• Josh Garman

Finding Heilan Watertown: The Chinese people that worship horses

Updated: Feb 21

The unstoppable joy of children is a wonderful thing and after witnessing a group of Chinese school kids running around with excitement after seeing me in their town brought my spirit up. Well that and all the dumplings I had just eaten. I was halfway through my day with my Chinese friend Max. I had been exposed to some rather interesting Korean music, met with his mother, stuffed my face with food and now we we’re exploring his local Water Town.

Finding Heilan Watertown: The Chinese people that worship horses
Finding Heilan Watertown: The Chinese people that worship horses

As we left the children behind us many of them continued to try and play hide and seek along the alleyways we passed. Now and then another one would pop out of a doorway with a big grin before running off giggling. Max and I weaved through the town’s alleyways as only a local could do. I could see it brought him great pride and to show me his home. There’s always something special when you have friends from abroad come to visit and with your insider knowledge can take them round where you live.

I do the same in England when people to travel to see me and I decide to take them on a treasure hunt of my local village. Where I live isn’t very exciting so it’s the only way I can dress it up a bit, I honestly believe with enough old stories to impress someone I could make Tesco express sound exciting.

I was glad to have this insight from Max and through the good bond we had he had no fear in showing me the real China. This is no small feat considering how negatively our western views can be about this country far from our understanding. Talk of China often talks to it’s oddity, secrecy and eventually all paths lead to eating dog.

I would like to believe I’m open minded and I at least portrayed that vibe to Max. In return I was learning more about the country in this one day of light conversation than all the previous times I had explored the city streets. We came to a wide entrance with translucent flaps dangling from the doorway, much like a garden centre. Bearing in mind it’s Chinese winter and the rain is heavy I can’t imagine it being very pleasant. Max disappeared inside before telling me where we were heading, fearlessly I pushed my way through expecting to enter someone’s home.

As I came through at first glance it seemed to be a museum, the walls adorned with wooden carvings and Chinese lettering. In a short time I realised it was in fact an art studio with many rooms. All of them for one local man. Intuition told me that extravagance like this in a poorer area must mean the man is an important one or at least is considerably wealthier than his neighbours. He came to greet me with a smile shaking my hand, not a word of English was spoken. He talked in Chinese to Max and I tried to see if I could discern anything from the conversation. I never know whether people talk faster in other languages or it’s just a lack of understanding? Does English sound this fast to foreigners?

They talked, and talked. Followed by talking some more. My attention began to falter and I decided it was best to wonder round the shop and look at some of the artwork on display. There’s only so much nodding and smiling while pretending I know what’s happening that I can do after all. The body of work on display was impressive, it was hard to tell how old it was too and most seemed like it could be of historic significance. Could have been worth 5 pence for all I knew.

Everything here was candy to the eyes however, intricate paintings or drawing with rich stories alongside a variety of calligraphy. None of that blank canvas, car cut in half modern dribble you see in most art galleries today. I was in a back room of the studio when I heard them calling me back in, they walked over to a long table and the man made hand gestures towards my camera to tell me to take some photos.

Max explained that he was going to write something for me and that I should film it. I got the camera rolling, not wanting to miss anything and watched him begin. With a small pot of paint he brushed across the paper. This wonderful blend of writing and art would terrify me, what happens if you mess up a letter?

I watched as everything was executed with great skills, not a stroke out of place. I had no idea what any of it meant but it captivated me anyway. The man followed up by using stamps dipped in red ink to show that it was official, much like medieval kings would print their seals upon parchment. I found out later that he was a famous artist within China and highly acclaimed for it. I'm not sure what it means, I think it may be an old communist saying but at the time thought it may be insensitive to ask.

This was turning into one of those perfect days that faded memories alone can’t do just to. I carefully folded the picture inside a local Chinese newspaper which itself was rather pretty and put it inside my bag. It was time to jump back in the car for the final place on our list, a town entirely dedicated to horses.

It’s interesting how travel stories develop, many rumours or myths turn into full-fledged legends and so this story goes. Max told me of this town but I am doubtful on how much I fully understood through his limited English, most of my questions about it allowed for more questions. In this case take these words with a pinch of salt. We were entering a wealthy area now, one of great providence. The water town we were on the way to see was by a menswear manufacture in China in an attempt to expand the tourism industry out here. It’s part theme park, part equestrian centre, part horse museum. A strange place and one I have always marked as ‘The town dedicated to horses.’

Here they have different horses from all over the world, even a few zebra. I don’t know why Max had decided to take me here but it sounded exciting anyhow. We arrived at the entrance and took the car over an arched bridge over a river. The river surrounded the whole mass of land to make it into an island, an island dedicated to horses? Now that does sound like a cult…

As we came over the bridge I noticed how extravagant it was with a golden Pegasus every few metres atop a column. After this we were greeted by yet another bridge this time with lampposts. We came over it to an array of European style buildings, in the centre of one was a vast widescreen telly which was playing a live tennis match. This confused me a lot but not for long as my attention was drawn to three wooden windmills turning round much like those back in Europe.

As we drove round the river hugged the side of the road and I filmed boats passing while leaning out the car window. More windmills perched on the side of the river banks to greet the narrow boats that passed by. I got a sense of it being another Chinese fake city, a true blend of Chinese and Western replica. After weaving round ever more roads we came to a final stretch of ceremonial flags before parking the car. Parking rules here are clearly not like they are in England, we couldn’t find the official car park so kind of just put the car somewhere out of sight if that makes sense? It had a bush either side, that should do the job!

We stepped out into bitter cold and a thin hazy horizon. I had made the decision to travel back to China in winter which can bring with it harsh snow, ice and temperature lows but I was grateful for the relatively isolated attractions in an overpopulated country. We cam to a sign which was almost identical to the Las Vegas one, maybe this was a fake city after all? We pushed on half expecting to find a carousel, a few popcorn stands and a children’s playground.

We had however underestimated this place, maybe the extravagant entrance gave us fare warning. At the end of the flagged road it opened into an expanse of courtyard that stretched out of my line of sight. It made me think of a place of war, a huge army could gather here under the main building and do some marching.

Instead of soldiers we had one or two people roaming at most, along with an old Chinese woman entertaining herself by zipping around on a buggy beeping the horn. She even had a little Chinese flag on the back. I tried to film the new area we had come to but my camera couldn’t show the scale. Sprouting out the courtyard, buildings leapt up into the air like climbing beanstalks. To one side a square Parthenon like building with many columns took centre stage and dotted around were statues, fountains and monuments.

All serving little purpose, even a great tower which had nothing underneath. Exploring some more we came to a lake with a building that appeared Arabic in design that cast beautiful reflections across the water. Beside it a bright red horse bridge, of course… We wandered around for a few hours but I think the park was mainly closed. Due to it being winter we were met with closed attractions, empty stables and some glum staff that didn’t want to be hanging around.

I gathered some footage and visited a horse garden. Definitely a first and last for me it was similar to a fairy garden but they had horses everywhere, it felt more like a shrine. Far from thinking this place was owed by powerful Chinese businessman it felt more like an 11 year old girl had designed this part of the park with funds from her rich daddy. The Veruca Salt of the horse world I might even say.

I’m glad we visited this place albeit a strange one. I’ve always been fascinated by the odd or the esoteric as it gives you a glimpse of a wonderful niche world that only a few are privy of. More important than any of the attractions we saw in the day, the real value came from the journey. In the time I had spent talking to Max in the car I had learnt a great deal about Chinese culture. I had broken some of my preconceptions about China and been given a glimpse into life here. It’s a complicated one and not as black and white as we see it in the Western world. I hadn’t even scraped the surface but I felt closer to the people here from my new understanding and I’m sure I would of asked a lot more questions if I hadn’t fallen asleep all the way back to Shanghai…

In my next blog I re-join my Russian friends in the city and get introduced to a new way of thinking, Confucianism. It was time to learn more about Russia too and maybe even try chicken feet. There’s never a dull day out here in China! Don't forget to sign up in the top right hand corner to comment and receive updates!

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