China in your hands

Date Posted: 14/03/2012

Neil Murray explores the highlights of China; from top city sights in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an, to Yangtze cruising and ‘whitewater sampaning’ on the Shennong Stream.

Nothing really prepares you for the glorious majesty of the Great Wall of China. You can read about it, look at pictures and watch television programmes, but the reality still takes your breath away. And even if the weather is damp and misty - as it was when our group visited - it doesn’t diminish the wall’s sheer scale, the impact it makes, or the buzz you get as you set off to climb the 1,000 steps at Badaling (90 minutes from Beijing), on the way to a watchtower 800-metres above sea level.

Like a rollercoaster ride, the wall soars and plummets as you pause for breath one minute and gasp with amazement at the views of the surrounding mountain countryside the next. It has been around in various forms for more than 2,000 years and stretches from Shangaiguan on the Yellow Sea, to the Gobi Desert, around 4,100 miles away.

Badaling itself is a hive of contrasting tourist activity - some pretty tacky - where you can buy everything from luxurious Chinese jackets to miniature Terracotta Warriors for the mantelpiece. This part of the wall is only about 90 minutes from Beijing, China’s capital city, which has more than its fair share of impressive, modern buildings. But the massive Tiananmen Square and the imposing Forbidden City draw you into the country’s history and traditions in a way that no 21st century edifice could.

The Forbidden City - or Palace Museum - was home to 24 emperors from 1368 to 1911. While it was closed to mere mortals, there was still a population of between 8,000 and 10,000 inside the walls of what is the largest and most complete group of ancient buildings preserved in China. A picture of Chairman Mao looks down from the Gate of Heavenly Peace entrance at the point where he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. If you’d like to see the man himself, you can opt to queue for an hour or two to enter the Mao Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square to view his embalmed body. The massive square - large enough to hold a million people - is best known here, of course, for the student demonstration in 1989. Now, tour group guides vie with kite sellers for your attention.

We gained another idea of how the locals like to pass their time, at the Temple of Heaven Park - four times the size of the Forbidden City - where they gather in groups, like choirs practising, to sing pro-Communist songs, play cards and socialise. And at the Summer Palace, the Kunming Lake is a big attraction for Chinese families, whether boating on the lake or crossing it on a dragon boat.

If many of the sights, sounds, and surroundings of Beijing serve as a memorial to China’s past, Shanghai is very much a look into the future - and no more so than on the Maglev, (Electromagnetic Levitation) train, which reaches speeds of up to 431-kilometres-per-hour (268-miles-per-hour) on its 20-mile trip to Pudong Airport. Like the late-lamented Concorde, it has a display telling you what speed you’re travelling at as you whiz past paddy fields and highways with cars that appear to be going backwards in comparison.

There’s another opportunity to experience the fast life at the 1,380-foot-tall Jin Mao Tower, where we zoomed to the 88th floor at nine metres per second. From there, we enjoyed a stunning view towards the 1,535-foot-tall Orient Pearl TV Tower, the winding Huangpu River, and the dazzling array of skyscrapers and elevated highways that make up Shanghai today.

There is some history among the high-rises however. In the 400-year-old Yuyuan Garden you can escape the frenzy of the city among the maze of rockeries, pools, paths, pavilions and bridges in the serenity of a traditional Chinese garden. And in the calm of the Shanghai Museum - a striking, modern building - there’s an excellent collection of jade, ceramics, bronze, coins and calligraphy from the country’s past.

The Bund - or Zhongsan No 1 Rd E, to give it its Chinese name - is a stretch of waterfront on the west bank of the Huangpu that was, for centuries, the centre of Shanghai’s politics, economy and culture. As a result, it boasts a collection of buildings in different architectural styles that is an attraction in itself. At night however, crowds gather on the Bund to gaze across the river at the glittering sight of the soaring skyscrapers.

From Shanghai, we flew to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, before driving across the Chang Jiang Plain (‘the rice bowl of China’) to Yichang for a cruise on the Chang Jian - that’s the Long River, or Yangtze, to you and me.

For the next four days we marvelled at the engineering involved in creating the $22 billion Three Gorges dam, heard how two million Chinese were relocated because of the rising water level on the Yangtze, and sailed through the Three Gorges - Xinling, Wu and Qutang. Other sections have their own wonderful names, such as the Gorge of the Shadow-play, the Gorge of the Ox’s Liver and the Horse’s Lung, and the Gorge of the Sword and Book on the Art of War. There were more tree-covered mountains high above us on a side trip into Shennong Stream, where our guide pointed out a 2,000-year-old ‘hanging’ coffin dangling in the middle of a narrow crevasse, and we had a brief spell of ‘whitewater sampaning’ on a small stretch of rapids.

Disembarking at Chongqing - with its yellow New York-style chequered cabs and its own monorail system - we had a glimpse of the ‘real’ China at a vibrant local market, with its live chicken and fish, meat, spices, grain and vegetables on sale, before heading for the zoo and a look at its giant pandas. Apparently, there are almost 2,000 living wild in China.

Another flight took us to Xi’an, the start of the Silk Road and once the largest city in the world. It’s also the home of the amazing Terracotta Warriors, who attract 750,000 foreign visitors a year - and no wonder. Discovered in 1974 when some peasants were digging a well, they are part of a massive tomb built by Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of a united China. The soldiers are housed in three huge ‘pits’, and although there are 7,000 life-size warriors and horses in the army, only around 2,000 are on display. Most of them are in Pit No. 1 where, lined up in columns, the warriors make a simply breathtaking sight.

Top three sights

1. Great Wall of China: Mao Tse-Tung apparently once said: “He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall isn’t a true man”, and certainly no first-time visit to China would be complete without a trip there.

2. The Forbidden City: There are 1.5 million items in the Palace Museum and you would have your work cut out seeing just a fraction of them.

3. Terracotta Warriors: Arguably China’s greatest treasure, the Warriors are more than 2,000 years old and were buried to symbolically guard the mausoleum of the first emperor to unite China.

China essentials

Eat: A traditional Peking Duck is a must, and it is essential that chopsticks are at least given a try! Visit Donghuamen Night Market in Beijing for some weird and wonderful delicacies, including barbecue scorpions. For the adventurous GTO, the infamous dog-meat hot-pot could be an experience to remember.

Drink: The variety of Chinese teas is second to none and is well known for its healing qualities, while a traditional Mao Tai is much more suitable for the over-18s. 

Try: Don't miss the opportunity to travel on one of the world’s fastest trains by taking the Shanghai Maglev Train out to Pudong Airport and back. Then see a more traditional China at the 400-year-old Yuyuan Garden.

Go: Year-round travel is available, but the best time for a group holiday to China is spring or autumn when the weather is much milder and more suited for exploring. Summer tends to see extreme heats, while winter can be very cold.

The two-week Wonders of China and the Mighty Yangtze trip with Archers Direct costs from £1,995 and includes flights from Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow, internal flights, 13 nights’ full-board accommodation and the services of an English-speaking guide throughout.

Useful contact:

China National Tourist Office:
020-7935 9787

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