In my last column, I wrote about my eye-opening experience in Kaifeng in Henan Province.

A very different kind of experience were watertowns like Zhouzhuang (周莊, the “Venice of the Orient”), which made me realize the impressive vitality of the Grand Canal: even today, countless ships ply their trade across the heartland of China along this waterway that is about 1,400 years old and 1,776 km long. For comparison, I grew up partly along a major canal in Holland that is now 62 years “old” and 72 km “long”: the Grand Canal required recalibration of my mind!

We saw a different kind of prosperity around Kaiping (開平) in Guangdong Province, in the form of the remarkable fortified homes called Diaolous (碉樓). These UNESCO-protected vertical homes reflect wealth returning to China with émigrés who were successful overseas and melded western and local architectural motifs. I see the Diaolous as the forerunners of the current wave of fancy skyscrapers sprouting up all over China!

As another perspective, we found a surprising contrast in the 1500-year-old Shaolin Temple (少林寺) in Henan Province: its philosophical quietude intimately mingles with martial arts. It also reflects the energy that I sensed in the 2000-year-old First Ancient Chinese Military School (中國第一古軍校) in the hills near Qixian, Hebi (鶴壁市淇縣), also in Henan Province. A further jarring contrast is provided by a nearby Taoist Research Institute (part of the future Taiwanese-funded City of the Eight Trigrams) on Yunmeng Mountain, majestically towering over the vast North China plain. Its solemn Heavenly Southern Gate (南天門) reaches for the sky to allow life dreams to seemingly become realized.

Now I wish that I could have the nine lives of a cat, so as to fill in the many remaining blanks on my map of China!