The nine million bicycles of Beijing have dwindled considerably, since 1995. There are occasional ranks of shiny Boris style bikes and at least nine million cars instead, probably more. Beijing has a population of 22 million. Whilst we are on numbers, it is one of the oldest established capital cities in the world and it has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Ming Tombs, and Zhoukoudian, as well as parts of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal.
I've flown in on my way to Xinjiang province and the Karakorum Highway. Beijing is still chaotic and difficult. I have an atmospheric and charming hotel in the alleyways of the old city. It feels authentic and quiet around here; there are wooden temples decorated with the typical red globe lanterns and buzzing little workshops. But when I venture out to revisit some of those heritage sights I’m pushed and shoved by people teeming ant-like,in and around all the buildings and walkways, umbrellas held aloft. The teeming is accompanied by spitting and loud spluttery gargling, reminiscent of a conversation between Bill and Ben. The locals are struggling with the weather as well as me. It’s almost unbearably humid. The forecast says ‘sunny’ but everything is shrouded in grey smog. I’m told there is a three week sauna every year and this is it.
Time to revisit the sights. The huge Tiananmen Square (765 metres long) contains the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. This is where Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949; the anniversary of this event is still observed there. Each flagstone is numbered to make events easier to organise. We know it best, of course, for the 1989 public protests and the massacre that followed.
Tiananmen Square always astounds with its vastness and the galleries and party buildings lining the sides are still impressive. But the atmosphere has gone. The square is sanitised and has manicured flower beds. No more kites and kite flyers. My middle aged guide shows me black and white photographs. He was here representing his school for Mao’s funeral in 1976. My guide says the kite sellers were secret police anyway.
The Forbidden City is a palace complex, the must-see of Beijing. It's huge. The wall surrounding it seems to stretch forever along the busy road - nearly a kilometre just on one side. It dates back to the early fifteenth century - it was built as the winter residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, (1420 - 1924). The Forbidden City was not only home to the Chinese emperors and their households, it was the ceremonial and political centre of the Chinese government for over 500 years.
The complex covers 178 acres and consists of an astounding 980 buildings, encompassing 8,886 rooms. It's surrounded by gardens and temples. The Forbidden City is listed by UNESCO, as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. It's considered both the world's most valuable palace and the most valuable piece of real estate anywhere in the world. Just the name is hugely evocative. I remember it featuring, most poignantly, in the film Empire of the Sun.
Obtaining entry to the Forbidden City - officially known as the Old Palace Museum – isn’t easy. There are thousands of tourists and winding security queues all around Tiananmen Square. Once bags have been checked and persons scrutinised there are still more crowds inside waiting for entry, tickets and other group members. Once in, despite all the discomfort, (my tee shirt is sticking to me), I can’t help but marvel once again at the colourful carving and intricate layers of palaces.
The major sites are spread out and the traffic makes sight-seeing a slow business. My guide chatters away to the driver in Mandarin most of the time and ignores me. In the south of the city, The Temple of Heaven was constructed at the same time as the Forbidden City. but this is a complex of religious buildings, used for annual ceremonies of prayer to heaven for a good harvest.
There are three main sections. The first is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the main, three storied triple-gabled circular building (38 metres tall, Sadly, it's not the original, which was burned down by a fire caused by lightning in 1889. There's also the
The Imperial Vault of Heaven, surrounded by a smooth circular wall, the Echo Wall, which can transmit sounds over large distances. You reach it over the Vermilion Steps Bridge. Finally, The Circular Mound Altar, an empty circular platform with three levels of marble stones, each decorated by lavishly carved dragons.
The Temple of Heaven is magnificent, as far as I can tell, through the murk.
The Summer Palace, on the northern edge of Beijing is described as 'a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces' in Beijing. It began life as an imperial garden in the Qing dynasty. There's Longevity Hill 60 meters high and created from the excavted soil when they dug out Kunming Lake. (The lake now provides most of Beijing's water.) The grounds of the Summer Palace conatin over 3,000 various Chinese ancient buildings, pavilions, halls, palaces and temples. These in their turn, house a collection of over 40,000 kinds of valuable historical relics from each dynasty. I don't think we will be seeing all of those today. There's also the famous Seventeen Arch Bridge, connecting the eastern shore of Kunming Lake and Nanhu Island. It's the largest of the 30 bridges.
The Emperor's Summer Palace is much more comfortable than the rest of the city. I can see why they built out here. Gardens cling to the edge of a lake with stone Willow Pattern bridges and drooping trees. There are some amusing ‘English’ explanations – ‘when the Japanese came there was a puppy emperor’.
The Ming dynasty certainly left a legacy in Beijing. Most of their tombs !3 of them) are placed in a necropolis here. The necropolis lies in a bowl, beneath the mountains, to the north of Beijing, a site specially selected so that evil spirits from the north are deflected. The tombs are approached by a four mile road, lined with statues of guardian animals and officials known as The Spirit Way.
I can’t face traversing the crowds back to the old city, and besides I’ve walked a long way. So I opt for what seems an easy option - an electric rickshaw. Instead, it’s a near death experience as the driver weaves in and out of the traffic, clearly labouring under the illusion that he has right of way, even when we circumnavigate to stop off at a chemist and face the oncoming traffic head on. It soon becomes apparent that he has no intention of taking a direct route to the hotel. I’m unsure if he doesn’t know of it or is just trying to rack up the bill. Needless to say he requests an exorbitant amount when he finally does set me down. Well away from the tourist police.
The airport is predictably difficult to navigate. I’m directed to three different counters for check in before I find the right one. I can't access airport Wi-Fi. It won’t take my phone number because it’s not a local one. The machine won’t scan my passport. The plane is delayed because of bad weather. Grrrr
Maybe August isn’t the best time to come. Onto Kashgar and the Karakorum Highway.
I'm not sure what it is about me and China, but it’s often problematic. I'm flying from Fukuoka to Beijing, on my way to North Korea and even the Japanese have abandoned their good manners before we’ve left the airport. It’s every man for himself boarding the plane. I'm almost mown down by trolleys as I stop to retrieve my dropped papers. It’s a two leg flight via Qingdao, which I’d never heard of before. Both airports are quite small, but the plane is delayed an hour at each because of ‘runway congestion’.
When we get to Qingdao we have to disembark and even the stewards seem surprised that we are then marched through immigration and a very thorough security check. Out of the window I can see this amazing long bridge across a Yellow Sea bay. Google will later tell me that it covers 26 miles and is the longest over water bridge in the world. Google can’t tell me in China, as Google is banned here of course.
Finally, back in Beijing the taxi drivers queuing at the airport refuse to drive me to my hotel even though I have the address written in Chinese. It seems they don’t know where it is. I do, well roughly, I’ve stayed there before and it’s very pleasantly characterful. But I ‘m unable to tell them that.
Eventually, one man with a GPS phone agrees to take me. However, it’s dark and the streets in this old part of town are narrow. He attempts to abandon me with my bags at the end of an alley. I know we’re in the right area but I'm not sure exactly where and I don’t relish wheeling my case around trying to find it. There is an impasse as I withhold payment and eventually I'm rescued by a porter from another hotel who gives directions and I am deposited in the correct place by a now very surly driver. He doesn’t offer me any change.
The hotel is still a delightful refuge built into the old city walls. It has an open courtyard that’s candlelit at night. But this time my room opens onto this courtyard. There are loud American voices wafting through the open window (it’s an unseasonable 90 degrees in April), accompanied by the fragrance of soy and stir fry.
I’m here for the day as I’ve been summoned to a meetings (it’s compulsory) to be told about what to expect in North Korea, where I’m flying tomorrow.
I fill in the time with Chinese massage, as my back is still feeling a little delicate and I can’t expect any medical treatment in the DPRK. A medical massage is suggested. They allocate me to a guy, who seems to know what he is doing - it’s certainly helping. He has a long menu of treatments he is waving around and he suggests cupping and yet more ‘oil’ massage. If Gwyneth recommends it I‘ll give I ago. It just feels a bit weird having glass jars stuck on your back. The masseur seems to be whispering something - ‘You’re beautiful’. Perhaps I misheard, his English is pretty basic. No, he said it again. I’m not sure if he’s easily pleased or just trying for a large tip. I deem it prudent to refuse his offer of further treatments.
I’ve seen the main tourist sights before, so I wander down Wangfujing Avenue, the main shopping street, a pedestrianised version of Oxford Street and discover a much more atmospheric maze of food streets down a side alley. Scarlet lanterns, dragons and all manner of of things I'm not sure I want to eat, including scorpion kebabs, their legs still waving on their impaled bodies. I never thought I would see the day when I felt sorry for a scorpion.
Back at the hotel, I ask the receptionist to find me a cab to take me to my meeting, three miles away. She can’t find anyone willing to come. Are they tracking me though some sort of sophisticated surveillance? Eventually she finds someone from the Chinese version of Uber. He takes an extremely long route, and the traffic is bad. But I'm only five minutes late. I don’t learn anything new at the meeting, which lasts an hour. But then I’ve read the notes they sent - I suppose they have to cover themselves.
I venture out to find a taxi for the return journey. No-one will stop - they just drive round me or look the other way or shake their head. It’s Friday and a holiday weekend. Much against my better judgement I accept the offer of a rickshaw ride, having carefully agreed the price in advance. But after 100 metres the rickshaw driver decides that she can’t take me either. She tries to hail a taxi but with no greater success. In the end I walk back.
After my enjoyable stroll round the food streets I was beginning to wonder if I had misjudged Beijing. But it seems I haven’t. Though I do have a pleasingly geometric pattern of bruises on my back. On to Pyongyang.
My first trip to China (if you don’t count Hong Kong) was in the nineties. This was pre-digital camera when the images are scanned from old prints, so they are a little grey and dull. That’s pretty well how the weather was when I was there- and the smog. It was a really good route, right up through the middle of China, (with a wiggle to the west and Sichuan/Yunnan), taking in all the major tourist sights. In those days touring was still very controlled and there was a lot of army surveillance. Hotels were dubious and the many diverse sights amazing.
If you’re a traveller there can be few words more evocative than China. Officially called the People's Republic of China (PRC) is the world's most populous country, exceeding 1.4 billion (about to be overtaken by India), slightly ahead of India. It is the world's third largest country. China is the world's largest economy by GDP, at purchasing power parity (around one-fifth of the world economy),the second-wealthiest country and the world's largest manufacturer and exporter, as well as the second-largest importer. It has the world's largest standing army by military personnel and the second-largest defence budget.
China spans the equivalent of five time zones (but only recognizes Beijing time) and has land borders with fourteen other countries (tied for most with Russia). The country is divided into 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). The national capital is Beijing, but the most populous city and financial centre is Shanghai. Wow.
The Chinese have a long history. They trace their origins to a cradle of civilization in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. A long series of dynasties followed ensuring the development of Chinese culture, writing, literature, philosophy and inventions like gunpowder, paper. It began with the Xia dynasty in the 21st century BC and ended with the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. The empire’s fortunes waxed and waned ,but the Qing nearly doubled the empire's territory and established a multi-ethnic state. This was the basis for modern day China, as the Qing found themselves at increasing odds with European colonial powers
The Chinese monarchy finally collapsed in 1912, a result of the Xinhai Revolution, when the Republic of China (ROC) replaced the Qing dynasty. The warlord era gave way to civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in World War. The civil war ended in 1949, with the CCP establishing the People's Republic of China on the mainland while the Kuomintang-led ROC government retreated to the island of Taiwan. Today, .both claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.
The CCP went through several manifestations and the Cultural Revolution, resulting in much hardship for the people. Today, China is governed by a UN recognised CCP as a unitary Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic.
The visit starts in Hong Kong and we catch the train over the border. Hong Kong, (Click for more recent trips)
The city of Guangzhou, which the British used to call Canton, is our first stop. It's just 75 miles north of Hong Kong. Guangzhou, a city port on the Pearl River is one of China's largest cities. That makes it huge enough. But it's at the centre of the Guangdong–Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, which is the most-populous built-up metropolitan area in the world. Approximately 65,594,622 residents. That's about the same as the population of the UK.
Many of the Cantonese temples' contents were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but some Chines and Buddhist temples remain here. Perhaps the most famous is the The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, which dates back as as far as AD 537. The Flower Pagoda, the main structure of the temple, was built in 1097, rebuilt again in 1373 after a fire and restored in 1900.
Another landmark is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, on the site of Guangzhou's Presidential Palace. It was used when the Nationalists operated a rival "Chinese" government to the Zhili Clique's Beijing regime. The instigator of the Chinese Revolution remains the only relatively recent Chinese leader to be revered by both the Chinese and the Taiwanese.
But, my most distinct memories are of the amazing market. Just about anything that lives (or has lived) is for sale. Snakes, preserved in jars, dried bats and seahorses. The cutest of puppies. eat them or take them home for a pet. You choose.
A cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of China's must dos. The boat passes through some of China's most spectacular scenery as the shallow water winds through the wobbly karst peaks. They've all been named, of course, like stalactites. "Five Fingers Hill", "Penholder Peak" or "Dragon Head Hill". The misty pinkish sky frames the the water buffalo and fishermen wafting past on their low bamboo rafts. You can see where so many Chines painters have got their inspiration.
"By water, by mountains, most lovely, Guilin". says the tourist board. But they are right.
Some of the fishermen still use cormorants to catch their fish. The cormorants perch on the ends of their rafts, attached by a line. If a net has been deployed then they bring in the fish in their beak and are rewarded with smaller ones. Rings round their necks prevent them swallowing the larger catch. At night, the fishermen use lights to attract the fish and guide the birds. It's apractice dating back over 1,000 years, but it doesn't seem very kind to me.
East to Kunming. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, located on the shores of Lake Dian. The tourist attraction in this area is the Petrified Forest, about 60 miles south east. Here are more karst formations: rock caves, arches, pinnacles and pavilions. I would have thought it scenic if I hadn't seen Guilin first.
Kunming also has markets, temples and mountains. and incidentally, some horrible toilets. China has to have the worst toilets in the world. Open trenches round the back of the markets where you squat along with everyone else. amongst all the ordure already deposited. Ugh.
Back to the mountains. Yuantong Mountain, in the northeast corner of Kunming, has a popular urban 'Green Park'. It boasts cherry blossom, which comes earlier than in Japan and a zoo. Sitting at the foot of the mountain, is the Yuantong Temple, a series of Buddhist shrines, which have been expanded, but date back to the late eighth and early ninth century,
Now onto Leshan, picking up the Min River, a major tributary of the Yangtze, and following it north to its confluence with the Dadu river, just outside the city. There's a Buddha here, carved out of the red sandstone cliffs. It's 71 metres tall and dates to between 713 and 803 (during the Tang dynasty). That makes it the largest stone Buddha in the world and the tallest pre modern statue.
It's astonishing to find this scene so close to major road networks and conurbations. The river washes its feet and the Buddha faces Mount Emei, You can look down from the top, or descend ladders to the bottom. It is huge and horribly vertigo inducing. It's in the UNESCO recognised Mount Emei National Park.
Emei is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, an hour's drive west of Leshan. It is the site of the first Buddhist temple built in China, in the 1st century AD. There are seventy-six Buddhist monasteries now, altogether, most of them of the Ming and Qing dynasties, most of them built near the top of the mountain, which is over 3,000 metres high. it's not very warm either, even in August. You can visit them all on a winding 31 mile path, which takes several days to hike. Or you can cheat and take a cable car partway. The monkeys are another deterrent. They bite your fingers if you have food.
We are well into Sichuan province now. Spicy food - liberal use of chilli, garlic and Sichuan pepper, of course. I love the beef, but other dishes such as Kung Pao chicken and Yuxiang shredded pork have become increasingly known in the UK. This is also one of the main tea growing areas in China.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan. It's also famous for giant pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was founded in 1987. with six giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. These gorgeous black and white bears are endemic to China and live almost exclusively on bamboo. It takes a lot of bamboo to provide enough nutrition, so the bears spend a great deal of time eating. For many years they were endangered, as deforestation drove them out of their natural habitats. They are now classified as vulnerable. China sends other countries pandas - zoos love them, due to their audience appeal, so they make good bargaining tools. But they are never given, always loaned.
I'm sure the centre does a good job in breeding giant pandas, but viewing is more than a little frustrating. They're nibbling away at their bamboo behind plate glass. Even photography is difficult, because of the reflections.
We fly north to Xi'an, as it's a very long drive. Our first journey on internal Chinese airlines. I've been lugging my fat Lonely Planet guide to China round with me. There's a long section describing the poor accident records, and detailing horror stories. They use their own manufactured parts in their Russian fleet to test them out. Both pilots got locked out of the cockpit on one instance and had to use a fire axe to hack their way back in. A kind member of our group goes to great lengths to point this out, as the plane is taking off. In the event, I survive and we are given ice cream for our in flight meal.
Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. It has historical ties with several of China's ruling dynasties’s, but it's mostly famous for the Bingmayong (Terra Cotta Army), thousands of life-size, hand-moulded figures buried with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. They date back to 209-210 BC and were placed there to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. I'm lost for words. (Cameras were banned in those days !)
Also in Xi'an the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. This enormous Buddhist pagoda (64 metres) was built in 648/649 (Tang dynasty) to store the translations of Buddhist sutras obtained from India. An earthquake in 1556 Shaanxi reduced its height to 43 metres. The other tourist must-see is the Bell Tower. It's comparatively young, only built in 1384 (Ming Dynasty), but it's said to be one of the grandest in China.
A final flight, even further north, to Beijing. Aaargh, but more ice cream. And we take a day trip to the Great Wall, 'one of the most impressive architectural feats in history'.
Sadly, it's not true that The Great Wall can be seen from the moon. It's debateable whether it can even be seen from space. And it's not just one wall, its several, built at different times, starting in the seventh century BC. Some pieces run parallel, most were eventually conjoined. The best-known parts of the wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Watchtowers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signalling capabilities (through smoke or fire) were all incorporated. Collectively, the wall sections stretch from Liaodong in the east, to Lop Lake in the west and from the present-day Sino–Russian border in the north to Tao River (Taohe) in the south. It spans an astonishing 13,170.70 miles in total.
The purposes of the Great Wall, all too familiar: to control immigration, keep out invaders and ensure that those travelling the Silk Road paid their taxes. It also served as a very useful transportation corridor. Some sections have fallen so badly into disrepair that they have disappeared altogether. The stones are only too handy for building houses. Attempts have been made at restoration in the areas where the tourists are taken. And here, it's thronging.
In the capital city we visit the major sites, fly kites in Tianaman Square and hit the McDonald's close by. We've been eating a lot of Chinese food.
Read more about my visits to Beijing here.
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