Just like nomadic travellers, countries don’t stand still either. They are constantly evolving economically and culturally. This is no more obvious than when travelling in China as we did in March 2017.
China is the new global superpower poised to displace the USA as the world’s most powerful economy. The twentieth century has been called ‘the American century’ but, the twenty-first looks destined to be China’s.
We were very excited to be travelling to China. It had long been on John’s bucket list and was, for both of us, a completely new experience quite unlike the familiar countries of SE Asia.
Our brief two-week journey through China was from south to north taking in the iconic cities of Shanghai and Beijing.
First, however, we had a mini adventure in the mountainous province of Hunan (where a certain Mao Zedong was born in the village of Shaoshan in 1893).
Arriving in the Hunan city of Changsha late at night is no fun. More than one friend had asked why we were bothering going there. Truth is we’d been guided by a travel agent who assured us Changsha was the best jumping off point to our destinations at Zhangjiajie and Fenghuang.
Seven hours after we had arrived in Changsha we were up and heading across the road to the railway station for a train to Zhangjiajie. Never heard of Zhangjiajie? Neither had we until we started researching our trip. However, if you’ve seen the movie Avatar you would instantly recognize the landscape of the National Forest Park at Zhangjiajie as the ‘floating mountains’ of Pandora inhabited by the Na’vi people in the movie.
Navigating China’s vast railway stations is no mean feat – Changsha’s has 13 waiting rooms each about half the size of a football pitch. So we were relieved to settle into our seats in good time and discover two English speaking software engineers about to make the same journey. They proved very helpful in offering advice and assistance at the tricky bus station at Zhangjiajie, i.e. avoiding what they referred to as people with “black hearts”.
Four hours by train from Changsha to Zhangjiajie followed by two hours onward by bus to Wulingyuan Scenic Area finally saw us arrive at our excellent little Qing Man hotel run by hosts Richard and Sara. They both spoke excellent English and were super helpful getting tickets and telling us how to reach places of interest.
First stop was the National Forest Park whose entrance was just five minutes’ walk away. The experience of the park and, especially, it’s legendary ‘hallejuliah mountains’ (now commonly called ‘the Avatar mountains’) is totally weather dependent. On the day of our visit thick fog and rain meant visibility was down to about 5 meters. Not good! Where we should have enjoyed beautiful mountain views, our view was below.
Tickets to the National Forest Park aren’t cheap but at least they last 4 days. On the day we visited the weather turned out to be dreadful. Suggestions by weather apps that it might improve were hopelessly optimistic. It chucked it down all day.
We decided to cut short our visit on the first day to return another. Unfortunately, one of the quirks of the National Forest Park is that you can only go around one way. That meant there was no way to get the park shuttle bus out without going all the way around first. This meant having to take the expensive cable car ride downward to the boarding point for the exit bus. Therefore, where we expected to enjoy views like that below (shot of promotional poster), we actually beheld the view below that.
Hmm…One hundred pounds a day for two to visit the park and no views. Ouch!
You can imagine we were all over every conceivable weather app the night before committing to visiting the next spot on our hit list, i.e. the Grand Canyon Scenic Area with its famed glass bridge . The forecasts all concurred there’d be a wet start followed by a dry afternoon. That was good enough, so we set off at 8.30am on the 40 minute bus ride to the glass bridge (the only westerners in sight).
The bridge is something of a white elephant by design. It has no practical function and was built solely for thrill seeking tourists. We’d already noticed the Chinese tendency to make every tourist attraction into some kind of kitsch theme park – unfettered Disneyfication if you will. This bridge was a case in point.
The bridge is a totally artificial attraction grafted onto what is in its own right a beautiful steep ‘grand’ canyon snaking between the surrounding mountains beneath waterfalls and through ancient caves. Some stats: the bridge measures 430 metres long, is 6m wide and suspended 430 metres above the ground.
Now, for a girl not keen on heights this bridge was something of a challenge to say the least. But, you don’t travel 5,500 miles from Liverpool to miss out on one of China’s biggest attractions. Slowly, the toe touched the bridge. Before we knew it we were out there on the glass with only mild anxiety showing. What a hero!
While the glass bridge at Grand Canyon Scenic Area is perhaps the big draw, it was the canyon that wowed us. A two-and-a-half-hour leisurely stroll along a river along wooden boardwalks, sliding down a giant stone toboggan, along a long zip wire, under water falls and through huge abandoned bandit caves. Yeah, we had a fantastic day (it took years off us – especially that zip wire. Not as hair raising as the tree-top one that nearly took John’s fingers off in South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains, but pretty good). No photos as we were too busy screaming!
Having settled for one good day out of two in Zhangjiajie, we boarded a bus for Fenghuang – billed as the most beautiful ancient village in China. Fenghuang lies only 236km south of Zhangjiajie but, somehow took nearly seven hours to reach by bus.
It’s safe to say we’d never have found our hidden hotel without a taxi driver’s help. Tucked away down a back alley, it was a little gem of a place. Super clean and only 100m from the waterfront.
Fenghuang – meaning ‘phoenix’ in Chinese – is on the West edge of Hunan province. Though first settled in 660AD, most of the existing old buildings date from the early Qing period (1644-1911). The town straddles the Tuo Jiang River. It is home to the ethnic minority Miao people whose blue clothing and silver jewellery are seen everywhere. Ethic Miao and Tujia people make up over half of the 350,000 population of the town.
Fenghuang looks so stunningly quaint that it could be taken for a film set. While there are many original buildings, a great many have been reconstructed using modern materials. The obvious concrete reconstruction creates the sense that low cost and appearance have been prioritized over authenticity (more Disneyfication?) adding to the ‘film set’ feel.
There is no doubt Fenghuang is beautiful, especially at night when the waterfront is illuminated with bars, restaurants and myriad lanterns strung along the river. The stunning Rainbow Bridge and Phoenix Tower are standout night time features.
The 300-year-old Rainbow Bridge contains a variety of craft shops and jewellery sellers much like Florence’s larger Ponte Vechhio (built 1345).
Fenghuang attracts 10m visitors each year. Given that annual figure we were amazed to see so westerners and so we were again asked to act as extras in many a selfie. Trouble is, this snowballs as yet others mistakenly think you must be somebody to be visiting this place and then they want a photo too. This ended in some large group shots!
After the natural beauty of Hunan province, our next stop was the mega city of Shanghai.
John’s expectations of China are shaped by his previous studies of its economy but, also his exposure to many old photographs of pre-communist (i.e. pre-1949) Shanghai. So, he was super excited to see and photograph it for himself.
With a population of 25m Shanghai is China’s biggest city and a global financial centre. Commerce is quite obviously the focus of Shanghai’s existence with banks, corporate HQs and shopping malls everywhere on both sides of the Huangpu River.
The waterfront Bund district has many colonial buildings that up to the 1930s were the city’s financial centre (when it was Asia’s main financial centre). The Bund waterfront is surprisingly similar to the Liverpool waterfront – a common comparison – and is part of why the two city’s are twinned. However, the financial district is now across the Huangpu river at Pudong (below).
Our time in Shanghai can be summed up in one word – Rain! Not quite continuous but, breaks in the downpour were few and short-lived. The rain forced us to spend more time than usual inside shopping malls. Not natural born shoppers, our total spend was 20 Yuan (about £2.20) on two pairs of socks.
In truth, we struggle for highlights from our time in Shanghai. Even our visit to what is billed as a preserved part of ‘old’ Shanghai, Yu Yuan Gardens, turned out to be something of a shopping district with many fake or reconstructed traditional style buildings. The crowds were enormous making it more like a cattle drive through many streets.
All the guide books say the number one attraction in China, and a ‘must see’, are the Terracotta Warriors at Xian. So, we boarded the overnight train for the 1400km journey westward. Unlike the rattling old trains in India, China has a modern well run railway and our ‘soft sleeper’ (yes they have ‘hard sleeper’ beds too) compartment was luxurious by comparison.
Arriving the next morning, we parked our luggage in the station store room at Xian we hopped the bus for the 50-minute trip to the site where the 6000 terracotta warriors were accidentally discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974.
The warriors formed part of Emperor Qin’s burial site and date from 209BC. To date 1000 warriors have been excavated and three large sheds – think aircraft hangers – cover the three dig sites. The official signage and leaflets actually refer to shed 1, 2 and 3. Every figure has a unique head and a body constructed from mass produced armour sections.
The physical stature of the figures is larger than typical Chinese people and the armour unlike anything found elsewhere in China in that period. This has led to theories the design and construction of the figures was influenced by Western styles and perhaps supervised by a designer brought in from the West. Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210BC) was known to admire and collect Western art and craft objects.
After a three hour visit to the warriors we had six hours to spend back in the city of Xian before another overnight train to Beijing.
Despite hosting the terracotta warriors on its outskirts, the city of Xian is not a tourist place. Walking the streets, we saw precisely ZERO westerners. The main feature of Xian is its well-preserved city wall. Reckoned to be the best example in China, it’s 14km long, 12m high and 12m wide. There are 98 ramparts around the wall and 4 massive garrison-like gateways .
Apart from the trip to the warriors, the top of the wall was the only place we saw a few tourists. Xian itself is a prosperous modern city so we were perplexed why it’s tourism wasn’t more developed. We attracted quite a bit of attention here too (all friendly).
After another overnight train, we arrived in Beijing in the early morning and were relieved to find it bright and sunny. Our imaginatively titled ‘Hotel 161’ was in a little back street hutong (i.e. a long narrow street that is a mini community with its own stores, eateries and community police officer at the entry). It has a bohemian kind of vibe and a florist and coffee shop in a small entrance area. The coffee and croissants were excellent so we were happy.
As the capital city of the most ambitious country in the world you would expect Beijing to be a model modern city. You wouldn’t be disappointed; clean, well-organized, great transport links, modern infrastructure (and lots of police everywhere).
The much-reported smog they periodically suffer in Beijing was nowhere to be seen. The air seemed quite clean and few people were wearing face masks. There was almost no litter despite the many fast-food sellers.
Beijing has three great attractions that all Chinese and overseas tourists head for: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and The Great Wall (outside the city). All three made up our agenda too.
The uprising that occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989 rocked China to its core and remains the single biggest act of rebellion against the communist regime. Accounts of the death toll from the brutal crackdown vary from a few hundred to tens of thousands.
The government’s determination to avoid a repeat is evident in the large police and army presence (complete with riot gear, guns and armoured cars). Just getting into the square involves long queues to go through security checks and bag scanners.
The square is vast and contains many official buildings including, ironically, the Great Hall of the People as well as large scale statues commemorating the people’s heroic struggle for progress. Photographing here is tolerated but, pointing our cameras at police or soldiers was politely discouraged.
Where Tiananmen Square awed us with its vastness and bombast, the Forbidden City did likewise with its magnificent buildings and maze of intimate streets. It was hard not to expect the boy emperor Pu Yi, as depicted in Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor, to come running around a corner at any minute.
The magnificence of the Forbidden City (now officially renamed the Palace Museum) and the sense of history is undeniable. We were both taken by the obvious sophistication of the culture that designed and built such complex architecture and administration around the Emperors of China.
By now we were mightily impressed with Beijing as a city and tourist destination. We hoped a visit to the Great Wall wouldn’t dampen our growing enthusiasm. Hedging, we opted to visit the less touristy Jinshanling section of the Wall. Most tourists visit the more accessible Badaling section and it is absolutely crowded as a result.
We arrived at the Wall and John immediately spotted the charming old lady below. An obvious photo he thought. Sure enough she was happy to oblige. Unfortunately, as John thanked her and turned away she was run over by a reversing SUV. Not badly hurt but shaken up as she was knocked off her feet.
The Great Wall lived up to our expectations and more. It is a staggering engineering feat built to protect the northern provinces from marauding Mongols intent on taking land and crops. Measuring approximately 5,500 miles in length, many parts of the Wall have been restored but some areas of this Jinshanling section are untouched since they were constructed.
Most of the current Great Wall dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but, there are historical records showing the first parts of the wall were built as early as the 7th century BC.
We found there is a reason why relatively few people visit the Jinshanling section. It requires a level of fitness that was quite a challenge even without the soaring temperatures. Let’s just say we were glad we’d spent much of 2016 training for the Yorkshire 3 Peaks endurance challenge and that Karon is a dedicated runner. Even so some sections of the paved wall were so steep you literally had to scramble up on hands and feet. Breathtaking in more ways than one. We absolutely loved it!
One of our main tasks was to get some good photographs for a young friend back home who’d specifically asked for some images of the Great Wall. (You know who you are ASJ).
Overall, China had been a mixed bag for us. Rain had played its part in severely restricting our enjoyment of Zhangjiaie and Shanghai. Xian had been a required visit to lay eyes on the Terracotta Warriors but underwhelmed a little. Beijing, on the other hand, had wildly exceeded expectations with great weather and historic attractions. The Great Wall was easily our favourite experience though.
On the downside, we really struggled with food in China. We never resorted to western fast food if we could avoid it. That meant eating some things whose ingredients we couldn’t identify and some chicken dishes that seemed more bones than meat. Occasionally, a great beef or pork dish encouraged us to plough on experimenting but, we were never really won over by the cuisine.
China is a country in a hurry. Desperately trying to balance rapid industrialization and building a domestic middle class consumer market (to reduce export dependence). All the while trying to resist growing pressures for political freedoms to accompany prosperity. Poverty is still rife in many agricultural areas – where 300m Chinese are still employed – and consequently migration from these areas to rapidly developing cities is a major change in Chinese society and a challenge for city planners.
For our part, we were awed by the ambition and achievements of China since modernization began in the mid-1070s. Having said that, everywhere we went there were huge apartment buildings under construction right beside already completed empty ones. Who were they building for? Is the process of construction just to create temporary jobs or in anticipation of future population shifts? So many unfathomable aspects to China beyond our understanding.
From the new face of Asia, we move to the old established Asian Tiger economy – Japan.
Bye for now,
John and Karon