China - View from the Inside

"The sheer scale of the site is awe-inspiring, rows upon rows of hundreds of terracotta men all lined up in impeccable precision, each with a distinct face and features."

January 2016 • Jules Verne

China - View from the Inside

China; a country abundant with an awe-inspiring history and ancient culture is constantly developing at an advanced rate in to the twentieth century modern era and is now easily accessible thanks to direct flights from the UK with British Airways and the multiple journeys on the high-speed rail network, enabling me to fit in many more must-see cities across such a vast country, in my first adventure to China.

Our journey started in Chengdu, located in the southwest of China. Well known for the Giant Panda Research Breeding centre, as only a few years ago pandas were on their way to becoming extinct. We can now see 200 Giant Pandas and 100 Red Pandas thanks to the centre. 

We arrived at the centre quite early and our first sighting was a large adult panda sitting against a big rock in the ground, eating away at a long branch of bamboo. There was a crowd of people around him, watching his behaviour and taking pictures.

Giant Pandas are incredibly lazy creatures – mainly eating or sleeping throughout their days, however we did catch a glimpse of a particularly active panda, which climbed a feeble-looking tree for some bamboo. He was enormous; it was fascinating to witness this ton of muscle reach for food on the slightest looking branch.

The baby pandas were especially cute and cuddly. There were 4 month old pandas in an outside enclosure rolling and crawling around, one of them following around the keeper – so cute.

We flew to Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors built by the first Emperor Qui Shihuang - in the Qing Dynasty between the years of 211 – 206 BC. On entering the first pit, the sheer scale of the site is awe-inspiring, rows upon rows of hundreds of terracotta men all lined up in impeccable precision, each with a distinct face and features, which likely reflects the faces of the men who created them. It is almost incomprehensible the extent of this project, the labour that must have been involved in its creation, and the ego that initiated it all.

To say this is impressive is an understatement. Nothing can really prepare you for the sight of these absolutely fantastic works of art, truly a sight to behold.

We also visited the city walls of Xi'An, which are reputedly among the best preserved in China. They are dramatically tall, we climbed steeped steps to reach the top of the walls and walked a little way overlooking the extensive views across the city, which are surrounded by skyscrapers on both sides. The width of the wall was extensive which allows for the opportunity for visitors to hire a bicycle to ride the circumference of the wall around the city.

Our next stop was on to Pingyao, a collective favourite with our group. Having visited the larger cities of Chengdu and Xian, Pingyao felt like being in an old Chinese movie. It was architecturally beautiful, with cobbled streets, old Chinese-style buildings and endless nooks and corners. In the evening we strolled the streets, which were lit with red lanterns lining the shop fronts, I felt this gave a great feel of how living in China used to be.

We also visited Confucius Temple, 6km outside the city walls, which is a courtyard complex with colourful ancient carvings and Buddha statues dating back from 1163.

Beijing holds a wealth history of more than 3000 years as a city and over 860 years as a capital with 6 UNESCO sites.  We visited the Great Wall, the construction of which, began over 2300 years ago, when the warring states fought frequently over territory, so walls were built to keep out intruders. We visited the Mutianyu section, which is 72km northeast of Beijing and is renowned for its unique fortification.

I had envisioned a picture hung up in our office of the wall winding over rolling, green hills into the distance, although never did I think I would witness this ancient site coated in thick, white snow! The slippery snow added an extra challenge for us and others attempting to walk the steep inclines and steps along the meandering wall. I could just make out the winds and turns of the wall in the distance fading into the haze, truly breathtaking to view such a magical setting especially when discovering 3 little snowmen sitting on the ledge.

In the afternoon we went on to visit The Summer Palace, located northwest of Beijing. The landscape consists mainly of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, covering a total area of 2.9 square kilometers, three quarters of which is under water.  Being the largest and most well preserved royal park in China, it greatly influences Chinese horticulture and landscaping with its famous natural vistas and points of cultural interest. Even on a cloudy day the scenery over the lake was so serene and peaceful, we walked the length of a long corridor which stretches from the Hall of Joy and Longevity in the east to Shizhang Pavilion in the west. The entire corridor is 728 metres long and contains artistic decorations, including paintings of famous places in China, and scenes from Chinese mythology. 

The next day we visited Tian An Men square, a modern creation in which covers an area of 440,000 square feet and is the world's largest public square. In the centre is the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao, with his embalmed body on display.  Until the mid 1970's the square was used for massive rallies and parades. In 1989 the army forced pro-democracy demonstrators out of the square, with hundreds losing their lives. Despite being a public place the square remains more in the hands of the government than the people, the square is fenced off and can only be accessed at designated points with security checks on entry. 

As we approached the Forbidden City to the North of Tian An Men Square, the crowds of people became greater. The infamous yellow roofs were white, covered in snow! The Forbidden City built in the 15th century, is China’s largest and best-preserved collection of ancient buildings and precious cultural relics and objects, and the largest palace complex in the world. So called the Forbidden City as it was off limits for 500 years, the palace was the reclusive home to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. As we walked through each of the enormous buildings and courtyards, the grandeur gave the idea it was a place of great power and influence. 

Suzhou was founded in around 600 B.C. and is one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze basin. Known for its beautiful gardens, interconnected waterways and beautiful environment, the city is often referred to as the Venice of the East. We visited The Lingering Garden, which was a stunning setting even with the cloudy sky over head. There was a real sense of harmony and tranquillity wandering around the beautiful scenery. The garden covers an area of 2.3 hectares and is one of the most famous gardens in China, built in 1583. 

One of Suzhou’s main industries is Silk production and manufacturing. We enjoyed a tour of a silk factory which provides an interesting and educational glimpse of this Chinese textile industry.

Our final stop was Shanghai, the face of modern China, situated on the central coast and the country's largest city and a global financial hub.

Its heart is the Bund, which is a promenade on the waterfront lined with colonial-era buildings. Across the Huangpu River in the new development zone of Pudong’s, rises a futuristic skyline, including the 632m Shanghai Tower and the well-known TV Tower with the pink sphere’s, establishing the fast changing and developing metropolitan city of Shanghai. We arrived in the evening and thoroughly enjoyed the Acrobatic Show which included some spectacular routines. The skills of the performers were astonishing and really had you on the edge of your seat.

The next day was a full day in Shanghai, we started by exploring the old Chinese quarter where there were many shops and stalls selling all sorts of products such as jewellery, fabrics and deliciously smelling street food, however when looking up close, the stalls offered the strangest of delicacies including duck necks and pigs trotters.  Yu Yuan Gardens was located within the Chinese quarter; dates back from the Ming Dynasty and although small, was a delightfully serene spot with traditional pavilions, towers and ponds. As we walked around the tranquil gardens it was like walking into a completely different world with the city outside of the surrounding walls continuing business as usual; a complete contrast to the harmonious setting of the beautiful garden within. Every so often you would look up to see a skyscraper appearing through the trees or over a pagoda, a reminder you were in the heart of Shanghai. 

The afternoon was a visit to the Jade Buddha Temple, which derives its name from two fine milk jade Buddha’s imported from Burma to Shanghai in 1882 by sea. These were a sitting Buddha (1.95 meters tall, 3 tonnes), and a smaller reclining Buddha representing the Buddha's death. The temple now also contains a much larger reclining Buddha made of marble, donated from Singapore, and visitors may mistake this larger sculpture for the original, smaller piece.

We had come to the end of the tour, this was the most amazing journey through China, I really felt I had a much better understanding of China’s fascinating history and development into the modern twentieth century.