China is so big and varied that a lifetime is probably not long enough to experience it all, much less understand it. I didn’t have a lifetime to spare, but 17 days was long enough to see, do and eat many strange and interesting new things.
First up, we flew from the hustle of Hong Kong to the bustle of Beijing. Like all tourists, we were there to see the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and so on. These we duly saw, and they were wonderful – I would happily have spent a day or two looking around the beautiful and peaceful Summer Palace. We also saw Tiananmen Square in a very unusual state – it was empty. (There was apparently to be some sort of race, related somehow to the 2008 Olympics.) It was funny seeing such a big empty space in the middle of a city – living in Hong Kong, you forget what such things are like.
The Great Wall was fantastic. Fortunately, we were able to get to an undeveloped bit of the Wall that had almost no other tourists. There was, however, an old lady who seemed to live in one of the towers on the Wall, and would charge visitors money in return for not throwing rocks at them. We paid up; apparently the backpacker before us didn’t, and looked a bit shaken by the experience. Still, it was great to stand on the Wall and see it stretching away into the distance, just as I had seen in so many pictures.
Apart from the really famous spots, Beijing had lots of interesting things to do. In the northern part of the city is the gorgeous North Sea Park. This is a lake surrounded by landscaped gardens. There are bridges, pagodas, and even a fancy restaurant. (Well, it looked fancy from the outside.) We went at night, just before it closed, and there was hardly anybody about. Very tranquil – I would love to have spent a few hours walking around.
Near our hotel in the centre of town was a big nighttime food market. We ate there (or in the nearby dumpling shops) for dinner a few times. At the market we ate some dumplings with mysterious but delicious contents, but there were many other things available.
Also available were fried bugs, silkworms, various internal organs and so much more. Sadly, we didn’t have time to try everything – a few days later we were off again.
After Beijing, we visited the Stone Forest in Kunming. This was really good. As with almost all tourist attractions we saw, the main parts were crowded with tour groups and hawkers, but just a few metres off the beaten path there were many islands of tranquility.
We spent a few days in Lijiang, in the south of China near Tibet. The old city was quite touristy, in a backpacker sort of way, but still incredibly pleasant. Cobbled streets, old buildings, little canal-like streams running through the town with cute little wooden bridges… it unexpectedly reminded me of parts of the Netherlands.
I could imagine just staying here for a few weeks, sitting around and taking it easy. In reality, of course, we whizzed around like mad things, travelling to 4500 metres above sea level to a blizzard on top of the Snow Mountains, driving to rainy villages to look at rather disappointing old frescoes, and generally not taking it easy. None of this helped my cold, which stayed with me throughout the entire vacation. Still, the place was peaceful and relaxed, even if we weren’t.
In contrast, our next (and mercifully brief) stop was in the unpleasant, overdeveloped, polluted city of Chongqing. Technically, this is apparently the largest city in China (it all depends where you decide the city boundaries are), and is apparently one of the biggest industrial centres in Asia. And it shows. The city may have its hidden charms, but they were too well hidden for us to see in our day or so there.
Now, in my sheltered life so far, I have spent most of my time in countries where there are fairly sensible road rules, and most drivers follow them. I suppose that this is not the norm for most of the world. Still, I was surprised to find that in China, the motorists were, for the most part, reckless, pushy and quite irritating. In this respect, Chongqing was outstanding.
The car horn, which I have always thought of as a warning device to be used only when necessary, was apparently in China as essential a device as the steering wheel or the engine. Naturally, the horn is necessary when overtaking on a blind corner, pushing through oncoming traffic at an intersection, or other such insane manoeuvre. However, since such insane manoeuvres are just a normal part of driving in China, the drivers seem to be compelled to use the horn every time they see another car. Frequently our driver used the horn even when I couldn’t see any other vehicles within earshot. Maybe a vigorous honk just serves to express the sheer joy of driving.
So to sum up, my advice to tourists is: Don’t drive in Chinese cities. If only the local people would take this advice too, then the cities would be much more pleasant.
It was a great relief to board our Yangtze River cruise boat and leave Chongqing behind. This was the most peaceful part of the holiday – three days of relaxation. Interesting to see just the tops of various historic sites poking out above the water. Upriver from the site of the Three Gorges Dam project, the water level has already risen 70 metres, and is set to rise another 60 or so. Apparently the cruise was much more exciting and impressive 4 years ago – as the water rises, the former gorges are turning into wide valleys, and are much less imposing than before. It seemed a bit sad as we passed by abandoned towns by the water’s edge (soon to be submerged), with shiny new towns built high up on the riverbanks – these will be by the water’s edge in a few years.
After seeing all the effects, we arrived at the cause. We travelled through four locks overnight (all very dramatically lit) – there is a fifth lock that will come into use when the water rises a bit more. The next day we went to see the Three Gorges Dam project itself. It’s suitably big and impressive – the dam itself is over two kilometres long.
Eventually we arrived in Shanghai, which is unique in China in that it has had large foreign communities (British, French and American) for over 150 years, ever since the Opium Wars. The architecture is pretty interesting, featuring everything from traditional 19th-century colonial English bank buildings, to the Jin Mao tower (the fourth-tallest in the world, in a very cool oriental style) to the frankly bizarre Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
The river made Shanghai quite pleasant for a big city. The riverbanks were beautiful at night. It’s a shame there seem to be no decent-sized parks. There were lots of fancy bars and hotels, so we took advantage of that. And we also saw a few beauty spots.
Yu Gardens was a large, classically-designed Chinese garden. Despite being pretty crowded, the flowers, water, bridges, stones and so on made a restful combination. Once again, I’d like to have spent just a bit more time there…
We visited the various markets in Shanghai – there was a good market for things like clothes and bags. They were probably all dodgy copies or unauthorised overruns – anyway, the quality seemed pretty good. (Except the the suspiciously garbled English on the label of my “Hugo Boss” Jacket.)
Shanghai was our last stop. It was nice to get back home – our holiday was very interesting but not very relaxing. It would be interesting to go back in a few years, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the completion of the Three Gorges Dam in 2009 and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. China is changing fast. I wonder if the food will change too.