|After 60 years, the People's Republic has much to celebrate but faces many challenges [Reuters]
Sixty years after Mao Zedong's communists took power in Beijing, there are many reasons for China to celebrate.
China today has become the third-largest economy in the world - second, if you measure it by purchasing power parity - and is well on track to cement its place as the world's foremost economic superpower.
And while it has been exciting to count the numbers of new millionaires - or billionaires - created every year, the country has also managed to pull 500 million of its people out of poverty over the last few decades.
Of course, we also hear much about China's worsening wealth disparity: Not exactly everyone is sharing in the wealth.
And all these economic changes have come at a heavy price for China's environment, in the form of dead rivers, poisoned land and toxic air.
|China's environment has paid a heavy price for economic growth [AFP]
Then there are the increasingly frequent reports of unrest and rioting. Frightening numbers of people - often in the tens of thousands - with their complaints.
After six decades of communist rule, there is much for the government to worry about.
They need to watch the mass migration of farmers who have deserted their lands to find work in the city.
There is the corruption, which many ordinary Chinese tell us is getting worse, not better.
It is a story of transformation in often too little time. For every miracle or success story, there is a counter example amongst the disenfranchised.
China's rise is a complex story and often contradictory - a hallmark of the growing pains of this new world power.
The one thing that rose above all the din of contradiction, the one thing most Chinese can all agree on, is that life is better today than in the past.
On the road for our Long March series of reports, retracing a key episode in the communist's rise to power, this is what the Chinese we met told us.
The founding of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949 brought an end to a bitter civil war between Mao's communists and the nationalist Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek.
The communist's struggle has become the stuff of lore, particularly the epic Long March. Its importance is still emphasised every day.
Turn on the TV and you will almost always come across a documentary replaying the black and white footage from the 1930s and 40s: The Red Army fighting the Japanese, the Red Army fighting the Kuomintang, communist cadres talking to the people, Mao Zedong speaking to farmers.
But, the documentaries will tell you, there was no greater historic event than the Long March.
Spreading the message
The Chinese call it "the walk that lasted 25,000 li", that is 12,500 kilometres.
|Thirty years after his death, Mao continues to keep watch on the nation he founded [Reuters]
No one can confirm the actual distance of the march, but it did take two years and killed about nine out of 10 participants.
It was a military retreat from their civil war opponents, and by most circumstances would have been considered a defeat.
But it allowed the communists to spread their message across a huge swathe of China, where they won the support of the peasantry - which was, and still is, the largest demographic in the country.
It was on the backs of the farmers then, that Mao's communists rose to power.
We started our trip in Jiangxi Province where the communists declared the Chinese Soviet.
This was their own republic, their little world where they would experiment with what they had read in books, in theory, and now implement them in real life.
But the communists did not end up spending too much time here. They would abandon their Soviet, routed by the Kuomintang army, so beginning their Long March.
|Recent ethnic unrest paints a very different picture from the official image of unity [AFP]
Today, the town of Ruijin is as comparatively quiet as it had been back then.
We stopped by Liang Chong Deng's family. They have always been here, generation after generation. But now, Liang told us, he is not sure how much longer the family will stay on the land.
His son and daughter, he tells us, are not farmers but work in the city. They would not know how to grow anything if they ever returned to their plot of land.
Our next stop retracing the march was Sichuan province, in China's southwest.
By the time the Red Army reached here, half the soldiers were gone, from death, desertion or illness.
Much of Sichuan is mountainous, deeply forested and even today access is often difficult.
Years ago, the Red Army soldiers would have gone through on nothing but shoes made of straw, or barefoot, in bedraggled uniforms, hacking their way through unmarked territory.
Today, Sichuan is a major tourist area, widely known as the home of that great Chinese icon, the giant panda.
But it would have been hard for any Red Army soldier to imagine it as a friendly place.
The tribes in the area - Tibetans and a minority group known as the Yi - used to doggedly ambush the line of marchers.
Today, Sichuan still has large Yi and Tibetan populations, but the dynamic is a very different one than that from history.
It would be difficult to recognise someone from the Yi minority - they speak Chinese like everyone else. The Tibetans are easier to identify, many of them with their prayer beads.
|China at 60 would be unrecognisable to Mao and his revolutionaries [AFP]
When Mao set out to defeat the Kuomintang, he said he also hoped to unify the country - and that meant including these so-called ethnic minorities.
Most, like the Yi, have integrated into greater China relatively easily. But the Tibetans, as we saw in the recent outbreaks of unrest, remain deeply disenchanted with Chinese rule.
Other ethnic riots earlier this year in the western region of Xinjiang, home to Muslim Uighurs, revealed that, after 60 years of communist rule, some of the most entrenched obstacles to uniting China's people remain untackled.
The final stop on our road trip was Yan’an, the resting place for the Red Army - the end of their Long March.
Tourists today swarm the caves where Mao Zedong and other top revolutionaries used to live.
They holed up here for years, rebuilding the army and refinancing their revolution using cash earned from the region's oil wells.
Today, the area around Yan'an remains an important source of oil to fuel China's booming economy. Wells are visible everywhere, dotting the brown hills.
At the end of the road, you wonder if the China of today is what the first generation of revolutionaries had in mind and whether they believed that they achieved their vision of utopia back in 1949.
China as it is in 2009 would hardly be recognisable to them.
But what the early revolutionaries would certainly agree with today's Chinese about, is that China today is a strong and powerful country and one that the rest of the world should take notice of.