I am fortunate in having seen a lot of the world in the last few years. Gradually my wish list (I hate the term ‘bucket’ list) is getting shorter as I cross off more and more of the greatest sights known to mankind. I always felt I ought to visit China. The Terracotta Army, the Great Wall. But I couldn’t get enthusiastic about it. I thought I would be underwhelmed. How wrong preconceptions can be. I’ve been home for ten days at the time of writing this, and my mind is still buzzing with the sights I saw and the things I experienced. I will try to give you a flavour of what I savoured through pictures, for words alone, no matter how eloquent could not possibly do my trip justice.
At five forty-five in the morning, I trudged walked towards the exit of Beijing Airport dragging my luggage behind me. I suddenly spotted a beaming girl bobbing up and down holding a card with my name on it! And so I met Stephanie Tong who was to be our guide during my stay in China. A couple of hours later I was at a very smart hotel where I had chosen to share a room with a fellow traveller and total stranger. As I stood at reception, a call was made to find out if my roommate was ‘at home’. There was no reply so it was assumed he was out. I walked into the room just he stepped out of the shower. And so I met Daniel in the most unusual of circumstances!
Beijing is big, very big. And so is the population. Beijing has been inhabited for 27,000 years and is host to 21 million people; that is three times the population of London. In no time at all you get used to being pushed and bumped into. The sound of spitting becomes a normal part of the ever-present noise which pervades the crowded streets. A permanent mistiness shrouds the tops of buildings; pollution caused by industry and coal powered power stations which surround the city. So that’s the negative bit out of the way. The rest is awesome!
Tiananmen Square is vast. Standing in the centre I had a strange sense of déjà vu which is odd since I’m sure I’ve not been there before – not in this life anyway! I suppose it’s because I’ve seen it so often on TV, from the man and a tank in ‘84, to the military marches of the present day. Every day an almost endless queue of people snakes its way to the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao at the south side of the square where Chairman Mao’s body lies. At the centre of the square is a granite column known as the Monument to the People’s Heroes. On the west side, the Great Hall of the People and to the east the China Museum. Then to the north stands one of the most photographed buildings in Beijing, the Gate of Heavenly Peace on which sits its famous portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
We went through a gate and found ourselves in the Forbidden City, a vast complex of courtyards, temples and halls. The colours are awesome, and the buildings ornate beyond description. There are said to 9999 rooms in the city not that we attempted to count them!
One afternoon we were taken on a frantic rickshaw ride through the back streets of ancient Beijing. They are known as the Hutongs. What a lovely word – ‘Hutongs’! There, the low grey brick buildings date back some 360 years and we even crammed ourselves into a little dwelling and perched on tiny stools, visiting a couple who lived there, an artist and his good lady.
Each day on our coach we were given a little lesson in Chinese by Stephanie. After eight days I could say hello, ni hao, and goodbye, zaijian. Nothing else though – I always was a slow learner!
The Summer Palace sits on Kumming Lake. It is said that when the Dowager Empress Cixi visited in 1905 she was met by 458 eunuchs. We weren’t met by any – at least I don’t think so! The most impressive structure is an outdoor covered corridor 730 metres long featuring endless scenes from Chinese history. It goes on and on and on! Pretty though. Also, there is a marble boat – not sure how that works!
Most of the pictures I had seen of The Great Wall of China showed it deserted. The reality is very different! And so we joined hordes of tourists at Badaling and set off up steep slopes and near vertical steps, climbing our way to one of the 10,000 beacon towers. It was hot; upper 20’sC. And being away from the city we were treated to a cloudless blue sky. But it was worth all the effort and the subsequent aches and pains. Ready for this? Let’s go!
Stephanie also gave a daily joke which was normally met with a unanimous groan! Here’s an example. A Chinese man, an American and French man are lost in the desert. They come across a chest. They open it and out pops a genie. He offers them three wishes each. The American wishes for money, more money, and to return home to the US. The French man wishes for money, more money and to return home to France. The Chinese man wishes for Fire Water (an alcoholic drink – more about that later!) more Fire Water and for the American and the French man to come back to the dessert. Boom boom! I did warn you! .
Food was to play a major part in our trip. I saw nothing that even resembled the fare I’m used to seeing in my local Chinese restaurant. One evening we visited the snack market on Wangfujing Street. It comprised a seemingly never-ending row of state-owned food stalls which offered such delicacies as fried scorpions, skewered live snakes and pig’s ‘doo-dahs’. Delightful! The ultimate Chinese takeaway.
It was time to change cities, and travel overnight by train on a 1200km journey to Xi’an. We were grouped in four-person sleeper compartments in which each bed had the luxury of an individual TV – none of which worked! Not that it mattered. Having the entire carriage to ourselves meant that we could have a somewhat boozy party in the corridor well into the early hours!
Eventually, I retired to my bunk, a bottom one. The next thing I remembered was waking up in total darkness in what felt like a box! There were vertical surface either side of me and others behind my head and at my feet. My immediate thought was that I’d died and been popped into a coffin! I then realised that I’d fallen off my bunk and was on the floor surrounded by suitcases and a door!
Xi’an was a total contrast to Beijing. What can I tell you without totally boring you? Well, it’s a large city enclosed within a tall and wide wall. Some of our group chose to cycle round it. I opted not to and instead enjoyed a stroll which allowed me time to peer over the edge now and again at the beautiful parks and gardens at its base. I should point out that I did not walk all nine miles
Before I went to China I was not very good with chopsticks. I could ping a prawn across a room with ease! But by the end, I was pretty good at it. The use of such implements probably explains their preference for sticky rice; far easier to pick up than lots of grains. How long will it be before they have sticky soup I wonder? By the way, chopsticks are known by the nickname ‘busy little friends’ -in Chinese of course!
The Teracotta Warriers. Well, what can I say in a few words which can possibly sum up this amazing spectacle? There are about 7000 life-sized figures, each one with a totally different face. They are housed beneath a massive aircraft hanger structure (not original of course!) and are still being discovered to this day. They were discovered in 1974 by a farmer who was digging a well. Now, he spends almost every day sitting at a desk signing copies of the book about his astonishing discovery.
We were warned before we went to the Shaanxi Rare Wildlife Rescue and Breeding Centre (What a mouthful! It’s even longer in Chinese) that we might not see any pandas. As it was a fairly expensive ‘bolt-on’ to the trip, I really hoped we would. And we jolly well did. Loads of the black and white beauties. And to our delight, they weren’t all penned up in cramped cages, but wandering around relatively free.
There were a few cages and pens about for other residents, and they were terribly small. The little red pandas were imprisoned as well as yaks, monkeys, vultures, eagles and leopards – by the look of those teeth, it was probably a good thing!
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was quite something. Not much else I can say really, but the surrounding gardens were beautiful.
Having spent the previous night in a reasonable hotel, it was time to board the sleeper train again, this time for the 1600km ride to Shanghai. I treated the suggestion that I should be tied into my bunk with the contempt it deserved! We partied again, of course!
Sizzling Shanghai they call it. Some call it Hu! Mmmm. Odd. Anyway, I’m not going to drone on with statistics and other such things. Except for this; with over 24 million souls, it has the largest city population in the world. It’s vast. And opulent. I don’t know where I’ve seen more big flashy cars bumper to bumper. Until 1949 it had been very much the place for foreigners to live. On one side of the Huangpu River which flows through its middle, the buildings are very grandiose and colonial having been largely built by those damned British! After Mao’s Communist Party seized power, it all changed. To remind the Chinese that Shanghai really did belong to them, lots of red Chinese flags were flown from the roofs, a feature which remains to this day.
On the other side of the waterway, however, modern Shanghai has appeared. There are skyscrapers the likes of which I’ve never seen before.
At their centre is the weird and wonderful Pearl Tower. A trip to the top ‘ball’ allows a view of the city from all angles and the brave can even venture onto a glass floor to have a snap of themselves taken apparently flying! What fun!
At this point, I should pause to tell you about one of the national drinks. Apparently half of all alcoholic consumed in China is via a wicked concoction called Fire Water. It’s 56% proof, tastes foul and is ridiculously cheap. I loved it! I recently read it’s predicted that within 10 years it will be sold in every bar in the UK. Bring it on I say! Do you know what? I think I’ll have a drop now, so if any of my photos are upside down from now on you’ll know why!
The most charming part of the city is the retail area known as – I’ve forgotten! Anyway, the buildings are fantastic and the little shops fascinating – if you like shopping that is!
And adjacent to this area is the wonderful Yuyuan Garden. It is a strangely tranquil place away from the hustle and bustle a few steps away.
Standing on the outside deck of a river cruiser taking photos of the night-time Shanghai skyline was a soggy experience indeed; that evening we had our first rain of the tour. But it was well worth all the dripping and squelching.
We had lots of interesting meals on our trip. Most of the food was foreign to me – well it would be I suppose! Many menus had English translations. We came across such delicacies as Dry pot of small yellow croaker, Discharge of salt and pepper, Butter a large bone and Smoked skeleton all washed down with Girl juice!
Although China is an atheist state, religion is tolerated. This is the Jade Buddha Temple.
On our last organised day, we went to Suzhou. We travelled on the legendary bullet train which propelled us along at over 300 km per hour. It didn’t feel like it though so I’ll just have to take their word for it!
When we arrived I could not believe we were in the same country. We found ourselves in a sort of oriental Venice with crisscrossing waterways and little bridges. Charming – and wet again. My goodness, it did rain!
Fortunately, the rain abated when we left our little canal boat and we went to what for me was one of the minor highlights of the trip. We went to the Unesco listed gardens. I like gardening. And I love a flower or two, but what I saw here was a garden like no other.
Only too soon it was time to get on the train for a rapid trip back to Shanghai. And that was it. On the last evening, we did the usual hugging a pecking we always do when saying goodbye to travelling companions.
A few of us, me included had the whole of the following day to ourselves due to late flights home and it was great just to wander without a guide constantly telling me to keep up. Having been treated to exceptional weather for most of the trip (exceptionally good that is) it was inevitable that I should eventually get wet, and on that last day get wet I did! The Shanghai waterside walk is known as The Bund, and that’s where I headed for. Take a wander with me.
I’ve got a few odd pictures which don’t fit with anything I’ve written. Here they are!
So let’s pick a few words to sum up China. Crowded, fascinating, delicious, surprising, and awesome. Yes, that about does it!
Finally, I must give a big thank you to host Stephanie and all the team at On The Go Tours who ensured that this wonderful trip ran like clockwork! I cannot recommend them more highly.