Twenty-four hours of solid travelling and going from starfishing air con to -2 was a culture shock! Arriving in Beijing late at night exhausted, I still marvelled at how the city’s architecture for the hotels and offices is unique in itself; large, square lego-like structures with small windows neatly lined next to one another in organised rows. Every street is pristine, pedestrians walk in completely straight lines and the entire culture and city appears to run on an almost robotic clockwork.
Their internet is limited to western apps and sites, so we were unable to access almost anything. Lack of outside communication in a cramped city arriving late and cold was an odd sensation.
A few days spent in the cold, battling through the smog and weaving in and out of the cramped markets filled with locals tucking into live scorpions on skewers, sticky fruits and colourful bubble teas was a welcome relief from the initial cosmopolitan exterior that greeted us.
Spiralling in and out of the subway to Beijing zoo in the icy cold was a true beauty. Thousands of species, set in the midst of the large skyscrapers. Iced over lakes and rivers ran throughout the barren trees and large enclosures. Seeing the Chinese Giant Panda exhibition was a real treat, the large cuddly symbol of China sat among the bamboo while hordes of Chinese tourists crowded round photographing him.
I don’t know where Katie Melua was when she wrote her song, but there aren’t nine million bicycles in Beijing that I could see, many mopeds equipped with attached sleeping bags to keep their drivers hands warm and luxury cars in the middle of large fashion brands and designer shopping centres, but the city appeared to lack the sense of Chinese tradition I was expecting and felt almost designed to equip tourism from the 2008 Olympics.
The only Western faces and English speakers for miles, we decided to trek our 5 stone cases onto public buses and rode with the locals on a rickety, packed, overheated vessel that smelt of cigarettes and stale beer to our next hotel in downtown Beijing. A meal in a restaurant with no English translations was a delight, being forced into the weird and bizarre expands your horizons and mind, plate after plate of sizzling griddles with unknown crispy meats, seafoods and spicy, soya rice dishes with contrasting, delicate flavours tantalized us and all for less than a tenner!
Beginning our China tour started with a full day in Beijing of visiting the grand Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – two vast statures of traditional architecture designed to withstand earthquakes, being built without a single nail but held together by savvy woodcarving. Decorated in gold, red and yellow, the vast space of delicate wooden animal carvings and huge stone lion sculptures were contrast to the array of hidden corners and beautiful gardens which held trees from hundreds of years.
We visited a local family in the Hutongs along the river via rickshaws. We cycled the narrow streets against the icy winds before sipping traditional Oolong, Jasmine and Black teas in a quaint tea shop We watched a mesmerizing Chinese acrobatics performance including acts of agility, strength and eight motorcycles spinning against one another in a dome and we dined on a banquet of Chinese dishes including Peking duck, honey-glazed fried fish, tofu noodles and pak choy.
Shortly before leaving Beijing, the feeling of sickness began to set in from the pollution, I couldn’t explain why all week no matter how much I slept, ate or what I did I would feel dizzy, heady and weak with a dry throat.
Beijing apparently is one of the most toxic places on the planet and a day there is the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes a day, so no wonder over a week later we felt the affects. The pollution got so bad during December that they banned locals from leaving their homes and schools closed, so much so that the fog overhanging the city blocks the sun.
We travelled to the outskirts of the city and stayed in an outback cabin in the countryside which had a beautiful view of the Great Wall, but it was -5 and our heater didn’t work, we had one radiator that we glued ourselves to through the evening.
Tranquil, traditional and authentic. After visiting the restored version of the Great Wall, we drove for sunrise to the traditional section of the wall away from the tourist traps and KFCs the newly renovated section of the wall is surrounded by. It’s set in the picturesque mountains. Uneven steps, and an almost vertical climb to each turret was a thigh burning journey made only harder on the treacherous balance-testing return down. The lack of icy wind and smog meant the crystal skies and amber glow of the sun highlighted every weave and bend of the crumbled relic which disappeared and reappeared over every green mound of stunning barren mountain which vanished miles into the horizon. We walked to the highest point at 5,000 feet.
A banquet of Chinese delicacies at a jade stone factory was shortly followed by a trip to The Pearl Markets for some haggling over souvenirs. Climbing aboard the overnight train to Xian and tucking into ramen noodles on the bunk beds was a pleasant way to end a hectic day.
Our first day in the beautiful Xian was incredible. We visited the Great Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple set among a bustling authentic city. We dined on a grand Chinese buffet with noodles and rice dishes, steamed custard buns and jasmine tea before cycling the ten-mile Xian city wall, overlooking the bustling narrow street markets on one side and the vast commercial skyscrapers on the other while weaving in and out of the sparkling New Year Lantern festival decorations. We visited the food street markets of the Muslim quarter, tucking into local sweet sesame brittle delicacies and watching the varieties of animal parts on sticks being fried before another busy following day visiting the Terracotta Warriors.
Depending whether you’re a cynic or optimist would determine your opinion drastically. Either a vast wonder set in beautiful grounds hidden inside large airport hangers with incredible historic stone relics buried in amber sand; or your view could perhaps be that it replicates the discount garden warehouse section of B&Q. Only discovered in the seventies by a farmer, it made me question the sincerity of whether they truly were built to protect the Tang Dynasty Emperor in his afterlife, or whether it was a clever idea to increase tourism!
Another overnight train to Shanghai meant I mastered the art of holding my breath visiting the bathroom but thoroughly enjoyed the bunk bed experience again. Shanghai is a beautiful city. Still not a single prawn cracker in sight, even in the diverse and elegant China Town, a humorous experience, surely, it’s just a town in China? However, we visited The Bund, The Shanghai Tower which is one of the tallest buildings in Asia and we took a sunset river cruise to marvel at the vast 360-degree luminescent skyline. Modern, clean, efficient, bright and streets filled with endless shops, eateries and adventures to be had, we couldn’t wait to visit Suzhou and return.
Suzhou is stunning, delicate, peaceful and authentic with traditional Chinese architecture, red lanterns on every building and winding long canals through the homes in the river. Locals wash their clothes and hang then out on the steps up to their houses which go straight into the water and as we took a canal boat ride through under the bridges, we saw the quaint shops and locals selling delicious teas. We visited a silk factory and boarded the bullet train back to Shanghai.
Shanghai is a feast for every tourist, no matter what you’re looking for. Either vast designer shopping centres, conferences skyscrapers, luxury restaurants or winding streets with tasty delicacies and haggling markets, we were delighted to be back in sunshine, breathing in fresh air and enjoying the opportunity to be immersed in adventure and culture once again.
A day spent at the latest park in the Disneyland Universe was a true treat for me. A dedicated fan, I was in my element weaving through the rides, gazing at the shows in Chinese and tucking into Donald Duck ice creams in the gorgeous sunshine.
The Chinese cuisine surprised me, I fully expected it to not be like the Chinese takeaways I’m custom to in England, just like curry in India. However, even though I have been all over Asia previously I hadn’t expected Chinese food to be so bland. Lacking in flavours, cooked in a very slimy oil and the meats either being bones, gristle or fried wasn’t something I was hoping for. I didn’t go with the intentions of stuffing spring rolls in my face and was fully hopeful of a more authentic diet of fresh vegetables, seafood and rice dishes, however I was disappointed to be mostly greeted with some very questionable plates of animal parts in sweet, sticky oils! So, when in Shanghai, it was a pleasant surprise to be offered traditional rice dishes, tastier, well-cooked meats and fresh vegetables once again!
Ultimately, despite the effects of the overwhelming second-hand smoke, pollution and difficulty to adapt to a very different culture of spitting, pushing and shouting, China introduced me to a completely unique experience. Avoiding the cities and visiting the countryside, being able to visit not only the tourist spots, but tradition, architecture, local markets and embracing the bizarre left me with memories I know I’ll never come close to replicating. A country so many won’t have the experience of visiting, yet a country with such a variety of race and culture. If you’re willing to be thrown completely out of your comfort zone, then definitely leap into the oriental madness of China.