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August 31st 2014
Published: August 31st 2014
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China has long since confused and intrigued me. It is the one of the worlds few remaining countries and certainly the most well known that openly endorses a one party system of communism without democracy, restricts people with a one child only policy and places heavy restrictions against freedom of speech, religion and internet access. The government still owns every inch of land in the country and while business appears to be booming there are still half a billionpeople living on less than $2 a day. So how can the worlds longest lasting civilisation that contains 1.3billion people(1/5 of the worlds population no less), that is currently experiencing an unprecedented expansion with over 160 cities containing more than 1 million people, make this undemocratic and oppressive system work and why weren't people rebelling? Surely Frank Zappa had it right when he said "Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff." I was keen to get there and find out.

Beijing

There was an overlap of time due to the Trans-Mongolian finishing(previous blog) and my new tour beginning in Beijing which meant I spent nearly a week in the heaving metropolis of 20million people. It was a steaming, bustling city nearly always covered with a layer of oppressive smog, while people, traffic and police seem to clog every artery of the beating heart of China. Beijing has presided over the rise and fall of dynasties such as the Mongols, Ming, Qing and Mao to result in a hybrid city full of historical remnants as well as modern China's standard skyline of high rise buildings and towering cranes, so there was plenty to wander and see.

It all began with the 'OK' Wall of China, although I don't want that to sound overly negative because I did enjoy it and was very pleased to finally see such an iconic structure, but for me it just lacked the 'wow' factor and my socks remained firmly unblown (that's journalistic licence, I didn't wear socks with sandals I'm not German). The total combined length of all the wall is 8850km long (it's not one long continuous wall technically it's many separate bits) and we visited the Mutianyu section about 2 hours outside of Beijing. This part of the wall was also rebuilt during the Ming period in the 1400s and stretches some 3km along the mountain tops and had all the iconic elements needed; high peaks, the wall snaking around the mountain top into the distance and 26 watch towers designed to watch enemy movements from this impenetrable wall(except Genghis Khan ended up just going around it) You can walk the 1000 steps up to the starting point and then climb the wall, or simply cheat and take the cable car like we did. The wall surprised me in many aspects as it was only a few metres wide and not built very high, but it was certainly steeper and more difficult to walk than I imagined, especially the section to the left that affords the highest views along the wall. Sadly, the views were obscured by the ever present smog and the wall was smothered in tourists, plus they took kitsch to a new level by also adding a toboggan to the wall. As fun as this was I can't imagine that it was there for Genghis to fly down, and I don't envisage them building a water slide at the Colosseum or a bungee at the Eiffel Tower etc. Overall it was a good one to tick off the bucket list and others in the group really enjoyed it but for me it lacked the striking impact of the pyramids or Terracotta Army, I had the chance to visit it again with my new tour but chose not to go which perhaps sums up my thoughts, it was effectively just a low wall on the top of a mountain. No pleasing some people.

Next up were the Forbidden City, which is the largest palace complex in the world(China always has to have the largest of everything I discovered) boasting some 720,000 metres in size, 3000 buildings and 10,000 rooms. The complex dates back to the 1400s and gets its name for the fact it was effectively sealed off for 500 years and inhabited by only the emperors and their family, that bygone time when dignitaries would come bearing gifts and kowtow, while castrated eunuchs whispered in ears and the Emperor kept himself busy with 3000 concubines. Nowadays the city is open but sadly the free women are gone, instead you can wander the myriad of courtyards-the largest of which can hold up to 100,000-the gardens, galleries, exhibits and halls of supreme harmony etc, while gazing at the intricate roof architecture, bridges of marble, dragons and mythical creatures. Sadly only a third of the city is open to the public but it was enjoyable to wander around and try to imagine the way of life back then while also mentally congratulating a guy for managing to keep 3000 women happy. That is when you can get a second to think, because the site gets some 80,000 visitors a day and is pretty chaotic so I'd advise visiting Jingshan Park just outside which allows stunning panoramic views of the Forbidden City and Beijing itself in relative peace and quiet.

Alongside the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square which is the largest public square in the world (see, told you)because at 440,000 square metres it can hold up to a million people. It was much more impressive than the Red Square in Moscow, a vast space replete with war memorials and a mausoleum containing Mao's embalmed body. I didn't visit this as the queue was too long which made sense once our guide told us that the government decided Chairman Mao made some 'mistakes' but that overall 70%!o(MISSING)f his work was a success. Now admittedly the guy helped to unite China after civil war and liberate it from Japan, plus he gave land back to the peasant farmers and began industrialising China. But I'm not sure how they can justify his economic and social changes that resulted in an estimated 45million deaths mainly from starvation, as well as the mass genocides against the landowners, upper classes, religious leaders and intellectuals, whilst abolishing any traces of Chinese culture predating himself, as a "mistake". But the length of the queue and his ever present image suggests that modern China has certainly fallen for the spin. The square itself was surrounded by large soviet grey buildings that house the national museum and government house as well as impressive structures such as the Gate of Heavenly Peace adorned with huge Mao banners which you can climb for good views of the whole scene. Tiananmen is also infamous for the governments brutal reaction to a protest in 1989(which they have pretty much wiped from history)and they remain on high alert to crack down on the merest sniff of disapproval, perhaps the most striking image I took away was the sheer volume of police presence here and indeed in Beijing itself, you could hardly go 5 steps without there being a baggage check, police officer, riot van, plain clothed officer or CCTV watching your every move. It was truly overwhelming and I have never witnessed such a police presence like it anywhere else in the world, we conversed in whispered tones lest our anti-communist mumbling be overheard, I'm too pretty for prison. We also visited the National Museum of China there, an interesting walk through ancient china and their array of dynasties although I admit that after a while the pottery, coins and pagodas all seemed to blur into one. My favourite section was the one entitled the Road of Rejuvenation, a gallery that went a long way to explaining the mausoleum queue and was easily the most biased piece of propaganda I've ever seen as it extolled the virtues of Mao while slating the West and Japan using wonderful terms like imperialists or democratic bourgeois. If I understood those terms I'd be offended.

Other attractions I visited included the Summer Palace, a retreat for emperors when the heat got too much that was truly huge. I wandered it for 3-4hours and wouldn't even say I saw half of the temples, gardens, pavilions and bridge, but the sheer size of the place meant you had some escape from the hordes of visitors and it was worthy of a visit. We also lazily meandered around the Temple of Heaven, which was a little like Central Park in New York in that it was a large open green space in the centre of the hectic city. Technically it contained beautifully decorative prayer halls and marble altars and was entered through large gates, but I more enjoyed finding a quiet spot in the middle of the madness where you couldn't hear the traffic and chaos. Instead we watched the locals play hacky sack, fly kites or perform tai chi while others got animated playing cards, and all were serenaded by a group choir practising their tunes. Another interesting excursion was to the Red Theatre Kung Fu show that was thankfully also narrated in English and was a bizarre mixture of am-dram, karate kid, ballet, jackass style smashing things over their heads and of course Kung fu kicks and flips. These places were all visited using the metro, which was punctual and easy to navigate independently, although admittedly at times it seem like all 20million residents were on the train at any one time. We also checked out the night markets where you could buy Mao's little red book or Bin Laden playing cards, as well the most bizarre selection of animals on sticks I've ever encountered, from grubs to squids, snakes, centipedes, beetles and more, it seemed that China will eat anything with legs except a table and anything with wings except a plane. So after much deliberation I opted for the tarantula and scorpion, which for the record were crispy and oily and tasted like burnt bacon. Overall, Beijing impressed me due to the sheer variety of places to see (and I didn't even visit the Lama Temple, Olympic birds nest stadium or get a chance to fully experience the Hutongs except for briefly passing through)and this just about made up for the smog and volume of people or police.

Shanghai

To get here we boarded an overnight train that took around 16hours, which with its 3 tier bunk beds, pungent squat toilets, smoky atmosphere and loud locals may have been somewhat of a shock but thankfully the Trans-Mongolian had me prepared for anything. Shanghai technically has even more people than Beijing with 23million but it didn't feel that way and the immediate vibe and indeed general consensus afterwards was that the city was much more convivial and less chaotic than Beijing, with it's immigrants and ex-pats it felt more cosmopolitan and less intense. However, I wouldn't say there was a huge amount to see there, the Shanghai business district known as The Bund is perhaps the most famous sight to see, a collection of high rise buildings housing the worlds most powerful banks and trading centres of various shapes and colours that make for an interesting skyline along the barge filled river. At night we skipped the expensive boat cruise up the river and instead took the standard ferry across that afforded the same views of the bright skyline and wandered the riverside. While there you can also visit the Shanghai World Financial Centre which is 492metres tall and has the worlds highest observation deck (told you they had to win). I'm not sure how much I can say about it and sound eloquent, I mean its high and you get great views of the city and was worth a visit, perhaps don't do it with a hangover though it's not big and it's not clever. Similarly we also visited the Shanghai Museum but it was not worth visiting if you had been to the one in Beijing and contained similar items. The Shanghai Circus World was a very interesting diversion, a mixture of Cirque de Soleil, gymnastics and motorbike tricks but all with a Chinese twist and was definitely entertaining. Aside from that we visited the French Quarter which basically lets you eat or drink for extravagant prices and also checked out the interesting food, antiques and animal markets. To round off the Chinese experience fully we drank too much and sang karaoke until 5am. Well I say sang... wailed, screeched, murdered, you choose the verb.

Xian

After yet another overnight train we reached one of the four great ancient capitals. It was instantaneously appealing and yet depressing as the first sight that greets you from the train station are the wonderful city walls but this is closely followed by the densest smog we encountered and a traffic snarled, unkempt mishmash of buildings and the usual sky scrapers and half constructed buildings, it seemed like Xian was going through its own mini industrial revolution. It did have some appealing aspects, the city walls were matched by the impressive Bell Tower and Drum Tower, while the city's historical position as the climax to the legendary Silk Road meant it had a Muslim Quarter with shops, stalls, factories and one of the largest mosques in China called the Great Mosque that was worthy of a visit. The city also has a lively bar street and we managed to try the local speciality of Sichuan hot pot that was an anti climax but certainly spicy, and also ate some beef penis which was bland but thankfully had no climax of any kind.

The real reason we visited Xian was for the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the man who China is actually named after (Qin is pronounced Ch). He decided that after dying he would need some help in the afterlife and so had himself interred in a necropolis within a huge mound of earth that allegedly contains treasures and a river of mercury, and had the army built in front to protect him. The result (so far) is that within 3 main pits excavated they have found an army consisting of 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 600 horses, all made from brownish-red terracotta. The soldiers are all life sized and utterly individual and was a true feat of craftsmanship, they are missing their original colours having faded over time as well as their original weapons but the effect is not diminished. Pit 1 is the most impressive and is the size of an aircraft hanger so it gives you some sense of the scale of the place, it is believed to hold up to 6000 warriors but only 2000 are on display, they stand in uniform rows impassive and immovable, the detail on each warrior is immaculate from the moustaches to the clothing, and the horses and chariots stand smooth and tall. Each item in the pits has been painstakingly put back together by the archaeologists because amazingly the whole site remained untouched and unknown for 2000 years, it was built around 210BC which makes it truly ancient but after various lootings and earthquakes the roofing collapsed, destroying and hiding this unequalled collection until a farmer digging for a well discovered it accidentally in 1974. The other 2 pits are smaller in size and contain some different warriors such as archers or higher ranking officers so there was clearly a system to it all. There is probably even more to find but for some unfathomable reason China seems reluctant to excavate the emperors mound (because of the mercury allegedly) or conduct tests to see if there are more pits, in fact they have not even excavated fully the 3 pits on the site, it seems they'd rather invest in building characterless skyscrapers that nobody cares about rather than continue to unearth this subterranean marvel. Sadly it was also crazily busy, at least 4-5 people deep at each section, we discovered that with a population of 1.3billion nowhere is quiet and domestic tourism is booming, but the Chinese are not in the habit of snapping a picture and moving obligingly on so it was somewhat manic and flailing elbows, it was hard at times to actually stand back and just appreciate the wonder of it all but I personally place it head and shoulders above the Great Wall.

Chengdu

We were now in central China which the tourists head to for one reason, the Giant Panda breeding research base where you can actually see some of the iconic animals. There are only 1000 left in the wild and they are hidden deep in the mountains whilst another 300 or so exist in zoos around the world, but the panda is notoriously reluctant to procreate so the centre was set up to help them along. Here they try to help pandas get it on by giving them all they need, namely a comfy room to 'sleep' in with air conditioning, all the food they want and a TV showing panda porn to help them get the idea, I nearly felt like signing up myself. We first went to visit the youngsters which were up to 2 years old and are technically more lively than the adults although perhaps 'lively' is too strong a word as they simply lie around eating bamboo or clumsily fall off platforms head first, they seemed to be more like humans in bear suits and ignored us tourists awwing at the cuteness of the black eyes and ungainly movements. Mind you I also think 'bear' is a strong word, they don't even eat meat and are cuddly rather than scary, and don't even get me started on the red pandas they were just raccoons. The adult pandas did even less and I felt like checking the pulse on most of them as they slept slumped over whatever object was in front of them. It seemed that a couple of the pandas must have enjoyed the latest porn release of 'Panda Panty Party 4' because there were a couple of new born pandas kept in incubators and some in a cot that we also got to see which were cute. It was great to see this indigenous animal in China and my advice would be to get there early (we got there at 9) to avoid the huge crowds that gather later. On the same day we drove to Leshan and took a boat trip to gaze up at the seated Grand Buddha which was carved in 713AD and is the tallest Buddha in the world (I hate to say I told you so...) It was created from a single piece of rock rand reaches a massive 71metres high and 28metres wide while the toe nails alone were about the size of a human, t's worth a visit if in the area. Finally we headed to within a few hundred miles of Tibet to a place called Emei Shan, a Buddhist mountain that is covered in monasteries and temples and is meant to evoke meditation, enlightenment and such. We stayed in one such mystical place called Baoguo temple although it wasn't quite the Tibetan monastery on a cloud steeped mountain top I was expecting, I haven't read the rules recently but I'm pretty sure you can't attain nirvana when your temple has a cafe, wifi, souvenir shop and is situated next to a busy town. To be fair it was pretty interesting to actually sleep inside one for a couple of nights and wake up to the sounds of monks chanting and wander amongst the incense and deities whilst sharing their vegetarian food. We also took a moderately strenuous 15mile trek around the mountain to visit some of the other temples which were all less impressive and pretty samey, and did our best to avoid being bitten by aggressive monkeys looking for food. All this was done through teeming rains and crowds which made it infinitely less fun but we relaxed later in a natural spa within the town that felt so good I almost reached a transcendent state myself, no panda porn needed or anything.

Yangtze River

After a transfer we arrived at the truly dirty and smoggy city of Chonqing to begin a 400mile cruise down the Yangtze River to Wuhan. The river is China's longest but is only the third longest in the world (China must be livid) and flows for 4000miles so although we were on it for a full 3 days we still only saw a small section of it. We boarded a fairly large boat and began the slow drift watching the way of life, villages and barges sail by as well as half built cities devoid of life that seemed to confirm the figure that 15%!o(MISSING)f houses in China have nobody living in them. But for us the big draw card was the Three Gorges, which are long stretches of rock that tower over the river, a variety of sheer rock faces and jutting angles some of which stretch 80km in length. The gorges were impressive but there was a continual feeling that yet again China has managed to ruin something wonderful, they built a dam and so raised the water level by more than 100 metres meaning that the once soaring gorges are now obviously that much smaller, one can only wonder just how much more mind blowing they would have been in the past. The Yangtze is also the single biggest source of pollution into the Pacific as the river is lined continuously by factories who all dump their waste into the water, this mixed in with all kinds of every day rubbish thrown in by locals and the soil produces an unappealing brown sludgy colour. We tried to not let this deter from the cruise and enjoyed the relaxing time aboard watching the country go by at our leisure, only raising the heartbeat to play cards, the local game of mahjong or the old faithful-getting drunk and singing karaoke. There were opportunities to get off the boat daily on excursions to visit pagodas and temples etc but I chose to take a trip up Shennong tributary, which was worth it for the more spectacular views up the tributary amid the cleaner green water and the chance to see the hanging coffins. These mysterious funeral rites are the only remnants of a minority group that left no trace of their existence but for these coffins, they placed them high up within the cracks of the gorges supported only by planks of wood and have rested there for 1000years and were captivating to get a glimpse of. Although the scenery became a little samey at times it was definitely a good part of the trip and certainly the most relaxing, it was well needed in hindsight because the next section initially proved patience sapping.

Yangshuo

After an energy sapping 25hour journey we arrived in rural China. I was interested to finally see 'real' China away from the heaving cities because for all the money and booming economy there are still 500million people- 36%!o(MISSING)f the population-living on less than $2 a day and explains why for all of China's might it is technically still a developing country. I was initially put off by the tourist trap vibe of German bars, McDonald's and hordes of Chinese on holiday, but we got away from these on day trips. We took a bamboo raft trip down the Li river which allowed us to gaze in wonder at the beautiful karst filled landscape of sheer limestone, worn away into interesting formations by the water and bedecked with clumps of green plantation. Next we took a 20mile bike ride which allowed us to experience the local countryside as we passed by the postcard cliché pictured rice paddies, farmers tending fields, pig farms, seeds being dried out in the sun and all framed by the karst mountains. We suicidally also chose to trek up Moon Hill which admittedly gave us wonderful views of the whole landscape but in case you were ever in doubt biking and climbing in 34degree heat is pretty murderous. Aside from this we also watched the cormorant fishing, which involve the birds catching the fish but not swallowing them due to wire being tied around their neck so instead are pulled onto the boat and relieved of their catch, which was a little mean if you ask me but was an innovative and traditional way of catching food. I also tried my hand at some calligraphy which essentially proved to me that I lack artistic talent in any country, and those who visited the light show spoke very highly of it.

Hong Kong

Due to my flight times and that annoying thing called 'work' I only had 24 hours in Hong Kong and don't like to judge a place when spending so little time there, but it seemed a lively, neon enthused city full of expats and much more western than the rest of China. In my brief time there I wandered the Avenue of Stars to find Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, while taking in the superb skyline of Victoria Harbour at night and watching the massively unimpressive light show. There was still time to take the famous Star Ferry across the harbour and then rode the absurdly steep Peak Tram for glorious views of the city from above, but I definitely have unfinished business with this place.



Aside from a little more time in the countryside and Tibet(which isn't theirs anyway) I feel that I have come away seeing the highlights of China and enjoyed each one that I saw. I think it would be possible independently but people speaking English (even in hotels)is severely limited so I am pleased I chose GAdventures and recommend the Essential China tour, the 3 weeks were a slight rush but it ticked all the boxes and I had another great group to enjoy it with and the time flew by. I also feel that I have visited at the right time as China seems to be on the brink, although of what I'm not sure because while the GDP continues to soar so does the gap between rich and poor and they are treading a fine line with their risky strategy of lending and debt, in history there has never been an example of any country going through such a boom that didn't end in a major bust. Combine that with the predictions saying 70% of the population are going to live in urban areas by 2035 and the result will surely be crammed, chaotic slums like we see in Rio or Delhi. With China's history of doing everything in the biggest way any downfall could be spectacular. Mind you I wonder if they'd even notice as awareness if not their forte, they seem to lack any social etiquette with their constant coughing up of phlegm, spitting, loud bodily noises regardless of who is present, startling ignorance of any queues, talking at 100 decibels above what is needed and (mis)use of squat toilets, while words such as customer service or Sorry seem alien concepts. I also just can't get my head around their willingness to accept communism, I understand the theory of it being like the ant colony and all working towards a greater good and improving China but I can't help question people who are willing to forgo democracy and be ruled by an elitist party that controls every aspect of their lives, the communist-cum-capitalist party that would rather build a train station as it will improve the GDP rather than a school or hospital which makes no money. Not forgetting the fact they still pay homage to a guy who killed 45million of their own. Perhaps what is most depressing to me is the fact that the young intelligent people don't seem to want to change it or do anything about it, my tour guide echoed most his age by saying that we in the west were naïve, that freedom "too early" could be dangerous and that democracy won't work as they might end up electing the wrong person, our argument that it's the right to make the decision that counts fell on deaf ears. I'm not sure not how it is ever going to change or perhaps they just don't want to, but either way I think the next couple of decades are going to be fascinating to watch in China.


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1st September 2014

Interesting memories
Hey Tim, Was fascinated to read you blog which brought back some interesting memories of China from when we were last there in 2008, just after the Olympics. It was fascinating to see the contrasts from our first visit in 1983 and again 25 years later. Absolutely poles apart with Beijing being almost unrecognisable. Back in '83 there was no high-rise; the only vehicles on the road were government-owned (trucks, buses etc) as individuals couldn't own cars back then but, thousands of bicycles everywhere with the total population still wearing their Chairman Mao tunics. Everything was drab, dreary and grey. Back in 1983 China had not long opened to tourism so, everything was very basic. You couldn't even leave your hotel without your personal guide; there were no western-style stores; tourists could only shop in the purpose-built Friendship stores for tourists only and we even had our own "tourist" currency. There was no independent travel of any kind and, forget wandering around anywhere under your own steam. Just didn't happen and wasn't allowed. Sounds as though you have done a very similar trip to ours in 2008 so, thanks for the walk down memory lane and of places visited. Like you - I think it will be interesting to see what happens with China over the next 20 years or so. Cheers, Jan
1st September 2014

Ooops!
Hi Mike, It appears you have had a name change :) Due to the vagaries of technology and some difficulty posting my comment, appears there was a mental bloc involved. Still enjoyed your blog, just the same. :) Keep travelling! Cheers, Jan
1st September 2014

Ha ha that did confuse me, you must have been as tired as me from my flights home! Yes was a great trip and really interesting although now I wish I had visited when you did so I could see the contrasts, but maybe I'll just have to go back in 10-20 years time and see the difference for myself. Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed, keep on travelling yourself , Mike
1st September 2014
Just chillin

China
Cute
15th October 2014

China Life
Really enjoyed reading this account of your visit to China. We visited the country and blogged about our experiences there in 2007....amazing place. Didn't travel quite so widely as we landed right in the middle of a national holiday when all the transport and all the accommodation was block booked by half of China - not recommended but funny in hindsight! Reading this just bought it all back in vivid technicolor - great job.

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