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Quartz-rush in rural China

Stepping outside the train station in Donghai County, visitors see what looks like any other Chinese town: New housing and commercial buildings stand side-by-side with buildings dating back to the 1960s, while motorcycle rickshaws, taxis, private cars and bicycles clog the streets.

But this seemingly typical place located in Lianyungang Prefecture in east China’s Jiangsu Province has something that makes it a great destination for travelers who want to see more than great walls, terracotta warriors and skyscrapers: quartz crystal – lots of it.

Known throughout China as a major source of crystal for much of its 2,000-year history, Donghai produces 800 tons of it per year, according to a brochure. The crystals that Donghai produces range in size from small pieces that fit into the palm of the hand to the Crystal King, a 3.5-ton monster discovered in 1995.

The crystals, rarely sold in raw form, find their way into buyers’ hands as jewelry, glasses, Buddhist icons and statues of figures from Chinese history and mythology. They can range in price from a few yuan for a small crystal ball or pendant to 36,000 yuan (about £2,500) for a statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, known in China as Guan Yin. Even the transparent covering of Chairman Mao Zedong’s tomb is made from Donghai crystal.

Quartz crystal has long held a special place in Chinese culture. The Ming Dynasty physician Li Shizhen claimed in his “Compendium of Materia Medica” that it held sedative properties and could even bring down a fever.

To this day, Donghai’s shuijing, or “the glittering of water,” as crystal is known in Chinese, still intoxicates visitors with its beauty.

But even though the county government has busied itself in recent years with a public relations campaign to promote tourism – the brochure proclaims in Chinese “Guilin’s scenery belongs to the past; Donghai’s crystal belongs to the present,” referring to a city in southwest China popular among tourists for its limestone karst scenery – that emphasizes the county’s crystal and hot springs, Donghai sees few Western tourists.

And this makes it all the more attractive for independent travelers.

Only a few blocks away from Donghai’s somewhat dilapidated train station lies the Shuijing Cheng – Crystal City – an indoor market built in 1992 that houses the Crystal King near its entrance.

Here, mostly identical shops sell jewelry, glasses, sculptures and statues, including the aforementioned 36,000 yuan statues of Guan Yin. The craftspeople who make these items work with local and imported crystal, selling their work to both Chinese and foreign buyers.

A close look reveals pieces for sale that range from garish to breathtaking. Craftspeople often dye the crystals so they look like amethyst, smoky quartz or citrine. On the other hand, they craft some of the statues so well that they look as if they’re carved from ice. Meanwhile, nature performs some fascinating manipulations of its own; the insides of crystals often contain water and bits of other minerals.

So it comes as no surprise that Donghai, despite its location in the less affluent north of Jiangsu Province, does pretty well for itself.

Shop owner Wu Fengcheng has made crystal lenses for 15 years, having learned the art from his parents. Wu’s family, originally farmers, began working with crystal 30 years ago, doing it “mainly for the money,” he says with a laugh.

And it has certainly paid off.

Wu, who also sells by the kilogram small crystal balls that his father-in-law makes, opened his modestly sized shop four years ago. Today, he travels abroad to buy crystal, proudly displaying a passport with a Brazilian visa he recently purchased for a business trip. He can afford these trips because of the amount of money he makes – he boasts of once selling a large crystal ball to a Taiwanese buyer for more than 100,000 yuan.

But despite its renown in the crystal business, few Westerners have ever even heard of Donghai, let alone visited it. Luckily, however, the county is easy to reach.

Donghai County lies between the cities of Lianyungang and Xuzhou, a major railway hub near the border with Henan Province. Because of its location, trains that go to Lianyungang from Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Xi’an all stop in Donghai. According to the Web site, a ticket for a hard sleeper – equivalent, despite its discouraging name, to couchette class on European trains – from Beijing to Donghai costs 189 yuan for a 12-hour overnight trip, while the 10-hour trip from Shanghai costs 185 yuan.

Once there travelers can either visit Donghai’s hot springs or go on to Lianyungang, only half an hour away by train and known throughout China for its scenery, beaches and seafood.

But nobody should leave Donghai without first catching a glimpse of a crystal ball straight out of a fortune teller’s shop or a Guan Yin statue so clear that it looks like it could melt to the touch.

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