Travel: Conor Pope takes China in his hands
With tourist sites ranging from old and dusty to high and shiny, and experiences ranging from breathtaking to mickey-taking, Conor Pope finds China as confusing as it is memorable
Around 140 million Chinese tourists and 4.4 million international visitors visit Beijing each year so it’s a lot more used to its own than to strangers
Chinese tourists walk on a slippery section of ice as snow is seen on the Great Wall after a snowfall on November 23, 2015 near Beijing, China. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
My annoyance levels spike when the “doctor” in the Chinese medicine centre where I unexpectedly find myself checks the tongue of the “patient” beside me and diagnoses “a cold uterus” as her feet are rubbed by a teenage boy in a shell suit.
This “doctor” scribbles a prescription for a month’s supply of uterus-warming herbs and hands it to a translator. “€400. Cash or card,” she says. The patient hesitates and the hard sell starts. “Money’s secondary to your health,” the doctor says via his translator. “What if you can never have children?”
All around me in this jaded Beijing medical facility men in white coats are making diagnoses of varying degrees of gravity to a dozen other people in my tour party as they too enjoy foot massages.
I’ve passed up the chance of a “free” check-up but as my feet are pawed half-heartedly by an understandably glum looking young chap, I watch my fellow travellers swap money for herbs. Within minutes more than two grand has changed hands.
At the sight of so many, spending so much, on so little, I can’t stop myself adding my two cents. I tell the doctor, through his translator, that linking commerce, medicine and tourism is both irresponsible and immoral.
He doesn’t take kindly to my tuppence worth. His chest puffs out as he tells me he’s famous and takes care of the Communist Party’s top brass.
Our conversation comes to an abrupt end when he crumples up the prescription for the cold uterus case and storms off taking my confused masseuse with him. I wander outside to the car park where five buses have decanted similarly confused looking tourists who are milling around waiting for dubious diagnoses of their own.
Welcome to China: a complex, challenging, cultured and confusing land where almost everything is out of the ordinary and almost every experience – good or bad – is unforgettable.
With an almost impenetrable language barrier and huge cultural differences, China’s a hard slog for an independent traveller. But I’m no independent traveller now. Instead, I’m under the umbrella of Travel Department which offers “once-in-a-lifetime” almost all-inclusive packages to the east. I know it’s travelling lite but over the course of my 10-day visit, I repeatedly find myself grateful for the presence of my guide and the organisational skills of Travel Department. Without them I’d have been lost. Literally.
Our first stop is a huge and hectic Tiananmen Square, the heart of modern China. We drive in a staccato style to the square through gridlocked traffic as people on hair-dryer powered scooters, entombed in what look like sleeping bags, snake past with children perched perilously on handle bars. There’s not a helmet or indicator in sight.
At the square, guides fly flags from across the world attached to selfie sticks to help different tour parties track them. It’s like a mini United Nations on the move. I’m terrified I’ll lose my guide’s tricolour. If I do, I doubt I’ll be able to find my way back to the hotel.
Truth be told, I don’t think I’d be able to find my way out of the square. I’d end up wandering Beijing’s streets until I grew old, like one of those Japanese soldiers found in the Asian jungles in the 1970s, fighting a war long since lost.
Around 140 million Chinese tourists and 4.4 million international visitors visit Beijing each year so it’s a lot more used to its own than to strangers like me. That’s one reason it’s hard to make it from A to B without local assistance. Even writing your destination in Chinese script and showing it to a cab driver can work against you as many are illiterate and don’t much like foreigners shoving incomprehensible notes in their faces.
It’s 10am and a long line of Chinese tourists queue to pay their respects at Mao’s mausoleum. After that they may marvel at the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Great Hall of the People before heading into the Forbidden City on the square’s northern fringe.
These sights are interesting for sure, but I’d like to see where, in this “Square of Heavenly Peace”, the Unknown Student took his stand against the might of the Chinese state in June 1989 as the People’s Liberation Army crushed democracy protests all around him.
There’s no point asking our guide – the event has been assiduously wiped from China’s collective consciousness. And there’s no point looking it up on Google, as it’s blocked here too.
We take an underpass towards the Forbidden City and, as it happens, pass directly underneath the spot where the student once stood. I only find that out after the fact – had I known at the time I’d like to have saluted him.
The Forbidden City is a vast network of purple buildings, surrounded by an 8m high wall, built during the reign of Chengzu, a Ming Dynasty emperor who ruled between 1370 and 1424. It’s made up of almost 9,000 rooms and was royalty’s home until the Last Emperor was forced from the throne in 1912.
Commoners were forbidden from entering the palace (hence its name) and in its heyday it was an oasis of calm. It’s bedlam now. Local tourists shove their way through confined spaces in the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity and high palace walls amplify their hacking coughs, throaty spits and enthusiastic sucking of chicken bones. It’s a beautiful structure and a must-see sight but leaving’s still a relief.
We’re whisked off to a hutong (old lanes) area and put in rickshaws to make our way through a warren of narrow lanes lined with low-rise courtyard houses. Until Beijing apartments started climbing heavenward in giant concrete towers, people lived in places like this. Only 1,000 low-rise houses still exist and the structures are protected by the state. Many open their doors to serve “western-friendly” food – the kind of dishes you might find in any Chinese buffet from Dublin to Darwin. I ask our guide about “western unfriendly” food. She grimaces and assures me I wouldn’t like it. We’ll see about that, I think to myself.
The Lama Temple nearby is where devout Buddhists go to give thanks and tourists go to gawp at devout Buddhists. Both groups then light incense sticks, given away free, something almost unimaginable to a person used to paying through the nose for Catholic church candles. Stern monks in orange robes scowl and work on their mantra which appear to be “No Photographs.”
On the way back to the five-star Legendale Hotel – where the accommodation is top notch – we pass Beijing’s city wall. It’s more grand, in the Irish sense, than great. Parts remain intact but much of it was levelled in the late 1940s.
The actual Great Wall, a stretch of which lies 70km outside Beijing, more than lives up to its billing. The first glimpse of it snaking its way through rolling green hills is breathtaking.
The wall is broken into sections and we find ourselves on the Badaling portion which dates back to 1505. It runs for 12km and has 43 watch towers. We’ve only 90 minutes to explore – a downside of a highly organised tour is that your time is rarely your own. Me and my intrepid partner in climb make it to the 13th battlement. My Fitbit tells me that’s the equivalent of 92 floors of a skyscraper.
On the way back to Beijing we stop at a jade factory. The stone here is authenticated but horrendously expensive so we’ve to weigh up whether it makes sense to spend 60 quid on a small Buddha made of real jade or a euro on a fatter, faker one at a street stall.
Fake jade is everywhere. So are stuffed pandas. The real ones are in Beijing Zoo so we go for a gander. We see a handful of the black-and-white bears morosely chomping on bamboo. Their pens are spacious and well maintained and protected from the viewing public by thick glass walls.
Other animals aren’t so lucky. Metal link chains swing loosely from the roof of the monkey’s cage above a few miserable looking playground rocking horses and a giant metal hamster wheel. The animals are bored and bad-tempered and there’s a lot of fighting.
As I walk past, visitors feed the creatures sweets. Their pen is strewn with rubbish. A mother takes a plastic wrapper from a baby monkey’s mouth. No one in authority seems to care. It’s profoundly depressing.
Beijing’s Summer Palace is more cheering. Built as a royal bolthole from the Forbidden City, it was destroyed by British and French colonisers during the Opium Wars of the 19th century and then rebuilt in 1888 under the orders of the Empress Dowager Cixi. She was an indomitable force who diverted (embezzled might be a better word) money from the Chinese navy to restore her summer home, adding a massive artificial lake and a eunuch’s palace, as you do. The place is now a Unesco World Heritage site so maybe the money was well spent.
From Beijing we take a bullet train 1,200km to Xi’an, the cradle of Chinese civilisation. The train cuts a dash through a murky smog which hangs over everything and five hours later we’re in the town which marked the start, or the end, of the Silk Road.
Xi’an has the longest unbroken city wall in the world. It circles the old town and covers a distance of 14km. It’s impressive and architecturally interesting (probably) but my attention is immediately diverted by a man renting bright yellow bikes.
Minutes later I lose my tandem virginity much to me and my partner’s giddy delight. The Chinese cyclists who nearly come a cropper as they fish out camera phones to snap the crazy foreigners racing past, veering wildly from left to right on top of the cobblestoned wall, seem happy about it too. I think.
The centre of Xi’an is marked by ornate bell and drum towers which were used to sound alerts and tell the time. Behind one hides the Muslim Street, a sprawling labyrinthine open market where green laser beams shoot over shoppers’ heads as live scorpions wriggle their last on skewers waiting to be toasted. It is loud and frantic. Sometimes the smells are wojus – like when you get stuck behind a street vendor flogging fish guts – but it is also rather brilliant and pleasingly free of tourists.
Xi’an’s biggest tourist draw by far are the terracotta warriors. They were the brainchild of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and the man who brought nine warring tribes together into a single country.
You don’t unify a bunch of marauding hordes without making a few enemies, living and dead, so to protect himself from the latter, Qin Shi Huang deployed 8,000 terracotta warriors to guard his mausoleum.
They lay undisturbed for more than 2,000 years until 1974 when a group of peasants digging a well near his tomb hit upon some pottery. They alerted the authorities and the find led to the discovery of thousands of life-size terracotta figures of warriors and horses in varying states of disrepair. Today the museum, made up of three separate excavation sites, covers an area of more than 16,300sq m (175,451sq ft). It is still being excavated and is absolutely breathtaking.
Xi’an is old and dusty but Shanghai is shiny and new. With a population of more than 24 million, it’s the largest proper city in China and one of the largest financial centres in the world. It is also the most reinvented place on the planet. Think of the IFSC and multiply it by a million and you might get close to imagining Shanghai.
For centuries, it was a major trading town but fell into decline after the Communists took power in 1949. The party focused trade on fellow socialist countries and the international traders abandoned Shanghai. Until the 1990s.
Alarmed by the student protests, the Chinese authorities resolved not to go the way of the Soviets and introduced far-reaching economic reforms which saw the city rebuilt as a capitalist hub. The traditionally poor area of Pudong was declared a Special Economic Zone and buildings including the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Jin Mao Tower popped up.
Now those buildings are a huge draw for international capitalists and tourists and the night cruises along the Huangpu River to see that skyline glow are wildly popular. The boats drop cruisers at the Bund – a waterfront walkway – which leads to Nanjing Road, the city’s first shopping street and the home of the worst restaurant I’ve ever been in.
After 10 days of being mollycoddled by tour guides and served only “western-style” Chinese food, I break away. I’m an adventurous soul with a stomach of steel, I tell myself.
I’m entirely wrong. It’s still too soon to properly relate the true horror of my last meal and insects fried in batter, crunchy chicken feet and unidentifiable animal innards floating in what is euphemistically called soup still haunt my nightmares.
It was worth it though. It was quite the adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure, in fact.
Conor Pope travelled courtesy of Travel Department (traveldepartment.ie).
Prices for the 12-day, Occasions trip to Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai start at €2,199 per person