Memories of China… part one

| July 2, 2015

Mike and Chris travelled on a tailor-made holiday to China, and here they recount their experiences.

Forbidden city mural

We have just completed a visit to the inscrutable Orient – more specifically to the 21st-century economic powerhouse that is the People’s Republic of China. Our trip covered all the required tourist highlights, both scenic and historic, and commenced in the capital, Beijing. A decade ago, Katie Melua asserted in song that there were nine million bicycles in the city – it’s now no longer the case. However, it is entirely possible that there are now nine million cars: the city extends outward to a sixth ring road to cope, and whilst the streets are broad and multi-laned, traffic hold-ups can, and do, still occur.

We rapidly managed to discern the basic rules of the road: there are none! Obviously, traffic lights are obeyed (though there seems no requirement to stop just because there is a pedestrian on a zebra crossing) …  otherwise it’s a free-for-all with cars, lorries, buses, scooters and bicycles vying for space and coming at you from all directions. It was not an uncommon sight to find a little old lady on a scooter crossing our path at right angles. Outside the city on the network of dual carriageways, a similar free-for-all applies: passing vehicles in front can be achieved by overtaking, undertaking, or – for the truly adventurous – by slaloming between them!

Our first stop before hitting the tourist trail was for a traditional lunch consisting of the tried and trusted favourites – sweet and sour pork and kung pao chicken. We dined next to the Summer Palace and fitted in some chopsticks practice, which successfully demonstrated my continuing ineptitude. Thankfully sheer hunger helped me muddle through.

Summer palace and tourists

Duly fortified, we set off for the palace itself, where we came face-to-face with the Chinese tourist experience – all members of each visiting group to a major site seem to wear the same hats. It was a bit disconcerting to be faced with 40 old people in red baseball caps, and we were grateful that the season was only just starting given the numbers in evidence already.

We saw many of the major buildings, some of which have been destroyed and rebuilt over the 250 to 300 years of its existence as a palace. These included the House of Green Ripples and the Hall of Happiness and Longevity – a title which I may shortly bestow on my own residence. There was a stone, which if photographed will bring bad luck, houses where windows had been walled up to deny light to the losers of power struggles, and a marble boat (which obviously is not entirely marble….)

Marble boat

Our guide was helpfully informative on many subjects, including what might be described as ‘eunuchisation’ (for those of a sensitive or squeamish disposition, it might be prudent to skip the next couple of lines.) Firstly, the offending articles were surgically removed, which allowed the victim to join the trebles in the imperial choir, and the objects themselves were placed in a muslin bag together with herbs and spices – an early bouquet garni – and kept there. Once the victim had shuffled off this mortal coil, he was reunited with his assets and they were buried together. On the downside, the science of urology was not terribly advanced, and the invention of the colostomy bag was some centuries distant, so problems did ensue, and it was possible to detect the approach of a eunuch with the olfactory senses alone… I have to say I felt my eyes watering at the very thought of all this!

This titbit was followed up by the explanation of the concubine selection process. The qualifying round consisted of an inspection for physical beauty, followed by judgement on intellectual capabilities, and then finally they were checked for ‘purity’. We also learned that concubines often walked about without clothes – not in the interests of arousing lustful thoughts, but rather to ensure that they weren’t carrying weapons to assassinate the emperor!

The following day was somewhat more restful, involving a visit to a cookery school in a hutong, a lovely traditional Chinese neighbourhood with narrow alleys. We first stopped at a local market to acquire supplies. In an area of no more than 800 sq metres on two floors, it had everything necessary to keep body and soul together – fruit, veg, meat and fish – and all of it fresh, with some fish still swimming lengths of their tanks. The only exceptions were obvious dried goods like rice and noodles – no tinned goods, no cakes and biscuits, no crisps, no sweets, and no processed microwave dinners – it indeed makes you wonder how the Chinese manage to survive!

Local men and markets

In the classroom we learned how to make dumplings (mine were pork and dill). Making the fillings was fine, but rolling out the pastry and subsequently sealing the dumplings proved to be a little more challenging – I think smaller hands than mine were needed. The different varieties we and our fellow students had created were then variously steamed, boiled and fried and we were required to eat them for our lunch – fortunately they were delicious!!!

We then girded up our loins in preparation for a full day tour of Beijing’s other highlights, starting at the Temple of Heaven, a 600-year-old Ming temple. It is widely used as the symbol of Beijing, and in times gone by it was a site where prayers for rain were offered up – I can only assume that someone got in early on the day of our visit since the weather was not exactly clement.

Temple of heaven and Tiananmen Square

We squelched off to our second destination, Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world. It was here that we had our first real experience of Chinese security: visitors are searched and bags scanned before being allowed into the square. Inside, soldiers were stationed at strategic points, as were rather scrawny little chaps in ill-fitting black suits and white open-necked shirts – I assumed them to be members of some security organisation and that, given their lack of physical heft, they were well versed in the martial arts.

We observed the Great Hall of the People (a massive 1950s edifice in the brutalist style of communist regimes the world over), the monument to the People’s Heroes and Mao’s Mausoleum, before heading off to the Forbidden City, from which emperors ruled China for 500 years. We also learnt the meaning of the stars on the Chinese flag: the big one is the Communist party, and we were told that the other four represented soldiers, students, farmers and workers who were involved in the revolution. However it is suggested elsewhere that they represent the working class, the peasantry, the urban petite bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie.

Forbidden city

Anyway, in somewhat cheerier weather we entered through a Ming dynasty gate under Mao’s portrait (which is redone every year) alongside the watchful eye of the security forces, and found ourselves in a magnificent complex of immense courtyards and spectacular traditional buildings. The various halls and palaces all have names involving combinations of Purity, Heavenly, Earthly, Harmony, Tranquillity, Peace, Longevity and the like, and I was struck by the combination of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Emperor’s quarters), the Palace of Earthly Tranquillity (Empress’ quarters), and, lying between them, the Hall of Union. The whole complex is about 1km long, and we finally emerged through the Gate of Divine Prowess, through which Pu Yi, the last emperor, went into obscurity.

That evening we attended a performance of Peking opera, which was an interesting experience. The first piece was fairly traditional and set to what we would recognise as Chinese music: it opened with a princess alone on stage singing of this and that, but soon interrupted by the arrival of a senior general, complaining that while he had personally slain many of the opposition’s generals, the supporting cast hadn’t been up to snuff and he was therefore defeated.

Peking opera

The woman let out a strangulated yowl (which roughly translated as ‘how pleased I am my lord to see that you are still alive’) and rolled her eyes. In a supportive manner she then sang the helpful comment ‘some you win, some you lose – have a bevvy and get over it’ (obviously I paraphrase slightly) and, while the general sat in despair, she proceeded to dance around waving a couple of swords, which we suspected would be used to kill off the unsuspecting general. In the event, when he proposed that they should escape together she announced that she would only be a burden and slow him down, and in a noble gesture topped herself with one of the swords.

After this cheeriness we were presented with the first performance of a new piece: the music sounded like a never-ending avalanche of kitchen utensils, and the action involved much gymnastics and acrobatics. There was some dialogue, along the lines of ‘I shall go and detect a mountain’ – not the most challenging of tasks, I would venture, unless in thick fog or in Norfolk…. Certainly two contrasting pieces, and a performance worth seeing.

The following day we left Beijing and headed for the Great Wall. We avoided the parts nearest to town, which were both busy and, from later observation, of a gradient requiring the use of crampons and pitons. Instead we headed for Jinshanling Pass, which was almost deserted. We climbed the wall for some way in both directions, and only once did I have to resort to the undignified approach of hands and feet rather than the more normal homo erectus position. At one point I decided enough was enough and came to a halt while Chris pressed on. Awaiting her return, a wizened old crone trotted past me, totally untroubled by the effort of climbing, and when Chris got back she reported that in the watchtower she had found a dining table set with silver service. It was rather like one of those ‘romantic dinner for two’ settings, though it might have been a hard sell – “Darling, I’ve arranged a lovely surprise for our anniversary dinner”, “Where is it?”, “It’s a bit of a walk, but it’s on the Great Wall”, “You expect me to climb the Great Wall in these shoes, buster, you got another thing coming – forget it!!”

Great Wall of China

We stayed overnight at a hotel of 12 buildings designed by different architects – I suspect the designer of ours was in an early cubist phase – and arose at an early hour, to discover that it had snowed! Lower down the snow was not in evidence, and we left Beijing for our second stop – the city of Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Army.

However, before visiting this particular highlight, we spent the afternoon inspecting the Forest of Steles, stone tablets showing Chinese calligraphy through the ages, before enjoying our own calligraphy lesson. We spent over an hour trying to write the two characters that make up the name Xi’an – it’s not easy, and not at all like trying to write two characters from the English alphabet: lines have to be of the correct length and thickness, the angle of slope precise, the angle at which they meet or cross other lines accurate, and curves and waves in lines must also be exact. In addition to all this, they have to be painted in the correct order. I won the prize for accuracy and dogged determination, and Chris got one for speed and artistic flourish. We finished the day with a visit to the city walls, which are 14km long in total.

Terracotta warriors

The next morning we visited the site of the Terracotta Army. Although we had seen the main pit of the site on television, it could not have conveyed the immensity of the spectacle. Over 6,000 soldiers and archers, each with an individual facial expression and a number of horses are contained in a structure the size of a large aircraft hangar. Excavation and reconstruction continues to this day, the latter activity being akin to doing a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of a picture.

All of it is part of the burial site of Emperor Qin. Pronounced ‘chin’ – he had a stand-in for less important occasions, who was obviously known as Double Qin… In rule about 2,200 years ago, it is believed he is buried under a mound about a mile away, but suspected rivers of mercury have prevented any attempt to open this up. We also noted that the farmer who originally discovered the site puts in a daily shift signing copies of souvenir books for a small consideration.

Before departure, we visited an area where some warriors have been set up in display cases. While examining one, our guide said “This one’s just like you”. ‘Ah yes’ I thought, ‘military bearing, ramrod straight back, and a steely glint in the eye’. So it was somewhat of a let-down to discover he was called the Fat-Bellied General…

Terracotta army

We then returned to Xi’an for a visit to the Muslim Quarter and the Grand Mosque – Islam is the most enduring of all the faiths in the city, with the mosque having been constructed in 742. Our time in Xi’an came to an end with a Tang Dynasty Cultural Show and dinner (the courses of the latter had fanciful names like Pearls of Cathay – diced chicken in sauce – and  The Royal Marriage – black mushroom consommé) and the show itself was mildly entertaining, though I am not qualified to comment on its authenticity. We were, however, treated to a musical piece played on the Pai Xiao, a 3,000-year-old instrument resembling a larger version of pan pipes (I don’t mean this specific instrument was 3,000 years old, merely that it was invented that long ago).

Chinese theatre

The following day we moved on to Guilin, and immediately set off on the tourist trail again. We started at the Reed Flute Caves, which contain a selection of stalactites and stalagmites lit in bright primary colours, and demonstrate the Chinese ability to attach fanciful names to their attractions. One formation was entitled Morning Sunrise Over Lion Mountain – it contained something that could look like a lion’s head – and another Bumper Harvest of Melon and Vegetables – we managed to identify the melon, and indeed broccoli and a peanut. The visit ended, somewhat bizarrely, with a back-projected Pas de Deux from Swan Lake. We then moved on to Fubo Shan, a rock rising by the river, which has caves containing carved Buddha images, thus giving a cultural element to our day...

Reed flute caves

Read Memories of China... Part 2 here >

Mike and Chris Simm travelled on a tailor-made holiday to China. If you would like to do the same, please contact us, or have a look at our website for holiday ideas >

Images by Christine Simm and Shutterstock.

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