Chini Maati – By Meena Prabhu

Reading Meena Prabhu’s travel experiences are always a treat and then she keeps getting better and better with her each book. It’s a passion that she carries with herself as she continues exploring nation after nation. Her points of interests are the ancient civilizations and her expertise, making you feel and be one with all the experiences that she gets through her rigorous but rich travel experiences. Marathi readers are lucky to get a writer of her caliber and reading her books are nothing less than a journey through the eyes of writer into the history, culture, nature, people, food, architecture, politics and many such aspects of any country’s social life.
I personally has a lot of fascination for china, since childhood and still have those blur memories of visiting Dr.Shu from Vasai for my dental problems. I even have few nice images of Chengdu, as I used to watch CCTV in Bahrain, since I didn’t have cable for few days. Surprisingly this CCTV was free to air service in that part of the world and I had seen probably some of the images of cherry blossoms from Chengdu. Even after being so close to us, there have been lots of questions in my mind about china and the Chinese people and customs. I got most of the answers through this book.
In this book Meena’s journey starts from Hongkong and ends at Gwalin. She covers flourishing Shanghai, historical and majestic Beijing, the honeymoon city of Haunzau, the Venice of the east, Sujau and cities like Chengdu, Daatsu and Kunming. As I said the journey keeps on revealing the unknown parts of this ancient culture, both dark and bright spots and makes you realize their contribution to the mankind, as well as their own fights, turmoil and instinct to survive and rise again.
Hongkong was a fisherman town, taken over by British during opium war and now one of the most cosmopolitan city and a trading centre competing with its neighbour Singapore. After getting liberated from British it still maintains its independent status from the rest of the china. Macau was one more such Chinese territory owned by Portuguese and still maintains some of the architectural and cultural significance of its European ruler.
Shanghai was distributed between French, British, Americans and Germans during opium war, the history of which is quite interesting. China exported tea, silk and spices to other parts of the world but never allowed foreign good to enter it’s land. The trading happened only against gold and silver. British never liked it, they started pushing, infiltrating opium into china, cultivated in northern India, thus addicting them to this deadly drug. There were generations which got addicted and British controlled the trade. Finally Chinese emperor requested queen to stop this illegal opium trade, but all in vain.
Finally he had to collect all the opium in the country and drown it in the sea, which triggered the well known opium war. Although British could not rule the whole of china, after china’s defeat china, had to allow British and French to set up trade centers in shanghai called as concession areas. Even the British newspapers condemned this war which was completely baseless and was only intended towards subduing china to open up trade with British.
Result, shanghai is having a very multicultural look with the touch of British, French and American architectures at various parts of the city, now a flourishing city quite close to Hongkong. The yuyuan garden in shanghai developed by a son for his parents to spend their olden days peacefully, is another marvel and piece of an art.
Haunzau is famous for its beautiful lake and the old, very Chinese looking palaces around its banks. It’s a quiet secluded place and the boat ride at night in this lake is a life time experience. A visit to a pagoda and a medical museum, were the highlights of stay in Hangzau. Just like us Indians Ayurveda, Chinese art of medicine was developed several years ago and was passed on from generations to generations and hence preserved to a great extent to date.
Sujau as Marco polo has described is truly a Venice of the east and has most beautiful gardens and canals build over centuries and known since the silk-route times. The canal that connects two of the largest rivers of china flow through this province. It connects Yagatsei and Hau jo va or yellow river.
Tea, chai whatever you call it (now a days costa coffee counters in US sell tea with a name chai). Turkey also calls it chai. The china was consuming this chai for more than 4000 years not just as an energizer, refresher, but as a medicine. There have been chai pandits writing chai shastra and they still have these tea ceremonies happening as an integral part of their culture. Mind you it’s not the black fermented powder that we use in India or in Srilanka, but a Chinese chai is plain tea leaves boiled in plain water, being savored throughout the day.
Meena Prabhu do have a passion for massage and has given the account of massages all across the world as she keeps traveling. The Hamaam from turkey is a bigger ceremony and keeps going for centuries in the form of man to man and woman to woman massage in hamaam khanas with a hot sauna style bath. The author has admired the swift Spanish massage and the systematic massage that you get in few parts of south India using toes and fingers of feet  The Hungary again is famous for it natural hot springs and Germany’s bathing-bathing is again a very ceremonial or rather religious experience where people just relax leaving behind the apprehension of being nude. Chinese massage is again done with your cloths on and more of an acupressure therapy and has developed over a period of time as a science or technique rather than an art.
The china wall, one of the wonders of the world, truly deserves that status. The first brick was laid out when Buddhism was born, which is 600 years BC. It took more than 1800 years for the wall to be completed. It starts from the sea on the east and extends till Gobi desert providing protection from the Mongolian or tartar invasion. Thus china remained protected within these natural boundaries of Himalayas in north, Gobi desert in west, sea in the east and the greatest ever wall built in man’s history the china wall in the north.  China was called the middle kingdom then and they totally isolated from the outside world for centuries. These people have considered themselves superior to the outsiders for ages.
The inventions like tea, paper, gun powder, silk remained unknown to the outside world for centuries.
Meena does find some of our Indian vegetables in china, like “Aaloo chi pana” not the Aaloo as in batata and even tandulka etc. She also narrates a beautiful story related to cross bridge noodles, which is nothing but chicken soup with noodles. Some of the Muslim areas have nice road side kiosks (tapri would be a better word) serving kebabs. Dimsim is again some Chinese specialty, a combination of soups & chicken.

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