I must have reached a point in my life where clearly there was an urgent need for some adrenalin rush because last week I bought a V8 engine’d gas guzzling MG that has your eyeballs pinned to the back of your skull when your right foot inadvertently applies too much pressure to the go-faster peddle and this week I find myself in a country that I have never been to before and that speaks a language that just as well be Martian!
After some nine and a half hours flying with the World’s Favourite Airline – well to be fair they at least got me here this time having almost roasted me alive in the Phoenix fiasco last month when all 290 of us had to use the emergency slides when the plane filled with fumes and smoke – this journey thankfully went without a hitch. The food was palatable, the cabin crew were excellent and we arrived spot on time. So somewhat jet-lagged I have forced myself back to the laptop to jot down a few scribbles about my very first experience of China.
You know the very first thing that hit me, apart from a brief aerial view of some of China’s awe inspiring scenery just prior to landing was the new terminal buildings at Beijing. The whole thing is spacious, bright and clean and the design is stunning. Sadly it makes T5 look redundant but then again I always thought that our much heralded new terminal could have doubled as Ford’s new engine plant or some other non-descript manufacturing or processing operation. The service at this airport was highly efficient even if one is not greeted with too many smiles and our bags were there and waiting when we cleared immigration and customs – how refreshing. OK from there on in the journey in to the city can only be described as the worlds biggest bumper car ride except you don’t actually collide but you get damn close. Cars change lanes more often than that well known celebrity chef uses the ‘F’ word and mopeds and bicycles launch themselves from footpaths and side alleys like Exocet missiles without guidance systems. Everyone drives on their horns; pedestrians on crossings are fair game and rumoured to be worth 10 bonus points on your Communist Party membership card. Come on – we all know about the population explosion that’s resulted in something over 1.2 billion people living here so why not give the drivers an incentive? Honestly you have to witness it to believe it but whatever you do leave car hire out of any planned visit!
Beijing clearly was never planned for the motorcar and even the efforts of former Chairman Mao to modernise the place could never have envisaged some six million cars plus a city population fast approaching ten million. Its chaos. That said, once one’s got through the smog and grey skies this place is fantastic and to be honest the chaos bit just adds to the experience. The city is organised but again dysfunctional because nobody takes any notice. Folks just head for were they want to go and everyone else tries to avoid them – well most manage to. This is not a city, indeed a country for those that do not like crowds – this is like living in an ant colony. There are people everywhere but that’s not a hassle apart from the occasional queue. People are in the main very polite and more than conscious of the importance and contribution that we tourists bring to their economy. The Beijingers are as with all Chinese, great entrepreneurs. They can make things out of nothing, improvise and if you are in to high quality fakes then this is the place to be. You could deck yourself out in a complete Armani suite, Gucci shoes and throw in a Rolex Oyster all for under £50! OK not the real thing but at a glance I defy you to tell the difference.
Beijing just cries out to be explored and the rewards that it brings those that are prepared to slog it out on foot are just reward. Public transport is excellent provided you use the metro network – surface travel is another thing. Buses are a massively cheap form of public transport but the traffic as already mentioned can disarrange any travel plan.
I started my first afternoon here with a more than worthwhile visit to the Summer Palace some fifteen kilometres drive from downtown Beijing. OK being here in August with all the schools on holiday and it being a Sunday was perhaps not the best time as the place was heaving but the Summer Palace is a brilliant encapsulation of all that is ancient China. Set within a massive 294 hectares three quarters of which are the waters of Lake Kumming the Summer Palace is rated as one of the best classical gardens and has rightly earned a listing on the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. There are some 3000 structures so see comprising pavilions, towers, bridges and ornate corridors some over a kilometre in length. This was home to the age of the Emperors who ruled these lands for much of Chinas history and their various contributions to history have been respected rather than been preserved. Despite the rise of communisms even the new rulers such as Mao respected the country’s unique and important history and his successors have been quick to encourage both state run and private sectors to develop a huge tourism business.
Importantly, with the world in recession this is one of the best value for many places on the planet to visit. Good hotels are running way below capacity, flights can be bought relatively cheaply and food, drink and transport are inexpensive.
So where does one start when in Beijing? Well to be honest unless time is not an issue the secret is not to try and do everything because scale is something that most people underestimate. We choose the obvious such as Tiananmen Square as the first on our list for day two of our time in the city. OK it’s somewhat bland but its historical significance is important certainly as far as modern China is concerned. It’s a place of pilgrimage for most Chinese so is a must for us tourists but do not expect the whole unexpurgated truth as events like the students uprising of 1989 are politely brushed under the carpet. China wants to move on so those events are outwardly forgotten but inwardly digested and have helped shaped the direction that this nation is now taking.
Within the square are the expected sights such as the China National Museum, Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Great Hall of the People. But well worth a visit is Mao’s Mausoleum where one can view the embalmed body of China’s most famous chairman plus the wonderful revolutionary sculptures that are either side of the main entrance.
Next on the list has to be the Forbidden City which on a scale of one to ten rates as an eleven! Incredible architecture and history that needs at least three hours of steady walking to get through but its well worth the effort. The going is slow due to the crowds and the ground is often very uneven plus there are steps everywhere. But this truly is like stepping back in time and fans of the memorable film ‘The Last Emperor’ will not be disappointed. I loved the final area beyond the Hall of Preserving Harmony – a section called the Eastern Palaces where concubines of the Emperor lived. Many of the rooms are still furnished so the whole thing comes to life. Beyond this is a Walled Garden that contains some stunning flowers and ancient trees and provides not only a tranquil rest from the main sights but also has some much needed shade.
Having some puff left we concluded our afternoon with a rickshaw ride through old Beijing’s Hutong area that provides an interesting look at what the city used to look like. A warren of narrow lanes and streets crowded small single story properties and islands of neighbourhoods still exist and this really does take one back in time. Street traders and small businesses still continue to serve the community as they have done for centuries and many tours to this area also include a visit to a local family so that one can see just how they live.
Evenings in the capital city can be spent at any of the excellent restaurants that abound but my choice was to take in more culture with an evening at Red Theatre to see the highly acclaimed Legend of Kung Fu show. This is certainly not a tribute to Bruce Lee but a wonderful production that sets out to tell the story of a young boy who is left by his mother in the care of the Kung Fu masters and how his life develops for there on – worth every penny or should I have said Yuan.
Our final morning here could not have been better spent because it included a visit to Beijing’s wonderful Temple of Heaven completed during the Ming Dynasty and more correctly referred to as Tian Tan. Now before anyone thinks I am overdoing the religion thing Tian Tan is one of China’s largest temple complexes which is set out in a massive walled park. Tian Tan is an absolute must for any tourist even if you do not wish to see another temple for as long as you live. Why? Because this is were Beijingers so to relax, unwind and genuinely enjoy themselves whatever age.
The locals flock there in their thousands to do Ti–Chi, do ‘mass’ ballroom dancing, play a form of Badminton but without rackets – yes without rackets! They just use their feet and the skill level is almost unbelievable. They have softball games, the throw things like soft ‘Frisbees’ and catch them with their necks, they sign opera, dance to traditional sounds, play cards and dominos and anyone is welcome to join in and most ‘western’ visitors do.
For those more interested in the architecture then you will not be unimpressed because here you will find a number of mind blowing buildings all set out along an avenue the largest of which is the massive circular Quinian Dian a wonderful example of early Chinese architecture that is so ornate with its masses of blue and red decoration. Our last morning simply rushed by and although we had only pricked the surface of this wonderful city our time spent will leave some a lasting impression and the wish that someday we may be able to return and do justice to this Jewell of the East.