China - View from the Inside

Walking the original cobbled streets of this UNESCO Heritage Site, you could feel like you’ve stepped back in time...

March 2018 • Jules Verne

China - View from the Inside

As a first time visitor to China I was apprehensive and excited about my trip, I had heard so many conflicting opinions on this great country but as the Asian Proverb goes ‘It’s better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times’ so I was eager to set off on our journey and discover it for myself.

Beijing was our first stop and I found the capital to be a real mix of old and new, the gloriously preserved ancient monuments and the fresh, clean modern streets, a perfect example of a city that is still evolving. If you embrace the designer shops and bright lights you can become immersed in a modern, thriving metropolis.

However, it was Beijing’s ancient sites that really blew me away. The Forbidden City is the oldest ancient palace in the world, but its 900 wooden buildings are as impressive now as the day they were built. We all enjoyed our morning walking around this huge complex full of interesting artefacts and ornate architecture. Top tip: Look up, the ‘crouching beasts’ statuettes placed along the ridge line of the buildings are beautifully intricate and all have different meanings behind them.


The highlight of our trip came when we took an hour’s drive out of the city and into the hills, where we saw our first sight of the Great Wall. We took a cable car ride through the trees and as we ascended upwards more of the wall was revealed through the dark branches of the tree lined hills. As you step out onto the 2000 year old stones, held together by nothing more than sticky rice and egg white, you almost can’t believe you’re there. To touch stones that have been rubbed smooth by the thousands of people who have reached out to steady themselves in that spot before was a humbling moment. It felt like reaching back through time to touch ancient history.

It’s a great irony that something built to defend and keep people out of China now attracts visitors from all over the world. From all walks of life, from presidents to people from remote villages, everyone wants to see this man made wonder for themselves. I took a million pictures but none really did justice to the scale of the wall and the feeling of awe it inspires when you see it stretching out before you towards the horizon and beyond.

The wall is easily accessible to many, whatever your level of fitness; you can stand and admire a short section, letting your eyes follow its twists and turns until it disappears, or be more adventurous and trek as far as your feet will take you.

Our next stop, after a 4 hour train journey was Pingyao, an ancient city in a modern country. Pingyao is so unique that I can’t compare it with anywhere else in the world. Walking the original cobbled streets of this UNESCO Heritage Site, you could feel like you’ve stepped back in time or perhaps stumbled into a particularly convincing film set, but it’s not, this is the real thing. There were more local Chinese people milling around the streets than tourists which adds to the to authentic feel of the walled city. We enjoyed visiting the small museums, housed in the original buildings of the trades depicted which made the displays all the more interesting. Our accommodation in Pingyao was a particular highlight; we stayed in a traditional old house that has been converted into a hotel. The rooms have a traditional Chinese bed and decor but otherwise have all the mod cons you could need so our stay here felt both comfortable and authentic.

We all noticed the coal induced smog that hung over the city, the like of which I’ve never seen or experienced in my lifetime. It served as a reminder that although the city is a preserved ancient site, we are very much in a modern age and many towns and villages in China are affected by this. While this adds to the authentic feel of the city, it also makes you wonder how this may affect the population in years to come if more sustainable, environmentally friendly methods of heating these old homes aren’t implemented. 


From here we took another train to Xi’an, a city best known for its army of Terracotta statues. My first impressions of Xi’an were of an eclectic city, with new buildings built on top of the old. There’s more of a mixture of styles here and the city was much closer to what we were expecting of modern day China than Beijing or Pingyao. Our guide joked that the bird of Xi’an should be the crane, and it isn’t difficult to work out why when you see so many peeking out across the skyline as new buildings appear. Even the old things here are partly new, the city walls have been restored which has improved their aesthetic but does take away from their authenticity. The obvious highlight here is the Terracotta Warriors, undoubtedly the discovery that put Xi’an on the map.

They are a wondrous sight to behold, each one standing in strict formation with its fellows, each unique face with such a lifelike expression that it is easy to imagine the ancient army that inspired them. In one of the pits you can see the warriors strewn across the earth in pieces which reminded me of fallen men on a battlefield. Unlike their less fortunate human counterparts, these statues are being put back together, one piece of shattered terracotta at a time. The bold colours of the warriors fade within minutes of being unearthed so in an effort to preserve them many have been left undisturbed beneath the ground. There are so many more to be uncovered, hopefully one day it will be possible to see them standing proud in the vivid colours they were painted so long ago. 


After a short plane journey we arrived in Hangzhou ‘the wooden boat city’. Trade here used to rely on the city's waterways and the business that was done along the canals but in recent years Hangzhou has become a hi-tech modern city. Despite this the impressive landscapes and beautiful West Lake still make this a beautiful place to visit. 

The area is well renowned for its tea production and to get to the plantations we journeyed through verdant hillsides full of leaves and crisscrossed with streams. The countryside is less than an hour’s drive from the city and provides a welcome break from the traffic and busy life for tourists and locals alike. We were invited to taste green tea on the hillsides where the leaves are grown, which was a real treat as the best pick of the leaves are kept in China with the second best produce being sold worldwide.

After a relaxing stay in Hangzhou is was time to be dazzled by the bright lights of Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city that is comparatively young as far as China is concerned. From a small fishing village to the heart of China’s growing global brand, the Western influences in architecture and lifestyle are more pronounced here than anywhere else we visited. Shanghai’s history of open ports with unrestricted access to global markets has made it much easier for the rest of the world to influence this city.

The acrobatic show was a real highlight of our time here and I would definitely recommend it as a fun evening of entertainment. The theatre in the round set up allowed everyone a perfect view of the breath taking stunts and tricks and the music and light show accompaniment made for a very polished and entertaining show.

A special mention must go to the wonderful guides that accompanied us on our trip, we had a different local expert in each city and it really enhanced my enjoyment of the tour.
From pointing out a hidden panda mosaic on the floor at Summer Palace, to highlighting the bricks on Xi’an’s city wall that are engraved with the names of the ordinary local people who donated them. It’s little things like this, things that you might not notice or find on your own that really show the benefit of having an expert guide.

We were also treated to a plethora of food on this trip and it’s true that if you clear your plate the dishes will keep on coming. I would encourage people to taste local dishes and try new cuisine, outside of what you might usually order from your local takeaway. 



The culture, politics, landscapes and the people of China are all a world away from anything I have experienced in any other country. Even those well-travelled across the globe will find something different here, a unique experience that you have to dive into. Yes it is crowded, even in the winter when western tourists are replaced with Chinese people exploring their own country, but it’s all part of the charm of this vast country, the scale of which is sometimes hard to fathom.

We travelled across China on three trains and one plane but there was still so much we didn’t see. I would love to go back for a leisurely cruise on the Yangtze and I definitely need to stop by Chengdu to cuddle a baby Panda!

One tour was a great place to start, but it will take many visits to China to see everything this awe-inspiring country has to offer.