China 13 June - 28 September 2001

Three months round trip in China
(with trains and buses and the odd flight).

China map 2
The red marked cities are the main kite making cities in China.

Beijing 13 June - 5 July

Beijing was overhelming! So much of everything! People, bicycles, the wideness of the the main streets, the hutongs with winding alleys.

I spent a about three weeks in Beijing, staying with my good friend Li Ruoxin, and tried to cover most of spots mentioned in my China Willmaguide. I walked many of the streets and lanes in the central part in one direction or the other, many times just to inhale the atmosphere. At that time Beijing had only two subway lines: the Circle and the East-West, which encouraged to a lot of walking.

Every morning I spent an hour or two trying to learn Mandarin from a book and a cassette tape that I had brought from Sweden, but I was not overly successful. Instead I bought an electronic translator that could help me out in dire situations.

I also spent time in making the first part of this Pilgrimage web site from Korea and through China part 1 and Japan.

Li Ruoxin and me visited the Forbidden City a rainy June morning and we had the enormous complex pretty much to ourselves: not many other people there.

Beijing was my first real Pilgrimage stop in China: it is one of the important kite making cities. Many rank Beijing as #1 in China when it comes to quality and beauty of kites.

At the kite festival in Guiyang in April I had met Teacher Xu Rongzheng, General Secretary of Beijing Kite Association. While I was in Beijing I contacted her and asked if I could meet some members of Beijing Kite Association. She promptly organized a noon kite flying at a field near the Olympic Park; a few members of BJKA turned up and we flew kites for a while and they showed me their marvellous kites. We had lunch together and after lunch Mrs Xu brought me to the home of Master kite maker Leng Shixiang, who turned out to live in the most humble house in a hutong just outside the northeast corner of the Forbidden City.

Beijing used to have many small kite factories but most of them had closed down, mostly due to the aggressive competition from kite factories in Weifang, where the kite business is government supported.

Li Ruoxin and family also took me to the Winter Palace and the Great Wall at Mutianyu, a long bus ride and long climb up the mountain. Also this was a rainy day, but the wall and the dragon mountains were so beautiful in the grey haze.

Li Ruoxin one day brought me out to the village Shang Zhuang, some 45 km north-west of Beijing, where Kong Lingmin (son of legendary kite Master Kong Xiangze) lives. During the Culture Revolution all his kites were destroyed, but he had since then rebuilt them again. Kong Lingmin and his son Kong Bing Zhang showed me bamboo working, kite painting and a lot of finished kites as well as kites in making. The gallery below depicts many of his kites. For size reason a 30 cm ruler or a 100 cm ruler has been put next to the kite.

The Beijing swallow kite comes in five different shapes corresponding to the age or gender of the swallow.

  • Baby swallow
  • Young swallow
  • Male swallow
  • Female swallow
  • Married couple swallows

Gallery for pictures from Beijing in June will open in new tab.

Gallery for pictures from Kong Lingmin will open in new tab.

Tianjin 6 - 10 July

Tianjin was the second stop of the kite Pilgrimage. Like Beijing it used to have many small kite factories, but the have disappeared for the same reason as those in Beijing.

I had got a couple of kite maker contacts from Mrs Xu Rongzhen in Beijing but I did not manage to find them. But I found a park near the river where people used to fly kites in afternoons and evenings and enjoyed my time with them. I brought a Tiski-Toski, a high aspect ratio kite that I had bought from Thorsten Schackt (Dr. Hvirvelvind) in Copenhagen, and all the kite makers were eager to take measurements and make notes.

Gallery for pictures from Tianjin will open in new tab.

Weifang 11 - 18 July

The third Pilgrimage stop was Weifang, self proclaimed Kite Capital of the World. During the kite festival three months earlier I had not had much opportunity to venture on my own, so now I wanted to make a more thorough kite visit.

Weifang for sure is the commercial kite centre of China. Of course it has a long kite history, and many years ago the local government decided to support all small kite businesses. This resulted in that they could sell their kites to a lower price which drove kite factories in many other cities out of business.

I managed to find my old friend Pan Bohua, whom I had come to know at Dieppe kite festival a few years earlier. I actually also met him at Weifang kite festival in April when he explained to me that there was no point in going looking for my lost Double Delta kite. Pan has a quite big shop on Siping road, and there are also many other kite shops in Weifang city, but the small factories seemed to be located in the village of Yang Jiabu, some 10 km north-east of Weifang city.

Yang Jiabu was at that time a single street village with low houses along the street. Practically every house accommodated a small family kite factory, many of them were managed by a woman. In every factory a few young women were bending bamboo over an open flame and painting kite skins, often in a not (in my opinion) sufficent lighting.

The largest factory was at the end of the street, at Yang Jiabu Culture Centre (or Folk Art Park). Here the staff actually had space to go outside and test fly the kites.

In an effort to stick out a little bit less I had my ash blonde hair dyed black while in Weifang. The hairdresseer called up his English speaking friend who wanted me to confirm that I actually wanted the hair and the moustache dyed black, anxious to avoid any misunderstanding.

Gallery for pictures from Weifang will open in new tab.

Yantai 19 - 25 July

At the Weifang kite festival opening ceremony in April I had bumped into Wang Zhushang whom I also had met in Dieppe a few years earlier. When I told Wang that I was going to travel around in China during the Summer and also return to Weifang, he invited me to come and visit him in Yantai, some 150 km north-east of Weifang. So now I took a bus from Weifang to Yantai.

I stayed nearly a week with the Wang family in their apartment. At that time it was still not allowed for foreigners to stay in other than authorized hotels, but it did not seem to matter much. I had a great time with the Wang family. Yantai is on the seaside so we had a lot of seafood for meals.

In Europe Wang Zhushan is probably most known for his Chinese dragon kites, but like all Chinese kite makers he also knows how to make all kinds of traditional kites. He showed them to me and and also showed his special tool to make fine bamboo sticks: an iron block with step-wise smaller holes drilled, through which the bamboo sticks were pulled to become thinner and thinner.

The next Pilgrimage destination was Nantong with its flute kites. Wang found a bus that would go directly there, and he talked to the bus driver to look after me during the ride: it was a 19 hours ride starting 10 am, so I would reach Nantong at 05 am the following morning. The ride was not comfortable: there was no proper seats in the bus just short and wide wooden two-storey bunks where one could neither sit up straight nor lay down stretching out. I think each bunk was to be for at least two people, but being the only foreigner I luckily had my bunk to myself.

Gallery for pictures from Yantai will open in new tab.

Nantong 26 July - 2 August

During the 19 hrs bus ride from Yantai to Nantong the driver did indeed look after me and told me when its was time to take a break for a meal. Or a pee. If I remember correctly Wang had organized with a friend of him to meet me in Nantong at 5 am in the morning and bring me to a nearby hotel. As I was pretty battered after the night on the wooden bunk bed I was happy for a soft bed and spent the entire morning catching up on sleep.

Nantong is a city located on the north bank of river YangTze, quite opposite the big city of Shanghai. The special kite of Nantong is the flute kite or ban yao, meaning 'plank sparrow hawk'. It is a flat, rectangular kite, totally different from other Chinese kites, and it has a lot of flutes made of gourds and bamboo on it. It has a long twin tail made of Sweet flag, a very light sea weed. The twin tail forks directly at the bottom of the kite and each of the two parts are twinned in different directions, so in the air they keep separated from each other. The kites as such makes a magnificent organ-like sound in the air. I remember hearing the sound the first time I was in Dieppe: as I approached the kite field early one morning I heard this 'organ' sound but I could not locate the origin. There was just a few kite kite fliers on the field but the sound did not come from them. Finally I looked up in the sky and saw the ban yao with the very long tails and I fell in love with it!

In Nantong I soon found the exhibition for the flute kites at the Nan Tong Native Folk Art Gallery and spent the afternoon there admiring all sizes and variations of flute kites. The staff was indeed very friendly and invited me to dinner afterwards. But I was interested in finding a kite maker and roamed the streets in Nantong for several days before I finally got a contact.

The kite maker, Wang, lived in the countryside outside Nantong. He is best known for his flute carving. He said I should had come one day earlier because then there was the strong wind blowing, required for a good ban yao flight. He showed me the different stages of flute making of different materials: Gourds for the larger flutes and bamboo for the smaller flutes. I asked him if he could make a complete kite for me and he agreed, so I ordered three kites: two for myself and one for my good friend Heizou Itoh in Hamamatsu, who had actually asked me to get information about the ban yao. I ordered them with a simple decoration, not the rich painting I had seen on most other ban yao. He agreed to send the kites plus some extra flutes to a friend in Beijing where I could pick them up on my return there in September.

Gallery for pictures from Nantong will open in new tab.

Kunming 3 - 6 August

The next Pilgrimage destination was Kunming in the province Yunnan in south China. From Nantong I took a bus to Nanjing and from there a flight to Kunming. Yunnan is known for being very beautiful and in addition to Kunming I wanted to visit Xishuangbanna on the border to Laos and the old city of Lijiang.

My strategy when arriving to a new place was to stay the first night near the railway or bus station and then, if I was not happy with the room, try to find a better one. Being a budget traveller I always searched for low cost accommodation, and I read in my guide book about a newly renovated youth hostel which I booked after the first night in Kunming. I stayed there only one night, though, because the room felt like a converted prison cell. I found other good accommodation, though.

It was easy to find a square in the city where people flew the kites in the afternoon. The Kunming kite, which I had not seen previously, is a little bit different from most Chinese kites in that that it doesn't depict an insect or an animal. It is 'just' a geometric shape with rigid wings, often not decorated at all but in plain coloured material.

Having found the kites I came to see I ventured out of the city, to Shilin, the Stone Forest which is a 1 square kilometer park some 100 km east of Kunming. The Stone Forest is a set of limestone formations that seem to arise from the ground similar to stalagmites. Many are looking like petrified trees, hence the name of the park. The whole park has been made accessible to the public by a network of paved paths all around. On the homeway from the Stone Forest the tour bus stopped by a beautiful cave.

Gallery for pictures from Kunming will open in new tab.

Xishuangbanna 7 - 10 Aug

Xishuangbanna is an autonomous area in the very south of Yunnan at about 1000 m over sea level. It is the home of the Dai people but also many other minorities. It is bordering to Myanmar and Laos, and the main city is Jinghong to where I went with a bus from Kunming. The city is on the bank of Mekong river and is a small and a little bit sleepy town, despite the influx of domestic tourists. There is a major Water Splashing Festival in April, but due to its popularity among tourists it is re-enacted on a daily basis in the Peacock Lake Park. Jinghong has a certain charm and is good for a couple of days relaxation.

Gallery for pictures from Xishuangbanna will open in new tab.

Lijiang and Dali 10 - 18 August

Lijiang is located in the north-west part of Yunnan. In 1996 there was an earthquake of over 7 on the Richter scale and it destroyed many of the modern houses while more or less most of the old (really old!) wooden houses escaped undamaged. Since 1998 the Old city of Lijiang is on UNESCO's World Heritage list. The town is also the centre for the Naxi people.

The Old city is incredibly charming and I loved to walk the narrow streets for days on end. The small Yu-he River flows through the town and there are stone paved streets on both sides of the river; sometimes old houses are directly on the river embankment. Most of the houses along the streets are either shops or cafés, and many of the shops sell textiles made by the Naxi people.

Unfortunately I caught a rather nasty cold while in Lijiang. I had to spend one day in bed but still managed to make an excursion a bit up north to the gorge along the Jinsha River. The Jinsha river is just a little bit further downstreams becoming the YangTze river that has its outlet at Nantong, where I had been only two weeks earlier. The gorge runs 16 km along the river and from the river surface up to the summits of the mountains it's a staggering nearly 4000 meters. One famous part is the Tiger Leaping Gorge where it is said that a tiger jumped across the rushing river by 'bouncing' on the rock in the middle.

On the road back to Dali I stopped for a while at the famous market for the minority people.

Then in Dali I had to stay longer than planned because my cold got worse: I even went to a clinic to see a doctor and got a special (?) medicine infused in my arm. I have to agree I was a bit sceptic about it but decided to go ahead with it. Probably no harm in trying...

Gallery for pictures from Lijiang and Dali will open in new tab.

Chengdu 19 - 25 August

As soon as I felt well enough to travel I asked the staff at the hotel to check bus connections to Chengdu in Sichuan, a trip of about 600 km. They came back with a time table and instructions written in Chinese that I could show the bus driver. I had to change bus one time but that went well. I don't remember how long time the bus ride took, only that it was raining when I arrived in Chengdu.

It kept raining so I just stayed indoors at the hotel, nursing my cold. The hotel had a book shelf with leftover books in different languages, and I was happy when i found a book in Swedish, Populärmusik frĺn Vittula [Popular Music from Vittula], a book that was published only the previous year. That saved one rainy day at the hotel.

As far as I remember it kept raining all my days in Chengdu, and as I still suffered from the cold I didn't leave the hotel much.

Like in Dali the staff at the hotel wrote a note in Chinese for me to buy a train ticket to Xi'an, but somehow the ticket clerk did not understand the note so he asked me something. Of course I could not understand his question, but immediately a young man stepped out of the line behind and said: "Can I help you, sir?", and within minutes he had got the problem solved and I had got the ticket.

Gallery for pictures from Chengdu will open in new tab.

Xi'an 26 Aug - 6 September

Xi'an!!!

What a wonderful city! It was the capital of the empire for more than a thousand years during eleven dynasties. The today city has so much to offer of historical and other kinds of sites both in the city itself and in the surroundings. I spent nearly two weeks there and was never bored.

I loved strolling around on the streets and narrow alleys just discovering things, as well as visiting the sights recommended by my guide book.

The most remarkable visiting spot for tourist in Xi'an is of course the Terracotta Warriors, located some 20 km east of Xi'an. To visit this site is really an impressive experience with the massiveness and the richness in details.

The Chinese have a lot of Holy Mountains and Huashan, located a few hours bus drive east of Xi'an, is one of them. It has four peaks (reminds me of a molar), of them is the highest 2160 m. I joined a tour that set off early in the morning, and when we arrived at the mountain the tour leader said the we could expect to reach two of the four peaks before returning back to Xi'an. Luckily there was a cable car to the north peak (1614 m.) which saved at least half a day of climbing. The mountain has a lot of well prepared paths, which mostly are quite narrow and often very steep, sometimes cut out off the rock. To me it seemed that most Chinese were not used to this kind of exercise, so I moved along much faster, even though I was not completely recovered from my cold. As I had managed to reach two of the four peaks just till lunch time I thought I'd have a go on all four. To my little surprised I managed to do that before it was time to take the cable car down again and catch the returning bus.

There is quite a big moslem community in Xi'an, and behind the Great Mosque is the Moslem Quarters with narrow alleys that had small shops selling all kinds of goods, both modern tourist souvenirs and old curio. On recent visits I have discovered that these old small shops have all disappeared, replaced by modern boutiques and cafés.

I have a thing for walls, and Xi'an has a very well preserved city wall, one of the best preserved in the world. It is 14 km long and only a short part of it has disappeared. It is so wide so you rent a bicycle at one of the towers and go bicycling around it!

Wang Zhushan, my friend from Yantai, had previously informed me that the China Kite Association would have its yearly meeting in Xi'an in September. I was lucky to be invited to see the fantastic exhibition of kites by true kite Masters such as Zhang Tianwei, the inventor of kinetic kites, Li Xuahu, now famous for his train train that he was in the process of building at that time, and Li Ping, all of the three from Xi'an. The day after the exhibition the association organized a kite flying on the City Wall and after that kite flying a few members -and one non member!- were invited to the home of Zhang Tianwei, near one of the east gates in the City Wall, to see his other kites and meet his lovely wife.

There were many kite fliers from the city of Taiyan at the kite meeting, and through Wang Zhushan they invited me to join them when they went back to Taiyuan. I felt this was a wonderful opportunity to experience something different, so of course I accepted, and the next day we took a train up to Taiyan, about 400 km. The last picture in the Xi'an gallery is from that train ride. Those who nowadays go to kite festivals in China may recognise two of the persons (except me): Shang Lanzhu in black T-shirt who is the MC (Microphone Captain) at nearly all kite festivals. He is also the President of Taiyan Kite Club. To the right of him, in white, is Cheng Yinghua, now a board member of China Kite Association and attending most kite festivals, documenting the kites with his big cameras.

Gallery for pictures from Xi'an will open in new tab.

Taiyuan 7 - 12 September

In Xi'an I had been invited to join Taiyuan Kite Club back to Taiyuan and the train ride there was a joyful trip as always with Chinese kite fliers as companions.

Taiyan is a city with about 30 million inhabitants, halfway between Xi'an and Beijing and along Fen River. The president of Taiyuan Kite Club, which at that time had 150 members, Shang Lanshu had a spare apartment in which I could stay.

Several of the club members turned up for an impromptu kite flying at the beach of lake Jinyanghu, with a memorable dinner afterwards. I asked Shang Lanzhu if it would be possible to see more of the kites of the members in the club, and the following evening seven of them turned up at the apartment where I stayed. They one by one showed their exquisite kites, and later on, when I have been reading lists of "The World's Ten Best Kite Makers" I have been smiling to myself.

  • Chen Yan Guang - Beijing swallows
  • Yang Yuan Heng - Two Eagles
  • Chang Yu - Butterfly and Gold fish
  • Nieng Fa Yuan - Three eagles (that have an ajustable tail)
  • Cao Tian Bao - Miniature eagles, rabbit and butterflies
  • Wang Qi Zeng - Areoplanes
  • Li Hui Weng - Elephant head train, eagles

On my last day in Taiyaun, September 11, Shang Lanzhu invited me and some club members for a farewell dinner in his home. The TV set was on and I saw an aeroplane flying into a high building. I asked if it was a movie. Someone replied:
- No in America. Now.

Gallery for pictures from Taiyuan will open in new tab.

Beijing 12 - 28 Sept

From Taiyuan I took a bus back to Beijing. An old bus. From experience there was a mechanic onboard addition to the driver and that was good. Halfway the bus broke down and it took the mechanic an hour to repair it.

This time I stayed at a budget hotel just south of Qianmen, it could have been Far East Hotel which had triple bed shared rooms to a low price. Already the second day I stayed there I got the delivery from Nantong: the three 2 m. flute kites had arrived! Now I had problem of organizing the transport to Sweden, but there were several companies in Beijing that have experience in shipping to Europe so it was not really a problem.

A somewhat more real problem was that I hade to extend my 3 months visa: I wanted to stay in China till the end of September before flying out and joining Taiwan International Kite Festival. The guide book informed me that I could do that at a police station, and it turned out to be true. It took just one day to get the three extra weeks that I needed.

Beijing Kite Association one Sunday had a competition at Tongzhou Canal Park in the east outskirts of Beijing. Li Ruoxin adviced me to take the line 1 subway to the east-most station where he met up and we took a bus to the park. At the competition I observed, regarding the eagle kites, that the judges looked at the launch of the kite: The eagle kites were launched on a long string and the launch should be straight up without swaying to any side. Then the judges would measure the flying angle. At this competition I met for the first time the late Huang Yongliang who afterwards for many years was my speaking partner for Beijing Kite Association and, despite his old age, was the international coordinator for the first five Beijing International Kite Festivals. He became a very deer friend!

Li Ruoxin and I also made another social visit to Kong Lingmin out in Shang Zhuang.

Then I wanted a more 'adventurous' Great Wall experience than the one in Mutianyu, so I took a one day trip to the Jinshaling - Simatai section. This section is some 120 km north-east of Beijing and a car drive there takes at least 3 hours. The setup is that you take a car to Jinshaling, walk the 10 km to Simatai to be picked up by the car there. The wall on this section is much more dramatic than the Mutianyu section; it is more narrow, has many more two-storey watch towers and has many other details that the other section doesn't have. At places the wall is broken down so you have to actually walk on side of it for a short distance. This is indeed a very good outing if you like walking.

I had become interested in flutes (or whistles) for pigeons and tried to find them on the bird markets but failed. I was then directed to the 'best' flute maker in Beijing and I called him. He (unfortunately I can not recall his name) was extremely friendly, invited me to his home and showed me many variants of flutes. The flutes were masterpieces of handicraft, truly collectors items, and though they were thus quite expensive I bought a few from him. These flutes are tied to the tail feathers of a pigeon, unlike most of the Indonesian pigeon flutes that are put like a necklace on the pigeons. The flute maker brought in his son and daughter, who spoke good English, to explain all details to me, and in the end he took us all for to a famous Beijing Duck restaurant. He had a website, but unfortunately I can't remember name of the website either (it was something with 'beijingpigeonloft'...)

On my last afternoon in Beijing I went to Tiananmen Square. At that time it was still allowed to fly kites there and this was quite popular. People flying kites and vendors selling kites.

The day I left Beijing to fly to Taiwan it was raining. I was sitting in the airport thinking "I must come back to Beijing".

Gallery for pictures from Beijing in September will open in new tab.