The winds cut, clouds are high,
apes wail their sorrows,
The air is fresh, sand white,
birds fly in circles;
On all sides fallen leaves
go rustling, rustling,
While ceaseless river waves
come rippling, rippling:
Autumn’s each faded mile
seems like my journey
To mount, alone and ill,
to this balcony;
Life’s failures and regrets
frosting my temples,
And wretched that I’ve had
to give up drinking.
‘From a Height’ —Du Fu (Translated by Arthur Cooper)
As we deplaned, it was so gelid that you could hang meat out there, but not enough to give me cold feet. My maiden moorage in Beijing, but via a jetliner not a seafaring schooner, as it may be, got me thinking more than I could have ever imagined ordinarily. It was my very virgin visit to Cathay, the land of wonder and bewilderment and my curiosity about what lay ahead for me had just started getting warmed up. China had chosen me so there I was.
Moving on, the swan in me was sensing a mystifying muse swelling up somewhere in the resplendent horizon under an auspicious azure-gray winter sky, hovering overhead like an infinite awning of frothing fantasies as far as the eye could see. The chilled feel of a lingering fall held me in an even tighter embrace when my sight caught the bare arbours that stood still as if they were lost in this labyrinth of towering glossy edifices like strangers in a foreign land where language was hard to understand.
Let’s just put off poetry and bring on Beijing.
Setting foot on the soil of China, a land that has been the pinnacle of glorious human civilization, sent me reflecting even deeper on the Prophet Mohammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) saying: “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China."
Visiting China at the turn of the year was a golden opportunity that was just not to be missed. During my weeklong stay in China I had to attend and speak at a literary event titled “5th Seminar China Publishing Scholarship Classes” held in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan Province in east-central China.
It was an honour to represent Pakistan at an event that attracted delegates from, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mongolia, and many more. Every moment I spent there was momentous. It was unbelievable. I was wondering if Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler who explored Asia in the 13th century and served Kublai Khan here, had felt the same way. The exciting escapades that followed in the days ahead made my visit worthwhile enough to write a book on them. A book may be in the making, but a look is at your service.
Visiting only a few locations in Beijing and Zhengzhou, the cradle of Chinese culture, stunned us. How the Chinese singlehandedly shaped the early world left us spellbound when we sneaked a brief peek into Chinese history, culture, and traditions. For the past 4,000 years China has been the oldest continuous civilization on earth along with our own Indus Valley Civilization.
Their magnificent inventions in the olden times remind us how prestigious the country’s contributions towards the world have been as all nations reaped the benefits of inventions like compass, printing machine, and gunpowder to name a few. These innovations transformed the global culture as they reached other countries through the legendary Silk Road.
Since Pakistan and China share a unique history of bonding and friendship, our group was welcomed by the Chinese with a pronounced respect and active enthusiasm. Etched on our hearts since our childhood, the slogan of ‘‘Pakistan China friendship is higher than mountains, deeper than ocean, and sweeter than honey’’ could be truly felt in spirit as it could be seen in the sparkling eyes of every Chinese we met there.
Let me open for you the suitcase of sweet souvenirs and fond memories I brought home from this epic encounter.
From the Cloud Industrial Park of Hui Tian Network Technology to Kung Fu tour, Shaolin Temple to the Longmen Grottoes and Buddha’s caves, and the ride of bullet train between Beijing and Zhengzhou, their accomplishments are awe-inspiring.
After attending an award ceremony at Beijing Book Fair in China International Exhibition Center, we went to Huitian Network, the largest cyber park of China in Beijing, where Ms. Yang Meiling, chairperson of the Network delivered her keynote speech. She told the audience that Huitian Cloud Industrial Park had 18 data center buildings, which is the largest single data center community in Asia. “Our cloud industrial park has nearly 500 independent data center units, 4 Wan 5 one thousand sets of cabinet design capacity, can carry 100 million units server. At the same time, the main building of this data center meets the international certification of Uptime Tier 4 and is the most advanced engine room in the world,” Meiling said.
Our Chinese friends also introduced us to an amazing ‘China Library Project’ which is operating in 16 countries including Japan, Congo, Nigeria, Australia, Russia, Peru, Turkey, Brazil, and Kyrgyzstan since 2013. These libraries have effectively promoted the understanding of China in these countries and regions.
During our stay in Zhengzhou city, we travelled to Shaolin valley to have a glimpse of the centuries old Shaolin Temple and “The Center of Heaven and Earth” Pagoda Forests.
Shaolin Temple is a practicing Buddhist temple, where adaptations on the original Shaolin Kung Fu are taught. The original Shaolin Kung Fu, being too deadly has been replaced by Wushu, a milder form of martial art. Whatever is practiced today, it is still a place of dedication and learning, as can be seen by the hundreds of youngsters practicing outside on any given morning.
Later, to experience the Tai Chi Culture, we stopped over in Chenjiagou, The Chen Family Village. Chenjiagou is the place of origin of Taiji boxing. Today, the Chen Family still practices and teaches their martial art in the Chen Village. Master Chen Bing's Taiji Academy is famous in all over the world.
In Zhengzhou, we took a tour of the China Railway United International Container Co., Ltd and were photographed at the same place where President Xi stood a couple of months before. We were informed about the infrastructure of cargo train service and its functions. The cargo trains are said to have made a total of 449 journeys between Zhengzhou and Hamburg, Germany between January and November last year.
The Longmen Grottoes are on the Yi riverbank, 12 kilometers from the ancient city of Luoyang, about 30 minutes' drive. The site is one of the three most important in China for its Buddhist sculptures and carvings. There are about 2,100 grottoes and niches, over 40 crematory urns, 3,600 inscribed stone tablets and over 100,000 Buddhist images and statues. The Longmen Grottoes are of great value in world sculpture history and have been listed in the World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Beside this wealth of history and art, publishing and reading books is an integral part of Chinese culture. Though, we could not visit the entire publishing houses, but we learnt that the book publishing industry in China churns out hundreds of thousands books, textbooks, maps, and other printed articles daily.
In China, many computer/mobile/internet applications like Facebook, YouTube, Google and WhatsApp don’t work but their vacuum has been filled by services provided by Baidu, the multinational Chinese tech giant, and WeChat, the multi-purpose social media mobile application software developed by Tencent. Chinese mostly use WeChat for in-store payments, online shopping, transportation, and dozens of other things. If you live in China, you could realistically use no other application but WeChat for sharing moments, stories, playing games, and shopping day and night. On the other hand, Baidu has a market share larger than Google and one can undoubtedly say that Baidu is the better and bigger Google of China.
Beautiful calligraphy by famous Chinese artists was bestowed on us in the graduation ceremony. According to international experts, calligraphy in China is an art form, a meditative practice, a scholarly pursuit and, nowadays, an investment. “With a rich tradition of calligraphy tracing back thousands of years, China reveres the works of great masters, as well as the experimental new media calligraphic works of contemporary artists,” an expert said.
Though, we did not have the time to experience the public transport but received rave reviews about it. It is easy to get around as no matter what language you speak as you can always find your way to where you want to be. The buses are nice, the trains are excellent, and the taxis are cheap. China apparently has the busiest rail network in the world and now may be the fastest with the incorporation of bullet trains.
Bike-sharing is the latest fad among the Chinese commuters. A large number of companies, having huge fleets of gaudily painted rent-a-bike taxis, are now operating in China’s major cities. Their services are inexpensive and loads of fun. Customers can park the bikes anywhere they want. The next rider locates the GPS-equipped bike using a smartphone app and so on and so forth.
China is so big that one can hardly travel to all the spectacular places in a life time, but wherever you go you get the feeling of being at home. In terms of land area, China is more or less the same size as the United States, over twice as large as all the European Union countries combined, and puts Australia to shame by far and away. There are as many as five and at least three time zones in the aforementioned states, but China has just one: The Beijing time is the standard time for every part of the country. But in our experience, time seemed to have been standing still wherever we went, so enchanting are this country’s natural and manmade marvels.
The Chinese drink warm water instead of cold. Maybe that’s why they are so warm-hearted. So we were served warm water everywhere. In China, by custom, hosts never stop refilling the cups and glasses of guests and they do it without asking them whether they want more or not. There are no less than eight to ten courses of meals along with oodles of wine in Chinese feasts, which is very intoxicating to note.
One day, our hosts surprised us with a dinner at Quanjude, Beijing’s oldest roast duck restaurant. It is said that this restaurant has been serving the famed Peking duck for the last 150 years. This very restaurant has fed world leaders of the likes of late Richard Nixon, former US president, to late Fidel Castro, the longest reigning leader and architect of Cuban revolution, and many more. The restaurant manager told us that Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been here twice to dine on the succulent duck. Having Peking duck is considered lucky and especially when you eat at Quanjude the chances of your becoming healthy, wealthy, and a may be a national leader in future are brighter than ever. Keep your fingers crossed but don’t let the duck lying on your plate become a sitting duck for others.
The people from the city of Lahore, the cultural center of Punjab province, never stop repeating the old adage “The one, who has never been to the city of Lahore, is not born yet”, but according to authentic sources, Chairman Mao, the founder of modern China, had once quoted: "He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man.” What a Badami-Bagh-to-Beijing-like coincidence. So, touching the Great Wall of China was my childhood dream, but the inclement weather did not allow me to live my dream even for a touching moment. Without saying ‘Ni Hao’ to the Great Wall, I returned to my beloved Pakistan. I wish to visit China again and this time hopefully my trip would start right from the majestic wall and the imperial tombs of Ming Dynasty.
This splendid sojourn added a great detail to our sparse understanding of Zhōngguó and its amazing Zhōngguórén, astoundingly exposing us to the Asian giant’s long history of contributions in culture, philosophy, architecture, and development.
The author tweets @faziljamili