Saturday, October 23, 2004

China: Proof there's life beyond the Great Wall

China: Proof there's life beyond the Great Wall

Jeremy Atiyah recommends Chinese destinations off the beaten track.

12:01AM BST 23 Oct 2004

In the 13th century, this was not only the capital of
China but probably the largest and richest city on earth - to which Marco Polo notably bore witness.
Today it is still one of the most attractive cities in China. Its outstanding feature, around which the city curls, is the so-called West Lake, famed throughout China for its vistas of trees, hills, flowers, causeways, fishing boats, pavilions, temples and pagodas.
Spending a few days cycling or walking by the lake is a quintessential Chinese experience. Hangzhou can be reached by train in a couple of hours from Shanghai.

China's northernmost large city is as cold as Siberia in midwinter, with temperatures hovering between -20 and -30C. Thanks to the climate, the local people have been able to establish one of the world's largest ice- and snow-carving festivals.
The so-called Ice Lantern Festival lasts throughout January and into February. During these weeks you can visit entire buildings of ice that have been constructed on the frozen Songhua River, some of them many storeys high (slightly scaled-down replicas of the world's most famous buildings are currently in vogue).

Dress warmly and book early - the number of annual visitors, mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, now exceeds two million. Activities on offer include riding in horse-drawn sledges and swimming in holes cut in the ice.

The city itself is fascinating, much influenced by its proximity to Russia, with onion-domed Orthodox churches and colonial architecture aplenty. You can reach it on an overnight train ride from Beijing.

Holy mountains 
Some are sacred to Buddhism, others to Taoism, though the untrained eye will find them hard to distinguish. Either way, they have immense cultural and historical resonance and the Chinese set great store by them. Originally they were climbed by emperors and monks - and they have been scaled by pilgrims and tourists ever since.

Visiting any of the mountains today will provide you not only with classic Chinese scenery (temples and pinnacles emerging from misty bamboo forests, twisted pine trees on isolated ledges) but also with enthusiastic and gregarious Chinese multitudes, all "doing" tourism in the 21st century.
Among the most notable of the holy mountains are Huang Shan in Anhui province (easily accessible from Shanghai), Tai Shan in Shandong province, and Emei Shan in Sichuan province.

You can't get much closer to the heart and soul of
China than this, the birthplace of the great sage Confucius. For 2,500 years until the beginning of the 20th century, his descendants (the "first family under heaven") lived continuously in the centre of town at the fabulous Confucius Mansion, open to visitors.

The adjacent Confucius Temple is one of the grandest complexes of its kind in China, falling little short of Beijing's Forbidden City.

Qufu is a small, inexpensive, out-of-the-way town, with few foreign tourists and a splendidly tranquil feel - as well as some great Confucius souvenirs. Reach it on an overnight train from Beijing.

The Three Gorges are all that most tourists see of China's most populous province, but you could easily spend a lifetime holidaying here, starting out from Chongqing, one of the world's vastest cities, heading on to the Wolong Panda Reserve and climbing up into the rugged fringes of the Tibetan plateau.

The region's capital, Chengdu, is one of the most attractive large cities in China and famous for its teahouses. You can also join endless games of chess, take in an evening performance of Sichuan Opera and feast on some of the best food in China. You can fly into Chengdu from any of China's large cities, though it's an awfully long way by train.

Whatever your views on the political status of modern
Tibet, you'll have to enter China if you wish to visit this vast, beautiful region.

A convenient and hassle-free way to see Tibet is to book a one-way tour from Kathmandu (in Nepal) to Lhasa, along the Friendship Highway. Spend a week at it and you'll get to see many of Tibet's best-known monasteries, including those near Shigatse and Gyantse. A side trip to Everest Base Camp is also possible.

Lhasa is not quite the Shangri-la it once was. Traffic and high-rise office blocks now litter the downtown district, but its principal sights - above all, the Potala Palace - are still captivating.
Travelling on from here into the rest of China, you can either fly or take an exceedingly long and uncomfortable bus ride (unless you can wait until 2006, when China's rail network is scheduled to reach Lhasa).

Average winter temperatures in the regional capital,
Kunming, are about 20C warmer than in Beijing. For many travellers the best way to enter Yunnan is by flying from Thailand. You can also get there by bus from Luang Prabang, in Laos, or by train from Hanoi, Vietnam.

Apart from the weather, highlights include the small and traditional towns of Dali and Lijian, both touristy - but not too touristy - and no more than a short bike ride away from beautiful countryside.
In the far south, on the borders with Burma and Laos, lies remote and semi-tropical Xishuangbanna, where tourists trek though jungles populated by elephants and tribal peoples. Kunming is a three-hour flight from Beijing and about two hours from Hong Kong.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

On top of the world

On top of the world

In south-east Switzerland lies a region of vines, fine food, fighting cows and great high-altitude skiing. Jeremy Atiyah explores the canton of Valais

Published: 02 October 2004

Where do you go in Switzerland if you prefer good country living to skiing? Clue: not to the German part. In fact, the best place is almost certainly the canton of Valais, in the south-east corner of the country. You are practically on the Mediterranean down there anyway. Neither France nor Italy is much more than a peak away, and vines are as common as ski runs.

The whole canton is a rustic, jovial sort of place, full of dark-wood chalets and cows and geranium-boxes. As everyone keeps reminding me when I arrive, it boasts 22,000 vine growers, and 47 different varieties of grape. The region is by far the largest wine-producing area of Switzerland, sustained by a climate that is almost as sunny as Italy's. Why bother with skiing in a place like this?

Which isn't to say that there isn't any skiing. Valais happens to contain nearly fifty peaks of above 4,000m. Up there, among the serious mountains, you'll find attractions ranging from frozen pavilions to the gigantic ice-sheet of the Aletsch Glacier. You can go for a ride on the Glacier Express mountain railway. And some of Switzerland's most serious ski resorts are up here, including Verbier and Zermatt.

But as for me, right now, I'm sitting in the oenothèque of the Chateau de Villa, in the lovely little town of Sierre in the Rhône valley. An oenothèque is like a discothèque, except more sophisticated: instead of gyrating, we quaff wine and nibble amuse-bouches in the cellar of an ancient chateau, while discussing the numerous varieties of grape that are grown in this valley.

Later, I go for a traditional dinner of raclette in the restaurant upstairs. This is a variation on fondue, though the difference is more a matter of style than substance. With raclette, the waiter brings you your plate with a small yellow puddle of cheese already on it. When you have mopped this up with bread and potatoes, a second, different puddle is brought to you. And then a third. And then a fourth. And so on. Some hearty Germans have been known to get through 15 or 20 in an evening, though I manage just five, and even then the subtle distinctions between each are lost on me. Nevertheless, with the local wines, it makes a heart-warming dinner.

My Valaisian hosts, meanwhile, as soon as they hear I am British, begin thanking my race for having invented tourism to Switzerland back in the 19th century. They start going misty eyed at the thought of Edward Whymper, who conquered the Matterhorn in 1865. And they finish by telling me how grateful they are for the role my forefathers played in the Swiss economic and social revival of that century. "Not at all," I reply.

I personally have no intention of climbing the Matterhorn, though I confess that I can glimpse it from the balcony of my hotel. I am staying in the little village of St Luc, in a quiet little side valley called the Val d'Anniviers, located vertically above Sierre. The valley is so untouristy that it doesn't even get a mention in the Rough Guide to Switzerland, though in typical Swiss fashion, frequent and punctual local buses serve it from Sierre, dropping off passengers at every village and hamlet in sight.

The village is not exactly throbbing with life; its top tourist attraction is a an ancient bakery. But my hotel is the 100-year-old Bella Tola, run by an astoundingly efficient and hospitable couple called Anne-Françoise and Claude Buchs, along with their three picturesque daughters. It's the kind of place that Edward Whymper might have felt comfortable in, to judge by the shuttered windows, oriental rugs, creaking floorboards and antlered heads on the walls. What's more, we get superb four-course meals for dinner every night, which almost rules out anything as rash as going skiing.

The weather forecast is for cloud and snow, but every morning the sun shines gloriously. The locals look unsurprised. "It is the microclimate of the Val d'Anniviers," they say wisely. "It is the same sun that grows our grapes."

In this weather there is no excuse not to try the skiing, and funnily enough it turns out that there are plenty of options. Within walking distance of the Bella Tola, you can jump on a funicular up to St Luc's own pistes, where the quiet pleasure of skiing in an area with no foreign tourists is soon clear. Over the next couple of days I try two other skiing areas in the valley, namely Grimentz and Zinal. At Grimentz, from the ski lift, I stroll to the top of a 3,000m peak to gaze out over what feels like most of Switzerland. I might be in a valley full of country bumpkins, but this feels quite glamorous.

And at the end of the day I end up in the absurdly picturesque village of Grimentz, with its geranium boxes and old stone barns and towers. As dusk falls, I am taken on a little tour of the village, stopping first at the Maison Bourgeoise, a kind of parliament for village elders. It's a very Swiss place, half town hall, half secret society. Its walls are lined with ancient pewter jugs and the coats of arms of members. In the cellar I am shown giant barrels of wine, some of which have been here for centuries. Given that they are topped up whenever the barrel is half empty, this may be the only chance I will ever have to drink a 17th-century vintage, albeit a diluted one. It tastes like strong sherry.

The tour continues. The next stop, oddly enough, is a cowshed, where local cows are tended and fed during the winter months. A big old farmer who calls himself the President of the Cow Co-operative arrives and introduces me to the beasts. They low, and toss their pretty heads. When the snow melts, they will all be taken up to the hills to graze in the meadows. It is then that the cow-fighting tournaments of Valais will get underway.

In fact, to the Valaisians themselves, these tournaments are no laughing matter. They are the highlight of the cultural calender. Men go about glued to their radios. It is the cows themselves who hold the competitions; their owners merely organise rules and venues (Alpine meadows usually do).

The tournaments proceed on a knockout basis, with each pair of cows wrestling head-to-head until the weaker cow surrenders. There are strict rules and categories. There are referees. There are even anti-doping tests. Such injuries as occur are superficial, and deaths are unheard of. Elimination rounds throughout Valais eventually culminate in a grand final that is held in May, near Sion. This final tournament is annually attended by at least 10,000 people.

The president of the Grimentz Cow Co-op lovingly points out a particularly fetching cow that came second last year. I ask him if the farmers of the Val d'Anniviers love their cows more than their wives? "Never!" he retorts with an appalled expression. "We love them equally!" I understand what he means. Every cow has a name, and each has a cute fringe and long eyelashes. I say goodbye to them, and head back into town. I think I'll take the fondue tonight, rather than the steak.


Jeremy Atiyah travelled to St Luc in Switzerland with Inntravel (01653 617906; A week's skiing in the Val d'Anniviers costs from £618 per person including seven nights half-board at the Hotel Bella Tola, return flights from Heathrow to Geneva and transfers. The same package taking the Eurostar from Waterloo to Paris, with onward rail tickets to Switzerland, costs from £663. Saturday and Sunday departures are available from 19 December-3 April. Inntravel can pre-book downhill ski passes at discounted rates. British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies to Geneva from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. Swiss (0845 601 0956; and Kuwait Airways (020-7412 0007; fly from Heathrow and easyJet (0871 750 0100; from Gatwick, Luton, Liverpool and Nottingham. The best way to reach the Valais is to buy a "transfer ticket" (£53) in the UK from the Switzerland Travel Centre (00 800 100 200 30;, which will take you from Geneva airport to any train station in the canton and back. Trains depart hourly for Sierre and take two hours.

The writer stayed at the Grand Hotel Bella Tola (00 41 27 475 1444; in St Luc. Prices for a double room start at Sfr320 (£141) half-board. St Luc is a one-hour bus journey from Sierre, with a change at Vissoie. Buses depart every hour.

The Glacier Express (00 41 27 921 4111; travels from Zermatt to St Moritz, with a total journey time of around eight hours.
The cow-fighting tournaments, known as Les Combats de Reines (00 41 27 327 3570; take place from March-May every year.

Switzerland Tourism (020-851 1700;
David St Vincent