Almira Skripchenko: Discovering China – part four

4/17/2006 – Three weeks ago Xu Yuhua won the Women's World Championship. Since 1991 three Chinese players have held the title for a total of twelve years. What is the secret of their success and why this extraordinary boom in women's chess in China? Our roving correspondent Almira Skripchenko gives us an answer in part four of her China pictorial.

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This series of reports was generated in an unusual fashion. Almira Skripchenko has a very tight schedule, travelling all around the world to play in strong women's tournaments. Since the pictures she brought back from her trip to China were so numerous and the stories so interesting, we decided to do the reports with her in sections, from different parts of the world, using the Internet and the good old telephone. Almira selected the pictures and mailed them to us. Then, in long phone conversations she described her trip and the pictures she had sent. We recorded and transcribed these conversations, sticking as close to her original diction and narrative flow as we could. In this fourth report Almira wrote the text herself in Word. Soon we'll have her doing the image processing as well.

Last year I spent quite a long time in China, playing in a women's tournament and the Chinese National Team League, which had been organised for the first time in China. At first I was a bit worried, because I understood that this would mean spending a number of months in China. But in the end curiosity won, and I decided to do it. I am happy that I did it, because it gave me a unique insight into the chess activities of this rising super-power of the game.

One of the key factors is that the Chinese Chess Federation is organizing many tournaments and inviting foreign players to compete. That has brought them great success, even though they work with their own trainers, teachers and methods. They still have the option of inviting foreign trainers, which will probably make them even stronger in the future.

This is my first picture of Shanghai taken on the way from the airport to the city center. I took it from the Bund, a section of riverfront along the Huangpu river in Shanghai which until the early 1800s was undeveloped. The British set up their consulate and other buildings there after the Opium War.

The Oriental Pearl TV Tower is located in Pudong Park in Lujiazui, Shanghai. The tower, surrounded by the Yangpu Bridge in the northeast and the Nanpu Bridge in the southwest, creates a picture of "twin dragons playing with pearls". This 468 meters high (1,536 feet) tower is the world's third tallest TV and radio tower surpassed in height only by towers in Toronto, Canada and Moscow, Russia.

Later that day my team-mates offered me a chance to assist at the final day of the ping-pong world championship held in Shanghai. That was my first time at such an event and I followed all the matches quite passionately! In the above picture you can see the Chinese player Ma Lin competing against Michael Maze from Denmark in the men's single semi-final. Chinese have won almost every medal in this championship. Michael Maze was one of the European gladiators to obtain the bronze medal.

Taking into account that it was my first time in Shanghai, first time at the ping-pong world championship and being there almost undercover, wearing some journalist badge with a very angry Chinese face on it, the chances of meeting someone I knew at the stadium full of 12,000 people who love ping-pong were very remote, probably beyond the realms of the theory of probability! Well, here you go.

While I was contemplating my curious face on the giant screen of the stadium, a journalist sitting several rows below turns his head and greets me. This was none other than the German columnist Hartmut Metz, who writes articles about chess and the German Bundesliga. Now I discovered that his other passion was ping-pong!

So here is Hartmut Metz with Yang Qian Ying, the Chinese journalist covering the event and who graciously allowed me to use her pictures of the ping-pong World Championship for my report.

Wang Nan and Zhang Yining, Olympic champions in women’s doubles, discussing the tactics of their next point.

The closing ceremony with the stadium filled with 12,000 ping-pong fans! The next day, after a night of dreaming about being a ping-pong queen, I left for the city of Wuxi (two hours by car from Shanghai) to take part in the second leg of the Chinese National team league. My team did pretty well and at the end it was clear that we will qualify for the final part which will include six best teams from the championship.

Here I am watching at the game of my 12-year-old team-mate Hou Yifan, the "discovery" of my trip. Hou eliminated Kosintseva and Zhukova during the last world championship. You can also see Vera Nebolsina in the black-and-white shirt.

GM Ye Jiangchuan analyses his game for the journalists who were covering the event. The reports were published in the newspapers all over the country after each round.

WGM Zhao Xue, playing on the men’s board. Later that year she led the Chinese women’s team at the World team’s championship in Israel.

GM George Kacheishvili, one of the "mercenaries" playing the Chinese league.

Former women’s World Champion, GM Zhu Chen played on the first women’s Board. We drew our game after some tactical complications.

As usual, at the end of the event Vera Nebolsina and I had to sign many autographs, a task not for sensitive souls, given the popularity of chess in the country with the population over a billion people! We joked with Vera that next time we would bring a stamp with our names on it, it would certainly go faster. Especially since Vera was trying to sign some of her autographs in Chinese characters she learned during the trip!

After the tournament was over, I still had several days to continue my exploration. Together with my team-mates, Vera Nebolsina and her father we decided to visit Zhouzhuang, the ancient cultural capital in Southern China and one of the most famous watertowns of the country. This ancient town has a history of more than 900 years with many houses built in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. There are about 100 houses with courtyards, and 60 of them have arch gateways made of carved bricks.

The layout of the water lanes in Zhouzhuang is perfectly arranged that it looks like a Chinese character “#”. Many stone bridges are built over them, linking up the households on both sides of every stream.

It is almost impossible to get the unique view of the city on foot, so like everyone else we went on a boat-ride. Almost all of the boats were navigated by women who sing Chinese folkloric songs during the ride.


Me, checking the settings on my camera


Vera enjoyed our historical escapade very much

Introducing the two new pieces on the Chinese chess board! Me and Vera Nebolsina at the Chess House of Zhouzhuang, which was opened in 1995 by the Sports Museum of China. It contains more than 100 exhibits.

Back to Shanghai the next day, and fully equipped with my travel guide, I went to the Old Town to visit the Yuyuan Garden. Which was not easy to find! In order to get there one must get through millions of traditional markets and shops. At some point I was thinking that I probably looked like one of those tourists at the Bastille square in Paris searching for the Bastille prison. Contrary to those specimens, I found what I was looking for.

Yuyuan Garden, the Garden of Leisurely Repose, was built in the Ming dynasty. It is the only Ming garden left in the city. The entire compound consists of over 30 halls and is divided into six regions by tall white walls. It was built in 1559 by the wealthy official Pan Yunduan to please his parents in their old age. Pan Yunduan spent all his fortune in order to complete the garden.



Over the centuries the garden has declined along with the Pan family's fortunes. The garden suffered extensive damage in the 19th century but was repaired by the Shanghai government from 1956-1961. Still in the course of time parts of it became residential, with schools and markets.

In the middle of the garden, the Huijing Tower area has ponds, bridges, viewing pagodas, rock formations and large trees. It is a peaceful area to relax and look at the different angles the garden's designers have created. And to make some new watery friends.

Getting tired of eating only the traditional Chinese food I went for a walk near my hotel, fully determined to find at least a Japanese place. To my surprise, I found a Russian restaurant in the neighbourhood. It felt like an oasis in a desert! It is called Russian Courtyard and it serves every traditional dish I could think of!

The restaurant owners came from Russia several years ago and were very nostalgic. Here you have Maria presenting the very unusual choice of the menu!

The menu had clear prices, not just for the dishes but also for the articles you might destroy, like a real Russian, during your stay in the restaurant.

My last day in Shanghai started with the visit to the St.Ignatius Cathedral. It was opened by the Jesuits who had a church here as early as 1608. The Jesuits were invited by a local high-ranking Míng Dynasty official, landowner, and scientist, Xú Guangqí, who had himself been converted to Catholicism by the Jesuits' most famous missionary to China, Matteo Ricci (1553-1610). Built in 1906, it is noted as the No.1 catholic cathedral in the far East. It can accommodate 2,500 worshipers at the same time.

The last landmark on my list was the Jade Buddha temple, situated in the western part of Shanghai. In 1882, an old temple was built to keep two jade Buddha statues which had been brought by a monk named Huigen from Burma on his way home after paying homage to Buddha in India. The temple was destroyed during the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Fortunately the statues were saved and a new temple was built on the present site in 1928. It was named the Jade Buddha Temple.

Going upstairs to view the jade Buddha statue I took the picture of the hidden courtyard. Tourists are not allowed to take pictures of the Jade Buddha, but photography was allowed in all other rooms.

The temple interior with a golden Buddha statue


Statues of Chinese Gods

The temple courtyard, where people perform religious rituals with incense sticks

Western tourists trying to toss coins into the top of the monument, since that is supposed to bring good fortune.

The airport which offers quite a surrealistic view for the travellers. Time to go back to Paris!

Finally a picture that the editor of this news site is forcing me to include. It is a glamour shot taken in Paris, where I live. Title: the author.

Previous China reports by Almira



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