intellectual development. Of the 85 percent of 1,177 respondents who declared themselves interested in magic, 20 percent rated their interest very high. Asked if they were interested in learning magic, 56 percent affirmed they were, while 32 percent indicated a strong interest.

PRC Founders Depicted in Chinese Paintings

IN the struggle to found the People's Republic of China, numerous leaders and heroes emerged. Their images depicted in various forms of art work inspire one generation after another.

Portrait of Mao Zedong

At the Guangzhou Spring Auction Fair held last June, the Full-Length Portrait of Chairman Mao by Jin Shangyi (1934-) brought in a sensational RMB 20.16 million, setting a record for works of its kind. Jin, an artist who works in oils, is currently president of the Chinese Artists' Association. This 1966 work, 262 x 137 cm in dimension, is considered representative of his style. The figure in the painting fully embodies the artist's adroitness with the brush. Apart from its enormous historical impact, it is also the largest full-length portrait of Mao Zedong in existence.

Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan is comparatively more typical of the era. A lawsuit over its copyright in the autumn of 1995 drew public attention to the painting, which artist Liu Chunhua (1944-) consigned to China Guardian Auctions Co., Ltd. It was eventually sold to China Construction Bank, Guangzhou Branch, for RMB 6.05 million. Reproduced 900 million times (not including reprints), it has dwarfed Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa to become the most printed oil painting in the world.

Shortly after its creation in 1967, Chairman Mao Goes to An-yuan was admired in the highest of China's art circles, becoming an archetype of that era. Today, reproductions and related souvenirs fill the markets.

The work portrays Mao Zedong in 1921, a time when the Chinese revolution was still in the bud, going to Anyuan to spread revolutionary ideals and eventually initiate the Anyuan Railway Workers' and Coal Miners' Strike. Liu Chunhua was born in a farming family in northeastern China and took up painting in his childhood. In the summer of 1967, an exhibition was planned in Beijing, called "Mao Zedong Thought Shines over the Anyuan Workers' Revolution." Liu Chunhua took the assignment to create an oil painting depicting Mao Zedong's trip there as a young man. Liu Chunhua and his team collected articles about Mao Zedong's early years, memoirs on Mao's revolutionary activities, and historical documents about the Anyuan Strike. Liu Chunhua was a 24-year-old student at this time and had never formally studied oil painting. To accomplish this glorious but challenging mission, he decided to experience life in an Anyuan coal mine. He placed himself there in early July, and interviewed veteran workers to find out the facts of Mao Zedong's activities in Anyuan.

After a study of historical records and some field research, Liu Chunhua eventually chose to focus on the image of Mao Zedong, dressed in a traditional Chinese long robe, looking firm, flanked by the glow of a sunrise and thick clouds ringing a hillside. For dramatic effect, Liu Chunhua layers the hero's every gesture with meaning: A raised head and slightly turned neck signifies his brave and dauntless leadership; his left hand forms a fist, expressing his resolution to liberate the people and his faith in ultimate victory. Mao also tucks an umbrella under his right arm, implying his tireless journey through revolution has been stormy.

On viewing the painting, Mao Zedong commented: "It resembles me very much in both spirit and temperament. However, we didn't have such good cloth shoes then. We could only wear sandals made of grass; and in Anyuan, I wasn't wearing a robe but a jacket." Despite these minor criticisms, Mao Zedong was satisfied with the painting. Later on, this painting appeared in textbooks for primary and middle schools, and was also reproduced in the form of commemorative badges, plaster statues and so on, claiming nationwide recognition and a reputation abroad.

In the compositions depicting PRC founders, Mao Zedong was depicted most often. In theme and style these works were largely influenced by the art work of the Soviet Union.

Chinese Leaders Depicted in Daily Life

There are also paintings that portray Chinese leaders in daily life.

Li Qi (1928-), known as the "best painter in portraying revolutionary leaders," has created a series of paintings depicting great figures. He rendered Premier Zhou Enlai so vividly in Forever Live in the People's Hearts, that Deng Yingchao, Zhou's wife, showered him with praise and arranged to meet him. Our Chief Architect was his representation of Deng Xiaoping, Comrade illustrated Liu Shaoqi, We Are on the Same Side featured Zhu De, and Comrade Bishi was a portrait of Ren Bishi; all had major impact in both the art world and nation at large.

Li Qi's fixation on PRC founders originates in his childhood experiences. As early as 1937, 9-year-old Li Qi went to Yan'an with his parents. Attending a local reception, Li was thrilled to meet political leaders there, including Mao Zedong. "I will make monuments to them with my paintbrush," Li decided.

Li Qi's representative work Chairman Mao Leaves Footsteps Across the Country was completed in the early 1960s. It harks back to the time when Mao Zedong and other leaders participated in the construction of the Shisanling Reservoir Project in the suburbs of Beijing. In the painting, Mao Zedong places his left hand on his waist and holds a straw hat in his right, appearing amiable but, at the same time, firm. The leader's confidence and gallantry is highlighted. The windy day indicated by Mao's slightly tousled hair and waving hat string give an impression of dynamism, while his ruddy cheeks suggest his exertion at the hectic construction site. However, the artist applied the "intentional vacancy" technique commonly used in traditional Chinese paintings, in that background details in the painting were absent, leaving room for viewers' imaginations. Even though the dominant figure is alone, it is as if he is surrounded by countless laborers.

Liu Wenxi (1933-), another admirer of Mao Zedong, shows even more passion for the PRC founders than his contemporaries. As a school boy, Liu Wenxi often told others, "Mao Zedong is a great man. I'm willing to pursue his spirit with my paintbrush, and capture some of that charisma for future generations." Over a bit more than 40 years Liu has visited North Shaanxi Revolutionary Base 58 times, leaving his footprints in 26 counties and over 1,000 villages, testimony to his effort to relive Mao Zedong's experiences.

In the design of the fifth set of RMB notes in 1997 the People's Bank of China decided to place the head of Mao Zedong on the 100-yuan bill. Liu Wenxi was invited to produce the image, based on his superior work. Liu Wenxi carefully selected photos to model his portrait on and spent another 20 days modifying the studies before presenting the final version. It was approved by the central leadership. Mao Zedong's image on the current RMB bills is the one Liu Wenxi created.

How many images of Mao Zedong Liu has painted is a question that probably even he himself can't answer. In the 1960s and 1970s, paintings of Liu's such as Early Spring in Date Garden and Heart-to-Heart Chat all refer to the years Mao spent in Yan'an. In these compositions, the leader talks to local farmers, one of whom holds a tobacco pipe and is wearing local dress like his compatriots – including a white turban. To make his works authentic, Liu Wenxi spent days making sketches or meditating in places Mao Zedong was known to stay. Characteristic of this period is Chairman Mao and the Shepherd, in which the farmer can't contain his heartfelt joy as he addresses his beloved leader, while a smiling Mao Zedong is so attentive to the farmer that he forgets to knock off his cigarette ash.

The People and the Premier captures a scene shortly after an earthquake hit Xingtai, Hebei Province in 1966, when Premier Zhou Enlai visited the disaster-stricken area to encourage people to rebuild their homeland. To inspire herself, Zhou Sicong (1939-1996) went into the devastated area and sketched a handful of scenes which became the necessary firsthand material. She trekked throughout the epicentre and stayed with local people. This experience helped her to lace the portrait of Zhou Enlai with earnestness. In the painting, with tears in his eyes, the leader firmly holds the hands of a victim and looks as if he is about to say something. After several modifications, Zhou Sicong finally finished this work in 1978. A year later, it won top prize at the National Arts Exhibition, and was regarded as a milestone in Chinese ink-and-wash figure painting.

PRC Founders in Group Prortraiture

Apart from art works that feature individual leaders, many group portraits exist. Among them, Nanchang Uprising and Zunyi Conference are influential in Chinese art circles.

Nanchang Uprising is a 1958 work by Li Binghong (1913-1986) now in the collection of the Military Museum in Beijing. This painting tells the story of the Nanchang Uprising on August 1, 1927 led by communist leaders Zhou Enlai, He Long, Ye Ting, Zhu De, and Liu Bocheng. This event marked the birth of the people's armed forces led by the Communist Party of China, writing a new chapter in the history of the people's revolution.

In the painting, the soldiers are gathered in front of the Jiangxi Grand Hotel, a well-known place on Zhongshan Road in Nanchang, and the armed uprising is about to take place. Everyone wears a white armband and a red scarf, guns firmly clenched. Zhou Enlai stands on the stage, boosting morale, and the crowd is stirred by his remarks. Behind him are four uniformed officers. Chief of Staff Liu Bocheng sits beside an ammunition box, studying the operational map. Behind him is Ye Ting, then front-line commander-in-chief of the Second Front Army and commander of the 11th Army. Behind Zhou Enlai stands Zhu De, who later became the commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army. In the margins stands He Long, then commander of the 20th Army. Though he was not a member of the CPC at the time, He Long and his army were the backbone of the uprising.

Other artists also painted their versions of the Nanchang Uprising, but the stunning image created in the 1970s by Chen Yanning (1945-) has been the most influential. Different from Li Binghong's work, the images show people in full but attribute particular importance to their facial expressions. Chen Yanning assumed a perspective that obscured the background while focusing on people in the foreground. Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, both looking determined, walk side by side inspecting the formation while other leaders follow. The emotive accuracy of their facial expressions has made this masterpiece unique.

Shen Yaoyi (1943-) took almost half a year to complete the 500 x 200 cm oil painting Zunyi Conference. From 1975 to 1997, Shen traced the path of the Red Army's Long March five times. On route, he gathered materials to gain a better understanding of the famous trek.

In January 1935, after the Red Army took over Zunyi City, Guizhou Province, an expanded meeting of the CPC politburo was convened. Participants included Mao Zedong, Zhang Wentian, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao Zedong's military and strategic prowess was acknowledged at this conference and his leadership in the CPC and the Red Army was formally established.

At the opening of the Zunyi Conference Mao was not yet a central figure, so the artist placed Zhou Enlai at the center of the composition, facing the members with resolution and honesty. Mao Zedong sits to the side listening intently; Zhu De looks stern, Wang Jiaxiang and Zhang Wentian are also absorbed with the proceedings. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping have turned to face the audience, as if waiting for latecomers to join the conference. The key figures in the painting are highlighted by a clever arrangement of natural postures.

Liu Wenxi's paintings depict not only Mao Zedong, but also other PRC founders. His huge scroll painting, The Orient, hanging in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, is another masterpiece, in which Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De are presented as if they still walk among us.

Wen Jiabao: China Disagrees to So-called G2

China disagrees to the suggestion of a "Group of Two" (G2), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said at a meeting with visiting U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday.

China is still a developing country with a huge population and has a long way to go before it becomes modernized, Wen said, stressing "We must always keep sober-minded over it".

China pursues the independent foreign policy of peace and will not align with any country or country blocks, Wen said.

Global issues should decided by all nations in the world, rather than one or two countries, he added.

"Meanwhile, we believe Sino-U.S. cooperation can play a unique role in advancing the establishment of the new international political and economic order, as well as promoting world peace, stability and prosperity," Wen said.

Wen noted that the bilateral trade volume between China and the United States has increased greatly since the two countries established diplomatic ties 30 years ago.

"This is in the fundamental interests of both countries and their people," Wen said. "We do not pursue trade surplus and I hope the United States would lift its policy of restricting high-tech products exports to China and increase their proportion in the U.S. exports to China.

"Meanwhile, our two countries should strengthen mutual investment and cooperation in such fields as energy, environmental protection and high technology for a more balanced bilateral trade," Wen said.

The revival of world trade and investment is beneficial to the global effort to cope with the financial crisis and help accelerate the recovery of the world economy, he said.

"China and the United States should work together to fight against protectionism in trade and investment," Wen said.

Obama, who described U.S.-China relations as of global significance, said U.S.-China cooperation is crucial as far as major global issues such as economic recovery, climate change and regional and global peace are concerned.

He hoped the two countries would abandon distrust and misunderstanding, strengthen exchange and cooperation, so as to push U.S.-China relations forward.

The United States appreciates and supports the Chinese government's efforts in developing the economy and reducing poverty, said Obama, adding that the development of China is beneficial to the world.

The United States and China are important trade partners for each other, which has brought huge benefits to both countries, while trade protectionism does no good to either side, Obama said.

He said the United States appreciates China's efforts to adjust the economic structure, expand domestic demand, protect intellectual property rights and reform the Renminbi exchange rate regime.

The United States would properly handle bilateral trade frictions so that they would not harm the interests of the two countries, Obama said.

The United States has noted China's concern over the export control to China and is willing to take measures and increase high-tech product exports to China, he added.

Before their formal meeting in the State Guesthouse Wednesday morning, Wen said Obama's fruitful visit, the first state visit to China since he took office in January, would be of far-reaching significance.

He expressed his "sincere hope" that Obama's China visit would lift the comprehensive and cooperative China-US relations to a new level.

"The history of Sino-US relations has made it clear that cooperation benefits both sides while confrontation results in harms, and mutual trust brings progress while suspicion causes setbacks," Wen said.

Cooperation is better than containment, dialogue is better than confrontation, and partnership is better than rivalship, he added.

Wen and Obama also exchanged views on global climate change, the Korean Peninsula situation, the Middle East issue and Doha round of world trade talks.

Obama arrived in Shanghai on Sunday night to kick off his four-day visit to China, where on Monday he met with municipal officials and college students and then flied to Beijing in the afternoon.

On Tuesday in Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao held talks with Obama, and they reached a wide range of agreements on furthering strategic mutual trust, maintaining exchanges at all levels and meeting global and regional challenges together.

A joint statement was issued after the talks.

Obama also met with China' top legislator Wu Bangguo during his stay in Beijing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Girl, 14, on fast track to PKU

A 14-year-old female student from Jiangsu province is poised to step from the textbooks into the history books after she was tipped to enroll at one of China's top universities, thanks to a pilot program aimed at improving the country's university entrance system.

Hong Xinge, from Tianyi High School in Wuxi, is believed to be the youngest of 90 students nationwide to receive nominations from their headmasters to attend Peking University.

She submitted her application on Wednesday.

The next step for the prodigy will be an interview at the world-renowned institution.

The 90 students selected to take part in the pilot program come from 10 provinces around China, as well as the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing.

Students who do well in the interview will stand a much better chance of getting into the university because they will not need to score as high as others in the university entrance exam.

The reform of the university entrance process being piloted by Peking University offers a backdoor into the university for exceptional students who might not necessarily do well in the entrance exam. The reform is aimed at ensuring quality students are not overlooked simply because of their performance in the national university entrance exam.

A teacher surnamed Zhou, who helped Hong with her application, said: "Hong Xinge has not only high grades, but also a good personality."

She is extremely good at teaching herself, Zhou added.

Schoolmaster Shen Maode told Yangtze Evening News on Tuesday that Hong scored well in international proficiency tests. She earned a 7.5 in the IELTS test, a 106 on the TOEFL test and got a maximum score in her United States SATs.

Hong excels at Chinese and English and, at her tender age, is already working on her first novel. Classmates pointed out that she is an all-rounder, having won awards for long-distance running and Latin dancing, the paper said.

Hong told the paper she hopes to study finance at Peking University and eventually start her own business.

Zhou said: "She is an excellent student and may not have a problem entering Peking University even without this recommendation." The experiment at Peking University gives qualified high school headmasters the chance to recommend exceptional students. On Nov 16, the university released a list of 39 high school headmasters nationwide authorized to take part.

While some education analysts hailed the pilot project as reform that might greatly improve the university entrance system, some have said it might lead to fewer opportunities for students from less respected high schools that have not been invited to take part.

A survey conducted by leading Chinese web portal showed 10,046 out of 14,227 people surveyed were against the new idea. Most said the recommendations were unfair on other students.

Xue Yong, a Peking University alumni who is now an assistant professor at Suffolk University, told Qianjiang Evening News the experiment could be dangerous if it is abused.

But Qu Jun, former deputy director of Shanghai municipal education commission and now a legislator, said the experiment represents much needed change to the existing university entrance system, which has been criticized for years.

"We have been talking about reform for years," he said. "We won't know if it works or not if we never start."

Tang Shengchang, headmaster of Shanghai High School, said the pilot program may lead to additional reforms.

He urged the public to be patient and wait to see whether the idea works.

"It will take time for us to recognize students who are creative and talented in certain subjects but who may not be able to enter top schools because of the harsh entrance examination," Tang said.