As any European who has ever been to China will know, it’s different. Very different. But difference is a good thing and, what’s more, China’s size and variety make it possible to have several exciting holidays in one country. My journey started in Beijing, surrounded by a thousand voices speaking a language that I couldn’t even begin to decipher. Fortunately, the city is quite tourist friendly after the 2008 Olympics were held there. Subway maps have English place names beside the Mandarin and there are guide leaflets to all major attractions available in the hotels.
And there is plenty to see, as you would expect of one of the most populous cities in the world. A warm spring day definitely lends itself to a visit to the Summer Palace, where stunning pavilions overlook Kunming Lake from the slopes of Longevity Hill and visiting Tiananmen Square, an open space of incredible proportion, can be combined with a trip to the Forbidden City, the fifteenth century imperial residence. There are also many temples, including the Confucius Temple and Buddhist Temple, within easy reach but of course, as in any new city, it is worth getting a little lost and exploring the tiny back streets where you can buy excellent street food and meet some locals – although you will likely find it pretty difficult to communicate as very few speak English. It is always worth taking a business card from your hotel with you as handing it to a taxi driver may be your only way of getting home when you’ve finished exploring.
No visit to this part of China is complete without seeing the Great Wall, a truly remarkable feat of construction, which can be easily reached from Beijing. The wall stretches into the distance as far as the eye can see, across green hills which, albeit beautiful, turn out to be rather steep when you follow the Wall over them. There is usually someone at each watchtower to sell you much-needed water and the usual trinkets (or beer!) and you can only marvel at their levels of fitness as they skip past you, heavy cool-box in tow (if you learn any Chinese before you go, try bu yao, meaning ‘no want’ – everyone will laugh at you but I found it invaluable).There is a timelessness about the landscape and some sections of the Wall remain almost untouched. Sadly, the section I visited – Simitai, pictured above – has since been closed for (hopefully sympathetic) restoration but doing some research will allow you to plan an excursion to one of the ‘less touristy’ sections of the Wall, such as Jinshanling.
I also highly recommend seeing the Terracotta Army in Xi’an. Discovered by accident in 1974, near the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first Emperor of China, the warriors, horses and chariots were built in the third century BC and number more than 8000 separate, life-sized figures. The building that contains the main pit is the largest room that I have ever seen and it is incredible to stand overlooking row upon row of cold faces. You cannot help thinking that if you turn your back, they are watching, perhaps even inching towards you on silent feet…
Travelling by train is probably the easiest way to reach other cities. You can reserve cabins on overnight sleeper trains so you don’t waste any precious time on long journeys but, again, check before you go so you know what to expect.There are usually several different classes of cabin on a train but some are equipped with individual TV screens, power points and ensuite.
Leaving the cities and seeing some of the rural countryside will give you a completely different view of China. Made famous by a recent HSBC advert, the town of Yangshuo is surrounded by karst mountains that protrude from the ground at steep angles. A Li river cruise on a rickety skiff, letting yourself be enveloped by the mist swirling around these odd-looking rock formations, is a great way to see people fishing with cormorants in the traditional way and, if you’re lucky, you’ll come across the beach where someone is cooking shrimp and tiny river crabs for you to snack on. If the food has taken your fancy, there’s also a very reputable cooking school in Yangshuo where you can learn a few classic recipes to take home and impress your friends.
Even further away from the concrete jungle are the rice terraces at Longji, nicknamed the Devil’s Backbone. Throughout the seasons, the rice farming follows a cycle that changes the look of the landscape dramatically. In spring, just after planting, the terraces are full of water that reflects ribbons of sky but, in autumn, the valleys are transformed by the rich gold of the ripened harvest. It is worth hiking for a day just for the breathtaking view of the precise terraces, but it’s also very interesting to explore the little villages that cling to the hills.
You need to be fairly fit to run up and down all the stairs between the hamlets and, if you’re planning on staying out after dark a torch is essential. I was fortunate enough to stay with a local family who plied me with rice wine and didn’t judge me when I drunkenly tripped in the dark and almost fell into the pig sty. You can explore these areas on your own but excursions to the rice terraces can also be booked from the local city of Guilin or in advance.
Some of the cultural differences are interesting quirks; signalling the number nine, for example, is done by closing the fist and lifting the index finger into a hook shape – using both hands will illicit some strange glances. Some of the differences are harder to get used to; on the subway in Beijing, I was buying a ticket and paused for a second, in which time another passenger stepped between me and the machine, bought their own ticket and dashed away. Leave your British notions about queuing and personal space at passport control. However, if you think travel is about new experiences, China is a fantastic destination with a rich and interesting culture, great food and endless possibilities.
For hotels, you might consider Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts in Beijing, Xi’an and Guilin.
Photographs by Rachel Blackmore.