Wanting to visit China with a tour rather than on our own due to language issues, but not wanting to share with a dozen or more other travellers, I researched several companies until I found an excellent compromise. Travel China Guide could supply a tour whereby the two of us would be met by a driver and a guide in each city we flew into and we had the flexibility to modify their usual tour itineraries in order to spend more or less time at attractions, visit other cities and get in some golf for Vin. This would be a 16 day tour with 5 star accommodation and most meals. Our bespoke tour covered Beijing, Xi’an, a 4 day Yangtze River cruise, Shanghai, Guilin, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
When we arrived in Beijing our guide, Doreena, met us and took us to our hotel – the Crowne Plaza in Wangfujing district – and since we were keen to get out and about, she took us straight to lunch at a lovely traditional restaurant in the embassy district. We made the mistake of ordering dumplings and various vegetable dishes before the Peking Duck and found it all too much. Luckily they approve of doggy bags! The duck came on two plates, meat and crispy skin. So fatty, but wonderful with the addition of jam and sugar!! The pancakes, sliced vegetables and sauce came in a lazy-susan sort of dish with separate compartments, so you simply made up your rolls as you wished.
With full bellies, we were then off to visit the Llama Temple. This temple, or Yonghe Lamasery, is the largest and most perfectly preserved lamasery (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) in present day China. Built initially in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty, this building was the residence of Emperor Yongzheng before it was converted into a lamasery some 50 years later. The red paintwork and two lions out in front are signs of Imperial presence. There are a number of pavilions housing representations of the Buddha and there is a constant stream of pilgrims burning offerings and tourists spinning prayer wheels.
Later that afternoon we had time on our own to wander Wangfujing street, where we saw the many exclusive brand shops in which the new middle class enjoy spending their money.
We were surprised to see a Catholic Cathedral in this area and even more surprised to see the locals were using the forecourt for ballroom dancing practice.
Off to one side of Wangfujing street is the ‘snack street’ and market stall alley, absolutely crammed with locals and tourists alike.It was my first taste of the claustrophobia one experiences in Chinese crowds.
We managed to purchase some souvenirs for the grandchildren and avoid eating some of the popular snack foods – deep fried scorpions or sea horses on a skewer! They leave the scorpions alive till the last minute, so you see your snack fresh and wriggling before it is presented to you, cooked.
We woke next day to rain which somehow matched our mood walking around Tiananmen Square. This is a huge space designed to accommodate 600,00 people – an intimidating, desolate space, intended for military displays and parades rather than to be anything like a park, and supervised by soldiers or police. The 38m high Monument to the People’s Heroes is located near the southern end and equally imposing buildings surround it – the Great Hall of the People to the west, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong to the south, the National Museum of China to the east and the Forbidden City to the north.
Luckily the rain cleared and we were able to spend several hours exploring the magnificent Forbidden City. This was the Imperial Palace in the Ming and Qing dynasties, established in 1406-20. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Despite being so old, the decorative frieze work around the roof lines has been repainted to keep them looking bright and colourful. There are a huge number of different buildings, temples, shrines, palaces and ‘halls’ inside the walls.
There are two sections to the complex. The outer court, used for ceremonial purposes, contains a number of halls. The three main ones contain imperial thrones, the largest being in the hall of Supreme Harmony, the biggest building in the complex. The inner court, used for affairs of state and the Emperor’s residence, also contains three main halls, one each for the Emperor and Empress and one to share. There is another throne in the Emperor’s hall – the Palace of Heavenly Purity.
The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a phoenix and numbers of small dragons to represent the importance of each building, while most roofs are covered with yellow, glazed tiles which is the colour of the Emperor.
There are also ornate marble terraces, ramps and bridges, and lots of sculptures of lions, dragons, turtles and ibis, which represent royalty, power, and longevity.
The city is surrounded by a high wall and moat for protection, with towers at each of the four corners. On our way to the Temple of Heaven, we walked through the Temple park where people were exercising. This involved a lot of clapping and slapping themselves in time to a regular beat. It was supposed to be good for the circulation.
The Temple of Heaven was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Not just one single place of worship, this complex includes several halls and circular buildings. The most important of these is the ornate and colourful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where the Emperor would come to make sacrifices and offer prayers.
In the evening we were taken to the Red Theatre, the venue for a Kung Fu show which follows the story of a young boy trying to fulfill his dream of becoming a Kung Fu master, told through the medium of Kung Fu, dance and acrobatics.
On many people’s bucket list is a chance to walk part of the Great Wall. One of the greatest wonders of the world, it was listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO in 1987. The Great Wall winds up and down across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, stretching approximately 8,851.8 km (5,500 miles) from east to west. Built for defensive purposes in several sections, it was unified during the Qin dynasty. Today many areas are in ruins, but the areas most accessible to tourists have been restored.
We chose to walk the Mutianyu section which, being quite some distance from Beijing, does not attract so many tourists. It was first built about 550 (with later reinforcements) and stretches over 2km, with 22 watchtowers distributed at close intervals. The brick path is flat in some places and steep in others, with stairs up and down from the watchtowers, making it quite strenuous at times. This is also meant to be one of the sections with the most beautiful views, but the ever-present smog, even this far out of Beijing, meant that the landscape was quite hazy. Another advantage of this site is that a cable-car takes visitors up to the wall and, if you wish, you can take the toboggan ride down again. On the way up to the terminal there are souvenir stalls and snack food vendors. One enterprising couple even had a stall on a watchtower and did a good trade with drinks on that hot day.
On the way back to Beijing we were taken to see the Sacred Way and the Ming Tombs, a scenic area covering over 120 sq km which contains the mausoleums of thirteen emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). At present, only the Sacred Way, Changling Tomb, Zhaoling Tomb and Dingling Tomb are open to the public. In the underground part of the Dingling Tomb the huge coffins of Emperor Zhu Yijun (1563 – 1620) and his two empresses are displayed alongside red lacquer boxes that contained valuable treasures for their afterlife.
The following day we had a tour of Beijing city itself, with a ride in a rickshaw through one of the Hutong districts. Old sections of the city are being torn down and replaced with new buildings in the old style.
We visited a family in the Hutong to see how they lived and then we were taken to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, iconic symbols of the city that date back to 1272. These towers were the time-telling centre of the old city, and were widely constructed in almost every city throughout the country, although these two were the largest.
Hanging in the second floor of the tower, the copper bell is the largest and heaviest in China, with a weight of 63 tons. Across the square, the Drum Tower is also a two-storey building, marginally lower than the Bell Tower, at 46.7 metres, from which we had great views over the old part of the city.
Then we had lunch in a restaurant beside the lovely lake area in this old part of the city. Fortunately our guide was with us, for the menu had no English and neither did the staff. We were also the only westerners in the restaurant, which meant we were eating authentic, non-tourist oriented, local cuisine.
Later, we drove past the Olympic Stadium or ‘Bird’s Nest’ and called in at a silk factory and showroom, where we were shown how the silk was produced, spun and processed into fine clothing and bedding products.
Our last excursion was to the Royal Gardens and Summer Palace, a beautiful collection of buildings and gardens around a weeping willow tree-lined lake, where the Emperor would go to escape the heat of the city even though it was only 15km from the centre of Beijing. We rode across the man-made Kunming lake on one of the ornately decorated ferry boats. From this vantage point the most attractive front of Longevity Hill can be seen, displaying the Tower of Buddhist Incense and other buildings.
Across the other side of the lake, the white marble Seventeen-Arch Bridge arches over the water, connecting Nanhu Island to the eastern shore. There are 544 distinctive lions on the columns of the white marble parapets, making this one of the more important attractions of the gardens. In 1998 UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It declared the Summer Palace “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.”
Our tour guide and driver had looked after us so well we were never once nervous about communication issues as we had expected. Menus in restaurants all came with pictures, if there were no translations into English our guide translated for us and the food was plentiful and delicious. The hotel was luxurious and well situated for all our excursions. If these first few days were any indication, this was going to be a wonderful tour of China.
- Explore and Fall in Love with China (detentionslip.org)
- Beijing getting new airport with largest terminal building (nextbigfuture.com)
- Discover Beijing: A Modern City with an Imperialist Past (7online.com)