The first time I took a train down from Beijing to Shanghai, one particular spot triggered a strong emotional reaction. It’s a range of mid-sized mountains, dragged at the top, some white stone exposed, dark pine or cypress trees dotting the flanks, among lower, yellower, shorter bushes. I have since gone through this pass a number of times. It stretches from Jinan to Tai’an, the backbone of China Eastern mountaing range. I have since realised why that emotional reaction. It looks incredibly similar to the mountains of Provence, the Cevennes north of Nimes, where my grand father stems from; the Alpilles, by the Rhone river, marking entrance to the Mediterranean rim; the Southern Alps, separating France and Italy; the Appennine, which I crossed many times going from florence to Bologna.
I Often speak of the parallel between China and the Mediterranean. Two sophisticated, old civilisations, both convinced of standing at the centre of the earth. Joyful, warm people. Centres of literary cultures. Elaborate merchant cultures. An eye for beauty. This landscape, halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, is the physical counterpart of this more diffuse sense of alignment. And whenever I pass by, watching the mountains from the train window, I sense the depth of my connection to China.
I felt it more broadly, during this trip, in the Hutongs of Beijing, where old people pull out chairs into the street at night and spend time enjoying the fresh air, greeting neighbours as they pass by, gossiping, playing cards, like my grand parents used to do when I was a kid. It brings back the warm, quasi-magical world of my holidays in provence, where life was happier, warmer, more social. Where you could stand outside the door, where people knew who you were, and the nights smelled of jasmine flower. This I fiound on the streets of Beijing. And as I head south to more metropolitan Shanghai, I feel as if I’m getting back to working life, leaving holidays, warmth and family behind.