About Duncan Mills
Duncan Mills is the Deputy Editor of Traveler magazine, one of
the UK's leading travel titles, and a founder and Director of a London-based contract publishing company, which is also involved in organizing the Travelers' Tales Festival, an annual celebration of the very best travel writing and photography. An award-winning journalist, talented photographer and avid traveler, Duncan has visited more than fifty countries on six continents.
Latest Posts by Duncan Mills
A gallery of images from Qingcheng Mountain in Sichuan province, an important centre of Taoism. The main temple is reached via a winding path through the forest to the peak. Local people are helping repair damage to the trail and the mountainside caused by the 2008 earthquake that struck the region. They can be seen scampering up the mountain with heavy loads of bricks and bollards strapped on their back. Each exhausting trip earns them a few dollars.
Steam rises from the metal pot in front of me as I lift up my chopsticks and grab another tasty morsel that has been cooking away within. This purpose-built basin is divided into four quarters, which contains gently bubbling sesame oil. Two of the sections are also flavoured with chillies and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, giving the liquid a deep red colour – the traditional, fiery way.
This is ‘numb and spicy’ hotpot, a hallmark of Sichuanese cuisine. It’s also a specialty of the Da Miao restaurant on Jin Li Street in the city of Chengdu, where I try this famous dish.
As we eat we’re entertained by dance performances on a small stage and ritualised tea pouring – using a two-metre-long vessel like an extravagant watering can.
Waitresses scurry from table to table, carrying beers and plates of fresh food to cook. Chatter and laughter fill the open restaurant area downstairs, although I sense that more serious conversations are being had in the more discreet upstairs rooms by businessmen and Communist officials. Deals are being struck through the steam.
“A restaurant is like a business place,” says Heng Xiao, a film producer from Beijing who is in town for a few days. The atmosphere is relaxed, you can drink freely and “sometimes you might agree to something you don’t mean to” he adds with a chuckle.
Yet Sichuanese food isn’t just about spicy hotpot. This year Chengdu has been listed as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. It is the first Asian city to be given this accolade. The narrow old lane of Jin Li Street shows the variety of Sichuan cooking, with excellent street food amongst the smart restaurants like Da Miao. There’s fried octopus and assorted meats dipped in chilli paste and then skewered on sticks. The smell of noodles, wonton and tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) hangs in the air. Dainty pastries and sugary treats can also be tried. But none of these flavours is quite so eye watering as the hotpot!
A few more images of Sichuan food (all images by Duncan Mills):
At the confluence of three rivers stands – or rather sits – the giant Buddha of Leshan. The waters of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers run past the red cliff face into which the Buddha was carved during the Tang Dynasty. Starting from the head down, it took 90 years to finish construction of the 71-metre Buddha.
The waters are high following several days of torrential downpours, and the rain continues to fall as I join a group of Chinese day-trippers in fluorescent raincoats on a short boat trip to the Buddha. As we make our way to the site my guide, Zhao Jing Bin – or John as he’s called when he uses his western name – shares the story behind this staggering monument.
“A travelling monk called Hai Tong came to Leshan in the early 700s to study. He saw that the local farmers and fishermen suffered each year from floods. So he decided to use the power of Buddha to control the waters and help the people,” he explains.
For several years, he says, the monk travelled around the country raising enough money to realise his vision. But when he finally returned a local official threatened to obstruct the project by refusing him a building permit.
‘You can take out my eyes but you can’t have any of this money,’ Hai Tong is believed to have said in response, in defiant demonstration of his determination and faith.
“So he gouged out his eyes,” John says, “he really did.”
But that’s not quite the end of the tale. Fifteen years later the monk died, by which time only the head had been finished. Delays and lack of funding meant that it would be a further 75 years before Hai Tong’s followers could complete the project. And a great job they did.
A gallery of photos from the Sichuan Opera, which is performed each night at the Jinjiang Stage in the provincial capital, Chengdu. The venue in the centre of the city is built on the grounds of the Yue Lai Tea Garden, said to be one of the original places for Sichuan Opera performances. The opera is a series of short acts adapted from classical Chinese novels, myths and folk tales. Highlights include face changing and fire breathing, as well as singing and music solos.
The city has the highest density of teahouses of any city in China. There are literally thousands of teashops, where people go to play cards, chat and relax… with a good cuppa, and endless refills.
We tend to think that we Brits are good tea drinkers – a nation of tea drinkers, we claim. But actually although we drink a lot of the stuff we tend to stick to good old English Breakfast tea or Earl Grey.
The Chinese are far more dedicated and adventurous. Black, green or green with jasmine leaves perhaps, one of countless blends and variations. The name I liked the most? ‘Snow on top of the mountain’ tea. Wonderful.
At Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage (see previous blog) I sat down in a secluded courtyard garden for my own quiet tea moment, sipping from a teacup on which was painted the figure of Lu You, a poet almost as famous as Du Fu himself.
Sitting at a table with elegant calligraphy on the tablecloth – with words meaning ‘dragon’, ‘happiness’ and other such things in Chinese –
I learned how to drink tea the Chinese way, using the delicate lid of the cup to scoop the green tea and jasmine to the side, then balancing it on the top in such a way that the leaves were kept out of my mouth, whilst still leaving a gap from which to drink – and breath in the aroma – of the fresh tea.
And I could begin to see why the Chinese enjoy their tea quite so much.
Chinese languages reveals a lot about pandas. In Taiwan they refer to them as ‘cat bears’ – cuddly black-and-white animals, with Mickey Mouse ears and an endearing appetite for sitting around harmlessly chewing bamboo. Elsewhere in China, the emphasis switches and their name translates as ‘bear cats’. Wild. Untamed. Not fully understood.
In truth, they’re probably somewhere in the middle. But our understanding of panda behaviour is certainly improving, thanks in a large part to pioneering research currently being done in the Sichuan city of Chengdu, the so-called ‘panda capital of the world’.
To say that the city is proud of its connection with giant pandas is an understatement. I travelled there recently and saw images of pandas everywhere: they appear on the bonnets of the city’s taxis, on billboards, on all manner of souvenirs and even on cigarette packets.
Chengdu’s panda ambassadors
The Chengdu authorities have also recently appointed two ‘panda ambassadors’ – the Chinese actor Jackie Chan and British wildlife presenter Nigel Marven – to help raise awareness of the plight of this lovable yet threatened species, as well as the research being undertaken to try to preserve them. Chan adopted two pandas and donated £100,000 to research. Marven, meanwhile, has just finished filming a TV series about the pandas, which is due to be broadcast this autumn in the UK and then subsequently to a much wider audience worldwide.
At the Chendgu Panda Base, however, you can see the real thing. Although the panda enclosures aren’t especially large and a heavy cloudburst on my arrival demonstrates just how the floods elsewhere in Sichuan have caused such devastation of late – it is nevertheless a real thrill to see them up close.
I’m saddened to see an adult pacing up and down restlessly, as pouring rain seeps into its fur, but am assured that they love the rain. And three one-year-old cubs inside the centre’s nursery building seem more than content, huddled up next to each other in a purposefully dimly-lit room. Wearing a mask and gown to avoid passing on any infection, I’m able to stand within just a few feet of them. They look like cuddly teddies, but one of the three opens its mouth to reveal a set of teeth that could easily shatter bone and I’m reminded of the giant panda’s wild side, even with ones so young. Soon it’s time to leave them be and I shuffle out of the room in my surgeon’s attire, smiling from an encounter I’ll never forget.
Pandas in the wild
An estimated 1800 giant pandas still live in their native habitat, the bamboo-covered mountains of Sichuan and neighbouring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. A further 300 giant pandas are in zoos and preserves around the world, with just under a hundred here at the Chengdu Panda Base.
Several of these pandas were moved from the Wolong reserve to the north of Chengdu, after the UNESCO World Heritage site was severely damaged by a major earthquake that struck the region in 2008 – while more than 60 were relocated to the more spacious panda facility at Bifengxia, a few hours from Chengdu.
Although Wolong is still being rebuilt, George Schaller, who helped set up the centre has expressed his optimism about the future of pandas now that the study of pandas and captive breeding programmes is starting to generate results. Indeed, while I was in Chengdu a baby panda, named Jiao Qing, had just been born in the nursery at the panda base. It is hoped that if numbers can be secured in captivity then in time it may be possible to begin reintroducing some giant pandas into the wild – the key to their ultimate survival.
Eats shoots and leaves
For a long time it was thought that pandas simply wouldn’t mate in captivity but panda scientists now understand that they are intensely solitary animals in the wild and that the females are only on heat for a few days each year. For the rest of the year males and females cannot bear (excuse the pun) one another and will fight if put together. So staff at the centre now monitors the females closely so that they can place them with male pandas at the right time.
They are also pandering (again, sorry) to the animals needs in other ways – bringing them different types of bamboo and installing air conditioning in the breeding centre to help keep them cool.
“Pandas often give birth to twins”, Nigel Marven explains to me, “ and yet in the wild one would normally die.” The reason being that they are so small when they’re born, coupled with the fact that the mother cannot produce enough milk for two. But, he tells me, at the Chengdu centre they’re able to rotate the babies between mum’s milk and bottled milk. So now there is a good chance that both can survive in captivity – which again helps bolster those fragile panda numbers and hopes that one-day the giant panda might be removed from the endangered list.
“After making the series Panda Week I’m really optimistic about the future of giant pandas,” Marven adds.
Who knows, if the breeding and reintroduction to the wild scheme is successful then little Jiao Qing could be one of those released at some stage. I certainly hope so.
It was my first visit to New York and, like so many before me, I felt like I was on a film set. The landmarks, neon lights and flow of human traffic provided such a strong sense of deja vu. So it was perhaps fitting that my first few nights in the Big Apple were spent in an area that has become intrinsically linked with the film industry, and in a hotel co-owned by one of the industry’s biggest names, Robert De Niro.
The Greenwich Hotel lies at the corner of Greenwich Street and North Moore Street, in the neighbourhood of Tribeca. Eight stories of hand-cut bricks, it has become a refuge for filmmakers, actors and others looking for privacy and quiet in the heart of Downtown Manhattan.
Tribeca’s name derives from ‘Triangle Beneath Canal Street’ and the area was for many years characterised by its cobbled streets – the hotel offers a complimentary shoeshine service to remove any scuffs – and a profusion of abandoned warehouses. But it has gone through something of a renaissance and is now considered one of New York’s hottest areas, with artists and celebrities taking up residence in the big loft spaces.
De Niro – referred to by some as Tribeca’s de facto mayor – has been a key figure in the area’s resurgence, through a number of business ventures. He first came to the area while looking for somewhere to set up a gym while filming Raging Bull. And he’s had ties with it ever since. He co-founded the Tribeca Film Center in an old coffee warehouse, which was soon followed by a restaurant, the Tribeca Grill. Then in 2002 he founded the Tribeca Film Festival, in an attempt to restore some of the area’s lost vitality after the September 11 attacks – Ground Zero is just a few minutes’ walk down Greenwich Street.
New York may be the city that never sleeps, but the 88 guest rooms and suites at the Greenwich oppose that mantra. My Superior Greenwich Room has a super kingsize bed, generous pillows and a large headrest that encourage deep, contented sleep. There’s a comfy armchair and ottoman beside a window overlooking Greenwich Street, with a leather Beaumont & Fletcher couch to the side.
Although no two rooms are alike, they are all furnished with a Tibetan silk or antique rug – mine showing the motif of a strutting peacock. The ensuite walk-in rain shower, with Carrara marble on the floor, is a further nod to an appreciation of handicrafts from around the world. Other rooms have Moroccan tiles.
The 13 suites are even more lavish, coming with private saunas and working fireplaces. Two duplex suites feature soaring skylights and chef’s kitchens, while the Penthouse includes its own media complex and a rooftop garden with views of the Hudson River.
The general guest rooms have some good modern touches of their own, with large flat-screen televisions and Bose docking stations by the bed, for use with complimentary hotel iPods. The minibar is also complimentary for non-alcoholic drinks, which makes a pleasant change to the norm. Guests can also tuck in to treats such as Uncle Jerry’s Homemade Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels and Nestle Butterfingers, from jars dotted around the room.
The hotel’s best treasure, however, is located in the basement: a swimming pool and lounge area lit by lanterns and housed within the frame of a 250-year-old ryokan-style Japanese farmhouse. The pool is the centrepiece of the hotel’s Shibui Spa, which takes its name from the Japanese for ‘a subtle and unobtrusive approach’ – a concept it took seriously enough to transport the wood and bamboo from Kyoto, employing 13 Japanese craftsmen to reconstruct it in this funky part of Manhattan. No nails were used in its construction, and the highly-skilled craftsmen are known as ‘living treasures’ in Japan for their knowledge of traditional knot-tying techniques. Tranquil music plays in the low light as I enjoy a swim beneath these wonderful old beams, and for a while I forget the big city is outside.
There’s also a gym, should any guests succumb to New York’s penchant for vigorous daily exercise – which is well demonstrated when I go to stretch my legs by the nearby West Side Highway, where a narrow strip of park runs beside the Hudson River. A cool breeze drifts in from the water, ruffling the hair of joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers with tiny pristine pets on leads.
The Greenwich is pet friendly, welcoming guests ‘whatever their species’. Pitching myself somewhere between dog-walker and Raging Bull, I enjoy a few ‘Raging Dog’ ales in the Greenwich’s pretty courtyard, where the gentle chatter of New Yorkers enjoying pre-dinner drinks sounds beneath latticed vines. Windows on one side of the courtyard look through to the Locanda Verde restaurant, an airy and evidently very popular eatery with outdoor café seating on Greenwich Street in the summer.
The courtyard also connects to a drawing room via custom-made French doors: the mirrored glass in these was salvaged from New York’s Flatiron Building. The drawing room has a high ceiling and a roaring fire topped by a thick mantelpiece on top of which stand candles with long streaks of dried wax. On either side of the fireplace are curiosities from around the world: wall-mounted ibex horns and Japanese-style drawings of elephants among them. It feels like a discreet members’ club, with leather chairs in the lounge and interesting works of art on show.
Art features in the lobby and on a wall behind the check-in desk, as well. Several paintings are signed with a distinctive ‘De Niro’ – not the signature of the famous actor, however, but of his late father, Robert senior, a well-known Abstract Expressionist. Jackson Pollock and other cultural figures, including Tennessee Williams, were visitors to Robert senior’s Greenwich Village loft in the 1940s and 50s – and this upbringing clearly galvanised Robert junior’s love of art.
I think about capturing this artistic spirit with my camera, but suspect that photography is forbidden here. Art may be precious, but privacy and anonymity are, I sense, just as much of a luxury for some of the guests, here at the Greenwich.
Two orioles chirp on green willow trees, a row of egrets fly into the sky.
Through the window I can see the ancient snow of the Xiling snow-capped mountain.
Near my door anchor boats from distant East China.
Above is one of the best-known verses by Du Fu, a celebrated Tang Dynasty poet who lived for a number of years in Chengdu during the eighth century.
During his time in Chengdu he was at his most creative, writing a number of poems depicting the peaceful life he had there in his famous ‘thatched hut’, among them My Thatched Hut was torn apart by Autumn Wind.
Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage (albeit a reconstruction) remains just as peaceful today – set within a tranquil park of quiet courtyards and gardens, with carp-filled ponds, tall pines and bamboo thickets, open-sided shrines and bronze and stone statues of the great man.
It’s a getaway from the modern buildings and congested roads of Chengdu, where locals come to practice Tai Chi in the mornings and listen to the song of laughing thrushes.