Wolf Mountain: Where the Sea-Monsters Were Stayed

Of the large cities of the Yangtze Delta region perhaps the least visited is Nantong. Situated on the northern bank of the Yangtze River, not far from the mouth of this enormous river, Nantong is a modern city best known for its shipbuilding. Its shipyards are still a mainstay of the economy, as well as a number of other industries such as pharmaceuticals and agribusiness. Shipyards notwithstanding, this is not a city which appears on many tourist itineraries, and we were the only foreigner in sight for most of our stay. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to see in Nantong, however. Of the several tourist objects on offer, the most enticing is probably Wolf Mountain, and it was there that we headed first immediately upon arriving in the city.

It was a sweltering mid-summer day when we made our way out to Wolf Hill. Karen, Cameron and I took a taxi from the Nantong bus terminal, having shown the driver the name of the hill (Lang Shan in Chinese) on a piece of paper. The drive through Nantong, a modern, Chinese boom-town took about ten minutes. Though at 106 metres Wolf Hill is not of any great height, the Jiangsu plain along the Yangtze River is very flat, with the result that you can see the temple from some distance. Topped by a multi-storeyed pagoda, it is easily the most interesting feature of the landscape around Nantong.

The taxi dropped us at the foot of the hill, a rocky protuberance rising up above the strip of concrete shops in that far-flung suburb of Nantong. As soon as we got out of the taxi you could hear the roar of cicadas in the trees. For us it reminded us of summer in Australia in our childhoods. Chinese domestic tourists were noticeable by their absence; there wasn’t a single tour bus in the vicinity, and there was no one waiting outside the entrance gates either. Perhaps the summer temperatures had discouraged local sightseers.

We went up to the ticket-office and found that the entrance price was now 50 yuan, which was less than we had been led to believe. Reading more into it than we possibly should have, we speculated that it might have been the dearth of visitors which had prompted the climb-down in price. Ticket in hand, we entered the site, unsure of whether to go left or right. Ahead of us was a the sheer rocky outcrop, with water pooled around it’s base; we clearly couldn’t go that way. Heading right, we came to the bottom terminus of the cable-car. The woman told us that it was a further 40 yuan to ride the cable-car; as often happens in China, it wasn’t included in the entrance price. Not wanting to pay that much, we decided to walk up the hill in the head instead.

Heading back the way we had came, we encountered a few minor monuments around the base of the hill. There was one wooden hall with old timber beams that had the look of being centuries old. Further along, there was a ornate, stone gateway with some stone tombs beyond. These tombs, marked by upright stelae, belonged to revered Chinese poets going back as far as the Tang Dynasty, one thousand years before. Even if you have no idea about Chinese poetry, they are attractive enough examples of traditional design to be worth a quick peep, but they are not the main attraction. Having come that far, the main thing is just to start up the stairway, which leads from there to the temple atop Wolf Hill. Even if you have no idea about Chinese poetry, they are attractive enough examples of traditional design to be worth a quick peep, but they are not the main attraction. Having come that far, the main thing is just to start up the stairway, which leads from there to the temple atop Wolf Hill.

A ten to fifteen minute climb up a steep flight of stairs will bring you all the way to the top of Wolf Mountain. Partway up there is a side path which leads you to the River-Watching Pavilion. It is a pleasant enough diversion, but the views of the Yangtze are far better from the top. We would recommend going straight up and only visiting the River-Viewing Pavilion on the way back down if you haven’t head enough of the sight-seeing yet. Another option is perhaps more worthwhile; it leads to a small temple to the left of the main path, and the relics here include a Ming Dynasty brick pagoda, which appeared to be on a slight lean. Beyond it, through various gateways, is a small wooden building painted in red, with a series of small garden-courtyards inside.

Along the main path there are a few businesses selling cold drinks as well as religious-themed souvenirs such as amulets and prayer beads, but there is little reason to stop excpt for thirst. Just before the final flight of stairs, there is a small pavilion which is of more interest. Though just another Chinese pavilion in most respects, it has a unique motif near the corners of a sea-monster with an open maw. This was a reminder of the fact that this temple had long been favoured by sailors about to go on long sea-voyages. A famous monk who had once resided here was credited with the ability to protect seafarers from the monsters of the deep.

At the top you will receive a panoramic view of the Yangtze River, which is perhaps the best thing about this hill. Down along the Yangtze shoreline are Nantong’s famous shipyards, still the most celebrated of the town’s industries. But it was the vast sweep of the Yangtze River itself, the third longest river in the world, which is most impressive. Nantong is the last major city on the banks of the Yangtze before it finally enters the sea. The Yangtze here is very broad- you certainly can’t see the far side- and it is certainly a good place to get a view of the river that has been so crucial in the history of China.

Wolf Mountain as seen from below

Wolf Mountain as seen from below

Then up a short, steep flight of stairs is the main temple. The gateway is a colorful mix of yellow walls, postal-red door-frames and crossbeams and a black-tiled roof with glazed, porcelain tiles for ornamentation. Again a sea-monster motif was in evidence, adding to the local charm of the shrine. A second flight of stairs will lead you up another wooden hall, just one of a series of buildings rambling over the crest of the hill. This one had statues of colorful Buddhist deities in glass cabinets and a gold-painted statue of Guilin, a goddess of compassion. Off to the side are various monastic buildings including a vegetarian kitchen, but these seemed to be closed to casual visitors. Instead there is another terrace out the side, which affords more views of the surrounding plain.

On the way back down we finally stopped at the River-Viewing Pavilion and bought some bottles of water off the drinks vendor who made a lonely living there; the whole time we were sitting there, no one else appeared. For us, it was enough to sit surrounded by trees and the sound of birds and cicadas, a rare treat in the industrial heartland of Jiangsu. Though we all agreed that the charms of Wolf Mountain were somewhat modest, we thought it was worth a couple of hours of our time, and were certainly in no hurry to get back to the bustle of Shanghai.

The Former Residence of Xue Fucheng

The Xue Fucheng Mansion was built in the second half of the 19th century, and such is its size that it was once known as “Half of Wuxi”. Fucheng got around restrictions on how big houses could be by building what is, in fact, a number of interconnected houses set around separate courtyards. Large as the complex is today, it was once three and a half times bigger. Scholar, writer, diplomat and businessman, this Jiangsu high-flyer built his home in the Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze) style which we find in the older Jiangsu towns like Nanjing, Suzhou or Yangzhou. Apart from anything else, it is a marvelous example of a Qing Dynasty mansion.

The first courtyard notably advertises the charms of the house. There is an open courtyard of grey cobblestones, which is surrounded by airy corridors and graced by Jiangsu garden touches. On one side there is an elegantly weathered boulder from Lake Taihu superimposed against a brilliantly white wall, and on the other side of is a bonsai gingko tree in a ceramic pot. Though the busy streets were only a few metres away, we had already left modern Wuxi behind and returned to its formal, scholarly past.

It was a rainy day when we visited the mansion, and a constant drizzle was falling in the courtyards. We then explored the rooms behind the first courtyard and these were a typically somber affair. There were rooms full of polished timber furniture, many of the chairs inlaid with marble. Other decorations included paintings and calligraphy on various scrolls, adding to the elegantly staid Confucian atmosphere. With only natural lighting, these were gloomy and unwelcoming, but they did give an authentic sense of “old China”. Yet on closer inspection, there were also European touches belying Fucheng’s diplomatic assignments. In one room there was an ornate clock on the mantelpiece, and on another there were panels of colored glass set among the woodwork.

At some point in wandering through the rooms and corridors, Cameron and I got separated. I ended up at the opera stage at the far end of long, narrow corridor. As luck would have it, there was a traditional opera performer on the stage, singing and performing a traditional dance to the accompaniment of a traditional stringed instrument. The woman, who was probably around 50 years old, had an aristocratic elegance as she performed her mournful song. The dramatic setting of the stage only added to the charm. In front of it was a deep, turquoise-colored pool with large, white or orange carp circling in the water. There were also elaborate rockeries and bamboo groves in the courtyard, completing the time-old Chinese ambience. Sadly, there was no one else but me in the audience, as it was an impressive performance.

Not far from the opera stage was a long, paved courtyard surrounded two-storied buildings with elaborate railings. Apart from the lacquered woodwork, there was an abundance of leafy shrubs, and even a smattering of lily-pads in pots filled with water. In another courtyard nearby, a pair of cycads grew from a pot on either side of a old stone and wood doorway, while black-tiled eaves sloped gently down on either side, creating airy porches. There were rooms and corridors everywhere, and it was impossible to imagine of how many people the household had once been comprised; whatever the answer, the enormous mansion felt deserted on that rainy afternoon.

After a look around there, I went in search of Cameron and found him looking at a historical exhibit about period costumes. Glass-panelled lanterns hung from the ceiling, with red tassels dangling at the bottom, and blue-and-whiteware stood about on side tables, adding an air of dignity. We walked up an old flight of wooden stairs to an upper storey, sometimes looking down into the courtyards on either side. At the back of this building there was a section which had been converted into a function centre of some kind, with tacky karaoke booths available for rent. The idea didn’t look like it had been a success and there was certainly no one on hand as we walked by, but it was possible that some of the rooms might have been rented out at night time. Still, at least they hadn’t materially damaged the structure itself; there had been no walls knocked out or garish decorations installed.

Our last stop was the garden area behind these buildings. Being a Jiangsu gentlemen of his day, Xue Fucheng had wanted a typical Jiangnan garden to show off his refined taste. At the rear of the complex is a large garden with shade trees, very large, sculptural rockeries and a greenish pond filled with pink water-lilies. Hiding behind a clump of foliage was the obligatory resting pavilion, with the eaves turned up sharply. This was all rather lovely and like all beautiful, old places in China it made us mindful of all the cultural heritage that had been lost.

In one corner of the garden is the most “Western” room in the whole complex: Xue Fucheng’s billiards room. Here we find not only a newfangled 19th century telephone, but also the first billiards table imported into China. Completing the Western appearance of the room is the colored glass and steel window-frame, both of which must have seemed remarkable novelties in 19th century Wuxi. This was the part of the mansion which wad designed to remind visitors of his European worldliness.

Xue Fucheng's billiards room

Xue Fucheng’s billiards room

But perhaps even more important and more revealing is the electrical silk machine (now in a sadly rusted condition) which is found in a nearby room. This is part of a small exhibit of the Fucheng family’s commercial activities as pioneers in the silk trade. They were the first family to import an electric silk weaving machine from Japan, which had been the first Asian country to industrialize. The Fucheng family amassed tremendous wealth from selling silk to both domestic and foreign markets. Both modernizers and part of a traditional Chinese ruling elite, the Fucheng family represented some of the social conflicts in late Qing Dynasty China. A visit to their mansion had proven unexpectedly illuminating.

Nanjing’s Mighty City Walls

Following the advice of the Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided to climb up onto Nanjing’s city walls behind Jiming Temple. A taxi to the temple from downtown cost us around 20 yuan, and took only ten to fifteen minutes; the roads were quiet over the whole Dragon Boat Festival period. Having gotten out of the taxi, I went over to the window and paid the entrance fee. At 10 yuan, it was reasonably priced and just like at Qixia Temple, you got three incense sticks for the price of the entrance fee; free incense must have been a Nanjing thing.

Like so many temples in China, this complex boasts very little in the way of historic architecture considering its great age. According to legend it was founded some 1450 years ago during the Liang Dynasty, but few of the surviving buildings date back further than the 1980s. A disastrous fire ripped through the complex in 1973, engulfing most of the buildings, so most of what you see today is a modern reconstruction. Not that that should turn you off a visit here: the temple has a magnificent hilltop site with views across to downtown Nanjing and nearby Xuanwu Lake. Fans of Chinese temple architecture will also find much to admire amongst the halls, ornamental shrubs,  incense containers, steep staircases rising up the hillsides and the seven-storey bell-tower  at the peak, which rather resembles the Miaoguang Tower in Wuxi. There is also a reasonably priced vegetarian restaurant at the temple.

Jiming Temple from the Nanjing City Walls

Jiming Temple from the Nanjing City Walls

But for us, Jiming Temple was mainly chosen as an access point to get onto Nanjing’s Ming-Dynasty City Walls. There is an entrance gate at the rear of the temple complex where you can buy tickets for the walls. The cost for a normal ticket was 15 yuan or you can get a “postcard ticket” for 18 yuan; we opted for the cheaper version and walked straight out onto the “Taiping” section of the walls, which runs from Jiming Temple to the foot of Purple Mountain, with the northern shore of Xuanwu lake close by the wall. As we got our first close-up look of the walls, I thought of the passage from Granville Gower’s 1843 book in which offers a detailed description of the walls as they appeared at the close of the 1842 Opium War:

The walls are built of brick, of an average thickness of 25 feet at the top, and 60 feet at the bottom, and vary from 35 to 90 feet in height. In places they are built against the escarped sides of hills, where they cross the even ground and over the dips: they are as high inside as on the out; this we could distinctly see from our position. They are built like this of Chin-kiang-foo, of bric, propped by earthen banks. Round their whole extent tents were pitched; and where the natural defences were not so good, and opposite the gates, they were numerous. From our position we looked down upon a guard-house full of troops, all staring up at us; their gingals, matchlocks, bows and arrows, and quick lime, were piled in readiness under the cover of a shed.

Today the military purpose of the wall is much less obvious than at the time of Gower’s visit, which took place during a war, but there are some cannons installed along the wall behind Jiming Temple, which serve as a reminder of its original function. These would obviously have been popular with tourists, but at the time of our visit there was no one posing with them because we were the only people on the walls. Enjoying our escape from the crowds of urban China, we decided to walk along the city walls as far as Taiping Gate, which was signposted as being 1.7 kilometres away. Considerable a distance as this was, it constituted only a small part of the extant walls, and even less when compared to the original scale of the fortifications. In Gower’s day, the walls had yet to face the depredations of the Taiping Rebellion or World War Two and were much more extensive.

The present walls of Nanjing encircles an undulating plain, and are bounded on three sides by walls of irregular height, and on the fourth by a river. They form an irregular pentagon: the old walls extend far beyond the present range; they can be traced but with difficulty; and it asserted that they passed 50 miles over hill and dale. The new ones, by our rough calculation, measure 22 miles, and have 9 gates; seven into the Chinese, two into the Tartar city.

Many of the bricks are marked with Chinese writing, and it is said that the wall’s builder, the Emperor Hongwu, insisted that the brick-makers use their name on their bricks to aid in the identification of low-grade building materials; apparently, some of them tried to pass off defective bricks with too much sand in the mix. Cameron and I took different things from this tale. I was struck by the organizational capacities of the ancient Chinese: their capacity to monitor large supply chains for ancient construction projects. Viewing the story from quite a different angle, Cameron saw that corruption had been a serious problem even in ancient China, with fraudulent producers trying to make a fast buck (yuan) from the central government.

As the wall nears the Taiping Gate, there are excellent views across to Purple Mountain, where the vast mausoleum of the Emperor Hongwu was constructed. Today the mountain is also home to the mausoleum of Chinese hero, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Neither of these complexes are visible from the city walls, but the forested slopes of the mountain make for a very attractive backdrop to the lake. It became obvious how the wall-builders had made effective of natural landforms in fortifying Nanjing; the walls, the lake and the mountain had all been utilized in shielding Nanjing from attackers.

Of further interest was a black, brick pagoda, which was perched up on a hill above the Taiping Gate. With a shape like a Tang Dynasty Pagoda- in particular, the famous Flying Goose Pagoda in Xian- the structure had an ancient look, and we were intrigued that none of our guidebooks had mentioned it. But when we researched it later, we learned that it dated only to 1944. Designed in imitation of the “stacked boxes” look of a Tang Dynasty Pagoda, Sanzang Pagoda had been built to house an ancient Buddhist skull relic which had been found during World World Two. At the time of our visit, the hill was being “renovated”, with the eroded hillsides being concrete rendered, presumably to protect the foundations of the structure. But rather than climb up there, we decided to walk back to Jiming Temple and proceed follow another section of the wall southward to the next gate.

The Grand Canal

While the Great Wall of China is undoubtedly the nation’s most famous engineering feat, another ancient Chinese construction project was arguably just as impressive, and certainly more successful. While the Great Wall repeatedly failed to keep out invaders from the North, this ancient construction is still being used today. That project is the Grand Canal, an 1800 kilometre running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Completed in the Sui dynasty in the early seventh century, this fourteen hundred year old canal is still the longest manmade waterway in the world.

The earliest stage of the Grand Canal dates back to the Wu state, some 2500 years ago, when an ancient waterway was built from Yangzhou on the Yangtze River to the Huai River, 170 kilometres to the North. However, the great bulk of the construction can be attributed to the reign of the Sui Dynasty emperor, Emperor Yangdi. In 608 he ordered that the canal be extended to Beijing in the north and in 610 he demanded it be extended four hundred kilometres from Zhenjiang on the Yangtze River to the southern city of Hangzhou. This section of canal became known as the Jiangnan Canal. With the completion of this canal, Northern and Southern China were reliably linked in all seasons. The project cost at least tens of thousands of lives and the tax burden on the Chinese people was so huge it greatly aided in the collapse of the short-lived Sui Dynasty, but Yongdi’s great infrastructure project proved to have numerous benefits for the nation.

Bridges and barges on the Grand Canal

For one, it enabled troops to be transported quickly in the case of an attack on the Northern frontier, giving a boost to national defence. Second and crucially, it increased the economic interdependence of the North and South, giving a massive boost to the Chinese economy. Cheap and plentiful grain from the Yangtze River basin could be diverted north to the area around Beijing, increasing its food security. In Chinese the Grand Canal is known as the “Grain Transport River”, giving a hint at its crucial role in feeding the kingdom. Marco Polo also described its importance in his writings, noting, “Every year the southern provinces provide the king with everything wanted to needed to live well in the infertile province of Beijing, all of which must arrive on a fixed day, otherwise those who are paid to transport them are subject to a heavy fine”. For many centuries it was one of the busiest arteries of trade and commerce in the world, and it is noteworthy that most of the most prosperous cities in China and still located near this ancient waterway.

In 2005 China began the World Heritage listing process for the Grand Canal, saying of the waterway, “The canal is a manifestation of our country’s superiority over the world in water engineering and transport and it has been bequeathed to us as a rich legacy.” Despite its cultural and economic importance, it looks much the same as many smaller canals, so it has never been embraced as a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, for those interested in Chinese history, the Grand Canal is worth seeing. We got our best view of in in the Jiangsu city of Wuxi; in that part of Jiansgu, it is still regularly used by barges, which makes it more appealing as a sight. The Grand Canal passes about one kilometre to the west of the old town of Wuxi, and you can get a good view of it from Xihui Scenic Spot. There is even a barge harbour in town, which might be an interesting port of call (no pun intended) for those wanting to see canal life at its busiest.

The Old Town of Mudu: Canals, Pearls and an Ancient Pine

The province of Jiangsu consists largely of alluvial plains around the mouth of the Yangtze River. This low-lying land is crossed by a vast network of canals and channels, many of which date back centuries. Today the province has been transformed into an industrial powerhouse, but traces of its former self can still be found in the so-called canal towns. Over the past decade or two, as Jiangsu has been strung with high-tension cables and paved over with concrete, these towns have become increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, nostalgic for the Jiangsu of yesteryear. As a result, many of them have now been reinvented as tourist towns, with entrance charges, restaurants for tour groups and rental gondolas cruising the canals of these “Venices of the East”.

One of the lesser-visited canal towns is Mudu, which we visited for a half-day excursion from Suzhou in April 2014. It is quite easy to reach as Mudu is now the final stop on Line 2 of the Suzhou Metro. The station is still around three kilometres from Mudu Ancient Town, so you can either walk it in about thirty minutes or take a taxi for 12 yuan, which is the minimum fare. When you get there, you will notice an old wooden corridor running besides a narrow canal in the direction of the old town. Follow this and you will soon end up on Shantang Street, which is the main thoroughfare of Old Mudu. It has now been thoroughly revamped for the tourist trade, with souvenir shops selling the usual variety of necklaces, amulets, Chinese teas and local delicacies. The main regional specialty is pearls from nearby Lake Taihu, the third largest freshwater lake in China, and Mudu’s reason-for-being. Apart from perusing the souvenir stalls, the main reason to come here is to soak up the “canal town” atmosphere. Willows droop over stone-lined canals, and tourists sit on the edge of old, stone bridges, peering down at the gondolas which go drifting by.

Sadly, most of the old town has been demolished in recent years, as Mudu has become eaten up by the suburban sprawl of Suzhou, a city of some four million people. Nonetheless, there are still a few streets worth of old houses remaining, with whitewashed facades and black-tiled roofs. Overall, however, to get the most out of Mudu you have to spring for an entrance ticket to the main sights. At the time of our visit, a combination ticket had gone up from 60 to 78 yuan. Having limited time, we bought single tickets for the Mountain Garden and Ancient Pine Villa instead, which totalled 60 yuan. The Ancient Pine Villa (20 yuan entrance) proved to be the highlight of our trip to Mudu. The front of the villa consists of a magnificent wooden building, sometimes referred to as “the tower”. If it hasn’t already been used a setting for Chinese historical drama, it should be, as this is a singularly atmospheric building. Every surface of this wooden building has been carved with phoenixes, birds, flowers and other propitious motifs; the entire structure is a work of art. The creaking floorboards and the garden views make the house a romantic reminder of old China.

In the eighteenth-century, Mudu was a prosperous town of merchants and scholars. It was famous for the high-quality of its metalwork. It was especially known for the quality of its pewter, but its silversmiths were also renowned. Connected with Taihu Lake by a series of canals, it could trade its fine metal products for other goods passing along the Grand Canal. The wealth from all this trade was reflected in the fine buildings and gardens which were created by the merchant elite during this period. As in nearby Suzhou, the wealthy liked to showcase their fine taste and intellect by the building of Taoist-inspired gardens. The Ancient Pine Villa had a beautiful example of a Suzhou-style garden. Here we found a stylized representation of the world of nature, with a pond, a towering rockery symbolising the mountains of China, a pagoda perched high above it all, and trees representing the vegetal world. A beautiful old gingko tree can be found on the grounds, as well as the eponymous pine tree. Said to be over five-hundred years old, the pine on the grounds of this villa is venerable and scaly-barked, adding to the old world charm.

From here we visited Hongyin Mountain Villa, often touted as the most impressive garden and residence in Mudu, costing 40 yuan for a single visit. It boasts two Ming Dynasty gardens, known as the Xiuye Garden and Xiaoyin Garden. While they are far more extensive than the gardens at Ancient Pine Villa, they have been less well-maintained, and overall we found this residence less satisfying than its smaller neighbour. It has a very large lily-pond but at the time of our visit the lilies had withered, giving the garden a rather forlorn look. Still, it is a very good place to see the pitted, limestone rocks for which the Suzhou gardens are famous. The rockeries at Hongyin Mountain Villa are especially dramatic- probably an attempt to create mountain ranges in miniature.

As we left this site, we saw a crowd of Chinese tourists gathering along the canal. A boat was approaching with people in traditional costumes. When the boat reached the landing, a group of servants in Qing Dynasty costumes all sank to their knees and bowed their heads. An important looking personage disembarked from the boat, surrounded by his entourage, and the servants kowtowed before him. This performance, we guessed, was a reenactment of the visit to Mudu of Emperor Qianlong, a Qing Dynasty emperor who had visited Mudu six times. It was a reminder that though Mudu had been swallowed up by modern Suzhou, an industrial city, it was a town with an ancient cultural heritage.

Rockery and pagoda at Ancient Pine Villa

Rockery and pagoda at Ancient Pine Villa