China: The "Mainland"
5-22 September 2013
This trip came about as an “add-on”
to my motorcycle tour across Tibet. Rather than simply ride from Lhasa, the
capital of Tibet, to Kathmandu in Nepal, why not spend time exploring other
parts of China, culminating in taking the pressurised train on its 48 hour
journey from Beijing to Lhasa to commence the bike tour?
Five of us, friends from two previous
motorcycle trips, had signed up to do the Tibet ride; then decided to add
visits to Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing to it before further adding Chongqing and
the Three Gorges, with the climax being the train trip to Lhasa.
Somewhere along the way, one of our
number dropped out for personal reasons, leaving four of us, who all met on and
returned from our 2010-11 Nepal and Bhutan tour with our Bhutan Thangkas of the
Four Harmonious Friends (pictured). So that seemed an appropriate moniker for
A lot of planning when into our
travel strategy; but it got thwarted by bureaucracy. The PRC Embassy in
Canberra balked at issuing visas that included our grand plan. We ended up
having to confine the first part of our plan to “mainland” China, then fly out
of China to Kathmandu, apply for new visas there and enter Tibet from Nepal. (I
say “mainland” China for want of a better term, as Tibet is also part of
It all worked okay. The lost
experiences were the Beijing to Lhasa train journey and a few extra days
sightseeing in Lhasa, both of which had been anticipated as special highlights
of our trip. And we ended up spending a few more days than we would have
preferred in Kathmandu. Not that that was such a problem. But we’d all been
there before and had factored in some extra days there in any event.
The bottom line, however, was that we
four harmonious friends had two very enjoyable and eminently satisfying trips:
one exploring “mainland” China for almost three weeks; and one visiting Tibet
and riding across the Tibetan Plateau from Lhasa to Kathmandu.
This page deals with the “mainland”
China segment. The Tibet tour is under Meanders Abroad.
Guide to China
I prepared a rough guide ahead of the
trip. It touches on all the sights I identified as wanting to see. You can find
First stop on the “mainland’ china tour
was Chongqing (pron something like chung-ching).
Every step in the flight (China
Southern), arrival, transfer (at Guangzhou) and local transport went fine until
the taxi from the airport in Chongqing stopped in close vicinity to our hostel,
which I had carefully chosen! I had expected some difficulty in finding the
quaint, 200 year old, very typically Chinese establishment; but had not
expected the perpendicular escarpment looming into the foggy sky where we were
dropped off, with smiles and gesticulating upwards on the part of the driver. To
get to our Sunrise Hostel, we had to
negotiate, with all our luggage, some 200-300 steps up the steep incline; then along
narrow alleys, through old Chinese archways, until finally reaching the hostel
tucked away in a tiny side alley. The good news was that access to the road
above was closer than to the road below. We would have to lug our luggage up
only 60 steps to reach motorised transport, even if the incline was equally as
With only one full day in Chongqing,
we opted to visit the old, historic town of Ciqikou (pron something like sissiko) built in 998 during the Song
Dynasty. It was a 40min ride in the sparklingly clean and efficient Metro. The old
town was essentially a long narrow main street with several narrower side
alleys. At one end was the old port on the Jia Ling River not far from its
confluence with the Yangtze River in Chongqing. It was once a thriving export
point for locally made ceramics. In fact, Ciqikou means Porcelain Port. The
town is very much a tourist destination with the main street filled with shops
of every sort.
Late afternoon saw us cart our
luggage in the rain from the hostel up the stairs to the road above to flag
down a couple of taxis to get us to our ship for our Yangtze River cruise.
With some small drama, we found the
designated pier at the waterfront area and boarded the Victoria Grace for our cruise.
First impressions of the Yangtze
River up close were amazement at the rate of the current. Rain upstream had
obviously flooded into tributaries and set a feverish rush through the city of
Chongqing. All the “piers” were floating pontoons – essential to cope with the
perennial changes of river level. There was more stumbling across the several
gangplanks joining pontoons than dignified walking to board the Victoria Grace. Sailing time was 9.00pm.
By the time we woke up for the first
full day on the river, we had docked alongside another cruise ship at the site
of the ancient “ghost city” of Feng Du. This would be one of a few shore
The odd thing was the serenity of the
surrounds compared to the rush of the river and the bobbing of boat, docks and
gangplanks the previous evening. As if suddenly, there was no discernible
current. During the night, presumably not too long out of Chongqing, we had
entered the upper reaches of the Three Gorges Dam; and had progressed beyond
the flow of the feeder river into the calm of the wider reservoir.
Feng Du dates back to the Eastern Han
Dynasty of 25-220AD – so quite old! It got its name from a couple of imperial
court officials who settled at the site to immerse themselves in their Taoist
religious practices. Their combined surnames sounded like the Chinese for “King
of Hell” in the sense of Hades, god of the underworld – and so the legend arose
that spirits traversing to the after-life would pass through here to be judged
as to whether they ended up in the equivalent of Heaven or Hell. Temples and other buildings display wild
demon images and punishments for those destined for Hell, as well as places
depicting the last contact spirits would have with loved ones in this world.
As if Chongqing hadn’t had enough
stairs; we were greeted at Feng Du with so many more!
The rest of the time this day was
spent cruising past lower-lying land along the river, rising quickly into hills
and beyond into mountains. Small villages and clusters of houses seemed to
nestle into the lush growth, which almost haphazardly exhibited signs of
farming – mostly subsistence it seemed. But there wasn’t much activity to be
seen. This was now a world that had been upended and displaced by the rising
water of the Three Gorges Dam. Villages, farms and farm houses had disappeared
under the dam; and new villages and farm houses had been built on higher land.
Farmers and their families had moved into the new houses clustered together to
replace their cottages previously dispersed over the farm lands. It seemed
there was less farm land to cultivate given the rougher terrain shortly beyond
the water’s edge, but living standards for farmers might well have risen in
terms of living comforts.
Further downstream from Feng Du near
the entrance to the first of the Three Gorges, Qutang Gorge, is the ancient
town of Fengjie. The town has existed for over 2300 years but has moved several
times from one side of the river to the other; and, together with part of its
Ming-dynasty city walls, was relocated to higher ground in 2003 to keep above
the rising level of the Three Gorges Dam.
The town has a history of being a
“poet’s city” and has often been a refuge for warlords because of its readily
defensible location just upstream from the fast flowing entrance to Qutang
Gorge, known as the “Throat of Sichuan.”
Overlooking the entrance to Qutang
Gorge is the “White Emperor City.” It’s
now located on an island created by the rising water of the Three Gorges Dam
and commands a strategic position as a permanent watchtower over the gorge
entrance. It got its name from some petty official of the Han Dynasty who
declared himself “White Emperor” but is best known for its association with
hero emperor Liu Bei who set up his own kingdom of Shu Han during the Three
Kingdoms period of China (220-280AD). It gets complicated; but Lui Bei has
become somewhat romanticised perhaps beyond historical accuracy. He also played
a major role in a famous battle of the time recently portrayed in the movie Red Cliff.
The White Emperor City has statues of
heroes from the Three Kingdoms period as well as examples of the hanging
coffins of the ancient Ba people – a tradition of placing coffins in totally
inaccessible locations high up in fissures of cliffs. Historians still dispute
how they were placed there.
The Three Gorges
Having viewed the narrow entrance to
Qutang Gorge from White Emperor City, it was time to return to the Victoria Grace and begin the trip
sailing through the gorges.
The remnants of a fortress sat on the
upper cliffs at the entrance to the Qutang Gorge as if providing a flash-back
to the defences that would have proved vital to blocking invading armies from
using the gorge to reach the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.
Qutang Gorge is the shortest of the
gorges but is said to be the most spectacular. Aboard the ship, it was a matter
of just taking the spectacle in as the ship slowly made its quiet way through
the gorge. While lots of mist and cloud might have detracted from picture
postcard photos, they created an eeriness that is often seen in Chinese hangings
and paintings of mountains, suggesting that such scenes have a long tradition
The entrance to the second gorge, Wu
Gorge, was marked by a large single span bridge that joined the overhanging
cliffs. This gorge, whose name means Witches’ Gorge, was described as steeped
in legends about troublesome dragons being turned into stone.
Just at the end of Wu Gorge is a
small, narrow tributary of the Yangtze River called Shennong Stream, which
rises north of the river on Mt Shennong. This was another excursion off the Victoria Grace.
We transferred to small long-oared sampans
that could be manipulated up the narrow and at times shallow stream. This was
done with much cheer, laughter and singing. We were told that prior to the
Three Dams – only a few years previously – the water was so shallow that the
sampans had to be hauled by ropes from the banks and pushed from the back; the
hotter, harder work being undertaken by naked boatmen. The relatively deeper
water made the exercise manageable by rowing in more conservative dress.
Shennong Stream certainly added a
whole new perspective to the beauty of the terrain of the smaller gorges that
made up this tributary.
There did seem to be a third gorge on
the Yangtze River before we reached the Three Gorges Dam and went through the
locks to get us to the bottom of the dam, but the real third of the Three
Gorges, Xiling Gorge, is actually below the dam. It was the last part of the
voyage before disembarking at Yichang.
The Three Gorges Dam is a mighty feat
of engineering. There are five stages of locks, with separate channels and
locks for traffic going upstream and traffic coming downstream. The locks could
take 2-3 of the Yangtze River Cruise ships at a time. Because of the low water
levels, which change dramatically depending on the season, we ended up having
only to use three of the five levels of locks.
Next morning (we went through the
locks during the night), we disembarked and had a tour of the dam site before
reboarding and completing our voyage of the Three Gorges.
Getting from Yichang to Shanghai
wasn’t as smooth as expected. We discovered at the airport that the flight we
were booked on didn’t exist. There was no airline representative; only the
airport staff, so no explanation or remedial action! Fortunately, there was an
alternative flight with another airline; and we managed to get four of the last
six seats. I phoned the tour company I booked through. They undertook to get
back to me; and did so within about 5 minutes to explain the flight had been
cancelled and they would refund our payment. That was impressive.
Booking accommodation on the Internet
can be a gamble, as we discovered in Chongqing. In Shanghai, we hit a jackpot.
The Astor House Hotel was a charming, 1920s establishment of considerable
grandeur. Its location, a couple of minutes walk from the Bund, added to its
The Bund got its name from some
ancient word meaning an embankment. It’s essentially the road along the Huang
Pu River running through Shanghai, with a recently added wide promenade and its
signature variety of world renowned architecture of its 1920s and 1930s
Across the Huang Pu River from the
Bund is the amazing skyline of Pu Dong – the financial hub of modern Shanghai.
We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to view Shanghai from the top of the
Shanghai World Financial Centre: Floor 100 at 142m above the ground.
At the south end of the Bund is the
old walled city of Shanghai. There aren’t any of the ancient walls left, but
the Nanshi district, as it’s called, reflects its past through a myriad of
narrow laneways, the several hundred years old Yu Yuang Garden (a walled
labyrinth of trees, shrubs and rock and water features, built and enjoyed by
Ming emperors and their successors), and its representations of old Chinese
life. There were also lots of shops, roadside stalls and eateries.
There was a time in the latter part
of the 1800s and into the 1900s when Nanshi was the home to most of the Chinese
population, while the growing foreign population occupied their “concessions”
in other parts of the city. The former French Concession is still regarded as a
tourist attraction in itself because of its lay-out, architecture and
Squeezed between Nanshi and the
French Concession is a small district called Xintiandi (pron Shin –tea- andy). We spent a couple of
hours wandering along its ‘Antique Street’ laden with stalls of every
imaginable item that might be classified as antique, collectible or simply
bric-a-brac. It’s also become one of the fashionable areas for the high end of
the designer-goods market.
The more renowned shopping street of
Nanjing Rd has had its eastern end transformed into a broad pedestrian mall.
Strolling along it, with a stop for a beer or two and a visit to the pharmacy,
was something we did a couple of times.
Finally, a visit to the Shanghai
Museum was a must – and a very worthwhile one. It houses an impressive
collection of Chinese art, calligraphy, furniture, ceramics, sculpture,
imperial seals and money – all dating back to very early dynasties.
A busy three days ended at Shanghai
Station to catch the overnight train to Xi’an. Four of us managed the tight fit
into our 4 berth compartment with luggage somewhat precariously bulging from
space above the carriage’s corridor. After a few of our duty free drinks, we
lost interest in seeking out the dining car and slept well.
fourteen hour trip brought us into Xi’an (pron something like see-arn) about 9.30am. Our ‘apartment’
accommodation was just that: large, two-bedroom apartments with kitchen and
spacious “lobby” as our hostess put it. We had two of these!
location was within the ancient city walls and right on the edge of the
bustling, full-of-life Muslim Quarter, taking its name from the settlement
there of Arab and Persian traders who plied the Silk Road from centuries past.
the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. It’s where the caravans arrived from and
departed for the West. The Muslim Quarter is a maze of narrow lanes lined
unendingly with stalls and shops selling any and everything, especially an
amazing range of street food predominantly unique to the Arab and Persian heritage
of the area. At night, the streets and lanes are a spectacle of lights, glitter
and party people.
walk through the quarter brought us to one of the city’s landmarks: the Drum
Tower. Cities traditionally had a Bell Tower and a Drum Tower, whose main
functions were to sound drum and bell “announcements” of the time, watch
change-overs, open and closure of the city gates etc. They also gave warning of
impending attacks from would-be conquerors. The Drum Tower was impressive in
its beauty and architecture. Today it houses an exhibition of Ming and Tang
Dynasty furniture. The tower was a product of the Ming Dynasty and was built in
1380, but has had several renovations.
Bell Tower was built in 1384 and marked the centre of the city, the four axis
roads emanating from it towards the four compass-point city gates. Over the
years, the city centre changed so in 1582 the tower was moved a kilometre to
the east. However, apart from the base, the rest is original from the Ming
Dynasty. We caught a concert of sorts demonstrating the art of bell music.
walk through the Muslim Quarter was fun and got repeated each night. We enjoyed
dinners at local restaurants in the quarter with accompanying beers.
A visit to
the famed terracotta warriors of Xi’an was a much anticipated event.
fact, was my second visit to Xi’an. The first was a quick over-nighter on an
official trip to China from Moscow when posted there on ‘Her Majesty’s
Diplomatic Service.’ That was 1975! My only recollection is visiting the
Huaqing Hot Springs and being told about the “Xi’an Incident” which took place
there. This was the house arrest of Chiang Kai-shek by one of his generals, a
former war lord from Manchuria. The “incident” forced Chiang Kai-shek to form a
united front with the Communists to oppose the Japanese invasion. Close by the
springs, I do recall a large mound being pointed out as the site of some
archaeological discoveries relating to the first emperor of China that had been
recently made; and were starting to be excavated. I don’t think anyone at that
time had any real idea of what would be revealed as the excavations proceeded.
revelations were, of course, what we now know as the terracotta warriors.
pits have been unearthed revealing thousands of terracotta warriors: infantry,
archers, cavalry, officers of various ranks, officials, generals; and horses
and chariots. In fact a whole army of the Qin (pron Chin) Dynasty – the first dynasty of a united China and from which
we get the word China. A key discovery was the formation of the Qin army, which
had been so successful in conquering the six other states that constituted with
Qin the “Warring States”. There had been no records of its military formations
or tactics, so finding the terracotta army in full battle formation was indeed
are numbered 1, 2 and 3 on the basis of the order in which they were excavated.
There are other potential pits yet to be dug as modern technology has located a
lot more archaeological finds. Even the tomb of the emperor himself remains
untouched, but a lot is already known of its layout from sonar and X-rays.
Terracotta Warriors Museum consists of huge buildings that have been
constructed over the three pits, with extensions on one of them (Pit 2) to
house exhibitions of warriors found intact, weapons from the pits and two restored sets of chariots and horses
found near the emperor’s tomb.
Pit No 1 is
almost mind numbingly extensive. It houses the Qin army in battle formation,
consisting of a couple of rows of the vanguard infantry, followed by several columns
of soldiers, chariots, archers, cavalry, with officers distributed
appropriately. All the formations were in trenches with compacted earthen walls
covered by wooden rafters over which was laid some sort of woven material,
which in turn had been covered in dirt. All the trenches have floors of thick
brick paving. It’s an amazing sight. The degree of integrity of the figures
depended a lot on how well the roofing of rafters and cloth had held up over
the 2000 years they had been standing there unknown, undiscovered and
untouched. Not surprisingly, many of the trenches had collapsed over the years.
Pit No 3,
which we visited after Pit No 1 because of its locality, is deeper but much
smaller than Pit 1; and seems to have a guard of honour for a general about to
proceed to his chariot. It seemingly represents some sort of command post.
Pit No 2 is
quite large but nothing of the dimensions of Pit No 1. It seems to have
produced a lot of good examples of the warriors, some of which are on display
in the adjoining exhibition area. The
exhibitions of terracotta warriors that tour the world have come from Pit No 2.
However, there are still many covered trenches in Pit 2 with roofs struggling to
stay in place.
why a lot of excavation has slowed and even stopped is that when the warriors
were first uncovered, they were partially coloured a dark blue with other
colours on their armour; but the colours quickly faded on exposure to the air.
return trip back into town we dropped by the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, considered
one of the most famous Buddhist pagodas in China. It dates from the Tang
Dynasty (618-907) and was built to house Buddhist scriptures brought to China
along the Silk Road from many countries along the way by a Chinese Buddhist
adventurer-monk, who then translated them into Chinese. Nothing is kept in the
pagoda itself now because of earthquake damage and a lean it has acquired from
shifting ground water. There are some impressive displays in many of the
buildings making up the complex around the pagoda.
full-on day, but a richly rewarding one, again finishing in a local Muslim
Ancient City Wall
have been an essential feature of many civilisations for safety and survival.
China, of course, took the concept further and constructed a wall to protect
the nation; but that’s another story. The oldest remnants of Xi’an’s earlier
city walls date from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), although the Qin Dynasty (the
first of a unified China) presumably had its city walls around its capital
(today’s Xi’an) some two hundred years BC. The current wall was built in 1370
during the Ming Dynasty.
for the day was to circumvent the 13.7km wall along its street-wide
thoroughfare at the top of the wall, presumably designed for easy movement of
soldiers and weaponry around the wall. Cycling along the top of the wall is
almost de rigueur for a tourism
experience of the wall. And that’s what we did.
has four main gates at each of the compass points. Each gate has its own
protective wall forming a large walled square in front of it, with gates in its
side walls. This makes entry (for attackers) complicated, and potentially
deadly. On the outer wall of these extensions is an archery tower for further
defence of the gate complex. I was to learn that this typically defensive
layout at city gates is called a barbican.
side of the main wall is crenulated for easy shooting. Along the walls, at
every 120m, are “ramparts’ – protrusions from the main wall that allow archers
to fire along the wall to supplement firing from the main wall, thus providing
defensive shooting from two directions all along the wall. (You’ve probably
gleaned that the range of accurate arrow shooting is about 60m.) There are also
several towers of various categories: smaller ones on the some ramparts for
accommodation of soldiers and more elaborate Gate Towers adjacent to each of
the main gates.
length of the wall is surrounded – or was in its day – by a deep moat. Large
sections of the moat still remain but it seemed that some parts have been
filled in. The railway station, for example, is situated just outside the north
wall but a large square runs from the wall to the station with no sign of a
moat. In fact, the wall at that point seems to have been reconstructed into a
series of archways to facilitate vehicular and pedestrian access to the
around the top of the wall was a great way to imbibe the spectacle and the nostalgia
of its place and role in the history of Xi’an, which, after all, was the
capital for more dynasties than any other city in China, starting from the
first emperor in the third century BC; hence the location of the terracotta
back from the South Gate, where we started and finished our ride, we again made
our way through the labyrinth of the Muslim Quarter; only this time ventured
deeper into the maze to visit the Great Mosque, a sprawling walled “oasis”
within the tightly packed shops, houses and laneways of the Quarter. The mosque
was first built in 742AD during the Tang Dynasty (the Silk Road can be traced
back to the early centuries BC). It was restored and extended during several
subsequent dynasties. It consists of several courtyards and pavilions, as well
as the main prayer room.
By now, two
of us took a needed rest day; while, with a companion, I headed off to see the
last two sights I had identified in preparation for our stay in Xi’an: the
Small Wild Goose Pagoda and the Forest of Steles.
to the latter, which was close to the Southern Gate of the city wall, picking
up a make-shift breakfast in the Muslim Quarter as we passed through.
of Steles, which is a museum, is so called because of its huge collection of
ancient stone steles bearing classical Chinese texts. For the most part, the
steles are some 2-3m tall, over a metre wide and some 20cm thick, i.e., very
big and almost immovably heavy. Yet, they are inscribed in detail with such
classics as the teachings of Confucius and several other great Chinese
philosophers, Taoists, teachers and writers, many of whom might well pass
for political scientists in today’s
speak. Obviously, the actual meanings of the writings were beyond us; but the
reality of looking at writings of the likes of Confucius (in reality, his
disciples) and being surrounded by hundreds of the steles and other smaller
engraved stones of official reports, tombstones and, in effect, personal
diaries – many dating from as early as the second century AD – was truly
daunting. The Confucius steles all dated from the 2nd century.
like the Great Mosque and the Little Goose Pagoda, which we visited next, the
Forest of Steles museum has the same oasis feeling of an expansive walled area
of gardens and pavilions surrounded outside by densely packed housing and tiny alleyways.
the local “tuk-tuk” transport to get to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, which was beyond
walking distance outside the city walls.
I don’t know what the Chinese call them, but they look a little like the
Indian tuk-tuk, except that they are smaller and battery operated, so glide
along smoothly and quietly. They seem to have the same traffic “rules’ applying
to them as the myriad of battery operated cycles and scooters and other
comparable two and three wheeled devises: going against the traffic, ignoring
red lights, hooning along narrow alleyways and resorting to footpaths at will.
Wild Goose Pagoda is similarly impressive in its shape and size as the Big Wild
Goose Pagoda we visited two days ago. It dates back to the 8th century (Tang
Dynasty) and started life with 15 storeys but lost a few with earthquakes over
the centuries. Its surrounding pavilions are a museum of cultural and
historical treasures of Xi’an and other neighbouring areas. As with other such
places visited, it becomes overwhelming to be faced with so many creations of
history (metal fabrications of all sorts, sculptures, paintings, drawings,
ceramics (developed into the unique Chinese product of porcelain) and
With a few
hectic phone calls from Xi’an, we finalised our transport arrangements for
arrival in Beijing with only hours to spare before the overnight train
departed. That had been a lingering loose end. The plan, which in the end
worked well, was to be collected at Beijing station, taken straight to the Ming
Tombs and then to Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall, followed by transport to
Jingshanlin Section of the Great Wall for the night. Next morning we would walk
this section of the Great Wall and later be taken to our Beijing Hotel. The two
sections of the Great Wall are some considerable distance apart.
a 6-seater Mercedes “executive” something or other with driver for the two
days. It all turned out well, although the driver got lost a couple of times
getting from the Ming Tombs to Mutianyu; and took a couple of wrong turns
getting from there to Jingshanling. We arrived at Jingshanling, the most remote
of our stops at the end of a densely dark forest road, well into the night,
somewhat to the consternation of both driver and passengers.
majority of tours of the Great Wall take their clients to the Badaling section
of the Great Wall, which is closer to Beijing and near the Ming Tombs.
Mutianyu, while increasing in popularity as a tourist destination, is more
remote and less frequented. That was its attraction for me. Jingshanling is
even more remote again (it was about 130km back to Beijing) and a lot less
frequented. A lot of the Wall there is still largely as it has been for
centuries, in contrast to the other sections which have been extensively
restored. Jingshanlin Section became a must-visit from very early in my
trip from Xi’an to Beijing at eleven hours was three hours shorter than from
Shanghai. By 8:00am, we were on the road to the Ming Tombs.
Tombs get mixed reviews in the tourist literature. There is limited tourist
access; and they lack the visual attraction of the more elaborate palaces and
the excesses of the tomb complex of the first emperor in Xi’an. However, I
thought a visit to Beijing without seeing the Ming Tombs, if only for the
historical significance of the Ming Dynasty (responsible for the city walls of
Xi’an, the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall itself and making Beijing
the capital), would be a regrettable omission.
would not join the detractors of a visit to the Ming Tombs even though only the
so-called Sacred Way and three of the thirteen tombs are open to the public.
are spread over a long, wide valley protected on three sides by mountains. Up
the middle of the valley is the Sacred Way – an avenue of large, stone animals
of various species, archways and towers. Some several kilometres further past
the Sacred Way is the Changling Tomb – that of the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di,
who was the first of the Ming emperors to be buried in the valley. All twelve
of the succeeding Ming Emperors were buried here more or less stretching out in
a fan shape over several square kilometres from the Changling Tomb. (Zhu Di was
the emperor who built the Forbidden City and moved the capital to Beijing.)
to walking the Sacred Way, we visited the Changling Tomb and the Dingling Tomb
of the thirteenth Ming Emperor, Zhu Yijun.
Changling Tomb, apart from being the original tomb in the valley, is said to be
the largest and best preserved. The description of it as Zhu Di’s tomb I found
a bit misleading. His tomb, as such, is still buried in a walled mound at the
rear of several ornate pavilions and tower. It’s only the latter that are
visitable; not the tomb itself. The large buildings that constitute the
Changling Tomb for tourism purposes are certainly ornate and impressive, with
an excellent exhibition in the main hall of the feats and accomplishments of
Zhu Di and displays of many of the treasures excavated from the actual tomb.
Dingling Tomb is an actual tomb; and, I understand, representative of Zhu Di’s
actual tomb. The Dingling Tomb is, in effect, an underground palace. Deep
underground is a re-creation of the emperor’s palace from which he had ruled;
so several separate chambers and linking corridors. I thought it was a pretty
amazing insight into the engineering
abilities of the era, the extravagance of the imperial court and the culture
and beliefs of the ruling class, even though, as I heard one guide say
dismissively, “it’s empty; there’s
nothing there.” There are replicas of the sarcophagi of the emperor and
his empresses, but the originals were all badly decayed.
above, it was a long ride to Mutianyu, including some side tracks around road
works that raised doubts as to whether we were still on a road. But we got
tourism-popular Badaling Section, the Great Wall at Mutianyu is a long way
above vehicular access. The good news was that the wall is accessible by cable
car. It was exhausting enough walking up
the fairly long and steep approach to the cable car station!
startling impression from the wall was seeing it wind along the top of high,
steeply sided, narrow ridges, with almost perpendicular drops down both sides
from the very edges of the wall’s foundations. It was almost unbelievable that
an invading force could even get to the top of the ridges, wall or no wall. It
was beyond imagination that such a substantial structure could be built in such
an inaccessible location. It was a place that made one simply stand and ponder
unfathomably how and why. It was special
to walk as one struggled to fathom; and have so few tourists hinder your walk
or disturb your thoughts.
next phase of our venture was a long, eventually dark drive into the
wilderness. There’s not very much at the Jingshanling Section by way of tourist
accommodation facilities: a small hotel, restaurant, a few “farm stays”. I
couldn’t even contact the hotel directly or through an agent. I had to get a
friend of a friend in Beijing to ring them! With considerable misgivings on the
part of the driver and a phone call to the hotel from a pitch black, forest
road, we finally made our destination; and they did have rooms for us in one of
real knowledge of what to expect of the Jingshanling Section of the Great Wall
– and given the hour we arrived, no idea of the surrounds – we decided on the
precautionary tactic of an early start in case the day was clear; with the
back-up of breakfast first and a later start if there was morning fog.
We woke to
rain and a forecast of two days of rain. So it was breakfast first.
rain still falling, we discovered a cable car to take us to the top. It was
obvious from the hesitation of the staff that we were its first customers of
the day. There was only one car ahead of us carrying two staff members with the
car door open so they could alight to open our door on arrival!
the top cable car station, we were faced with a narrow, dirt track through
thick scrub that wound its way further upwards to a final steel ladder to reach
the high watch tower of the Jingshanling Section of the Great Wall.
the approach signalled that Jingshanling was to offer something entirely
different from Mutianyu or Badaling.
deteriorated to a fine drizzle that soon faded into moist air with lots of mist
before a semblance of sunshine fought its way into our cameras.
impression of Jingshanling was an infinitely stretching wall in both directions
that snaked and dipped and reared and twisted along ridge lines that
disappeared into the mist. It was a most awe-inspiring and incomprehensible
vista. The fact that in the mist the
camera could not begin to do justice to what was before our eyes in no way detracted
from the amazement of this magnificent phenomenon.
of a random guide we briefly met on the way to the cable car was to go right
from the watch tower for a while and then double back and go left for a longer
distance. His rationale was that a lot more restoration had been undertaken to
the right of the watch tower, while to the left there had been very little
restoration – and eventually none.
ventured onto the wall right of the tower before heading left for more than an
hour. Almost immediately we encountered the wall as almost unimaginably
different from what we had experienced at Mutianyu or what we had expected. The
ridges, while as narrow with sides as steep as we experienced as Mutianyu ,
were far more erratic in their pitching and rising, slithering and meandering
into the invisibility of the mist.
confrontation was the frighteningly steepness of the stone steps both up and
down. Then came the missing bricks in the ‘roadway’ of the wall, the gaping
holes, the lack of side walls, the rubble and the undulating surface. This was
the Great Wall as it has stood for hundreds of years – partially as it might
have looked when first built some 600 hundred years ago and partially as it had
deteriorated over the hundreds of years since being built.
help but feel that if one hadn’t experienced Jingshanling, one really hadn’t
experienced the true immensity of the Great Wall of China. It was a magical
midday, we set out for Beijing, the trip taking a couple of hours.
an easy task for the driver to find our obscurely located hotel. As it turned
out, with the sight-unseenesss of booking hotels on the Internet, we struck
another jackpot. The Hotel was called “161 Hotel”. That’s because its street
number is 161. It wasn’t so much a street as a hutong: 161 Lishi Hutong. This
raises a raft of issues relating to hutongs in Beijing. It’s a story in itself
first full day in Beijing we decided that “Imperial Beijing” would be the
appropriate starting point. The Ming Emperor Zhu Di, who established Beijing as
his capital and built his palace here, also built a walled city of which his
walled palace grounds (inside the walled city) would be the centrepiece. So the
Forbidden City, as the imperial palace has long been known, was a walled city
within a walled city, both, if I have understood the layout correctly,
surrounded by moats.
city walls of Beijing have disappeared. The last remaining sections were
demolished in the 1950s as part of the construction of Tiananmen Square and its
broad avenues as the centrepiece of the new People’s Republic of China.
Beijing” is intended to include first and foremost the Forbidden City itself,
now officially referred to as the Palace Museum. It’s on a North-South axis.
Immediately south of the main gate into the palace complex (along its southern
wall) are park lands, pavilions flanking them, and the large Gate of Heavenly
Peace. That’s where Mao Zedong’s portrait hangs. Running East/West in front of the Gate of
heavenly Peace and separating it from Tiananmen Square is the wide Changan
Avenue. South of Tiananmen Square are the remaining legacies of the old city
walls in the southern Gate Tower, Qianmen (pron something like Zhya-men) Gate, and its accompanying
Archery Tower (but without the joining
side walls (the barbican) like those that still exist in Xi’an). There are also
lakes and parkland immediately to the west, north and north-west of the
All this is
what I would regard as “Imperial Beijing”.
started with the Forbidden City. We walked there from our hotel. Turning the
final corner into the area just outside the southern gate we were faced with
crowds not unlike one might see pouring into the Sydney Royal Easter Show or a
football final at the MCG. As it turned out, it was a three day holiday period
that had attracted more than the usual crowds to Beijing. Undaunted, we negotiated with a touting guide
who produced a credentials ID; and we ended up being so pleased with his
services that we paid him more than we had agreed at the outset.
description of the Forbidden City that truly captures its visual and historical
immensity would fill a lot more space that I have available here. The numbers
that are associated with the place are staggering: the soldiers that parade in
the square before the throne room, the officials carrying out imperial duties,
the concubines secreted in their private quarters, the personal guard of the
emperor and, certainly not the least given their roles, influence and power,
the palace eunuchs. (Without going into gross detail, I had always
simplistically thought eunuchs were simply castrated men. However, they would
seem to have lost a lot more, all of which was carefully dried and preserved so
they could be buried as “whole” men. The compensation for their living loss was
redemption from a peasant, pauper, pointless life and access to a trusted,
respected and well-to-do existence in the emperor’s palace. One of Ming Emperor
Zhu Di’s eunuchs, Zheng He, was made his admiral and undertook historically
significant voyages to Arabia, Africa, India and Indonesia.)
If a male,
what would you choose in the circumstances?
enjoyable and informative way to take a trip into the Forbidden City and, at
the same time, gain an appreciation of imperial life, if only – but importantly
– relating to the end of the Qing (pron Ching)and last imperial dynasty is to
watch the Bertolucci movie The Last
Forbidden City, we ventured across Changan Avenue into Tiananmen Square. The
security procedures to get into this vast open air square were akin to boarding
an airline into the USA. The events on Tiananmen Square of whatever year
(Google search in China doesn’t bring anything up on Tiananmen Sq at all) have
obviously set a cautious approach to access to the area.
Zedong’s Mausoleum is a dominant feature towards the southern end of the
square, while the sides of the square are flanked by the People’s Hall and the
National Museum. Two of us spent about 4 hours in the museum a couple of days
later – a great treat, especially of ancient China leading up to the
unification of the first emperor of Terracotta fame.
southern end of the square are the Gate Tower and the Archery Tower.
quite a day’s outing!
an interesting story.
National Museum flanks the Eastern side of Tiananmen Square. It’s an imposing
and impressive building with a vast wealth of historic and cultural treasures.
But it lacks several imperial treasures whose absence the Government of the PRC
must weep about every day.
centuries of imperial rule in China, the various dynasties had amassed a huge
collection of treasures dating back to Neolithic times and encompassing every
dynasty to the last emperor. These thousands of priceless artefacts were all
housed and protected within the Forbidden City. They were, in effect, the
property of the imperial dynasty of the day.
of this enormous and irreplaceable collection of China’s history becomes an
integral part of the turmoil and tragedies of a very bleak period in China’s
history from the end of the Qing Dynasty and the forming of the Republic of
China in 1911; through the Japanese invasion with the suffering and destruction
that brought; until Japan’s surrender and ultimately the emerge of the People’s
Republic of China as the victors of a bitter civil war in 1949.
soon after the expulsion of Pu Yi (the last emperor) from the Forbidden City, a
national museum was founded within the Forbidden City to take charge of the
imperial collection of antiquities. Soon after, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist
Government, in the face of Japan’s invasion of China, had the collection packed
up and moved south to Shanghai and then Nanjing to protect it from the invading
forces. From the early 1930s until Japan’s defeat at the end of the Second
World War, the collection was moved several times to safe places away from
Japanese forces until eventually being brought back to Nanjing in 1947. Then,
with the civil war going against Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces and
his decision to evacuate his forces to Taiwan, much of the collection,
including several of its most precious artefacts, was shipped with him to
imperial collection from the “Palace Museum” of the 1920s is split between
“national” museums in China (Beijing) and Taiwan (Taipei).
With that snippet
of history as background, one could barely begin to imagine how overwhelming a
unified collection of the imperial collection would be. I once visited the
Taipei museum on a “business” visit and have a lasting, if non-specific,
recollection of being shirt-fronted, as it were, by the immensity and richness
of its antiquities; as, indeed, I also was by the Beijing museum’s displays.
One very large section of the latter which particularly fascinated me was the
collection of artefacts from the earliest of times, most of which had been
discovered and excavated after the PRC had come to power so were never part of
the shared spoils.
One of my
goals for Beijing was to stroll round the former legation quarter identifying
the legations and other buildings of the foreign powers that occupied the area
in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. This might seem
a bit quirky, but you only have to Google the concept to find a wealth of
fascinating information on it.
goes back to the infamous opium wars of the 1860s and the equally infamous
Treaty of Nanjing under which China was compelled to open the country for trade
and grant all sorts of concessions to the foreign powers banging on the door.
Those concessions included allowing them to set up shop in their own districts
in various cities; and occupy and build legations, banks, trade offices,
churches, hospitals, restaurants etc in
a district set aside for foreigners in Beijing. The district was in a prime
spot within the old city walls and alongside the Qianmen Gate (and abutting
today’s Tiananmen Square). This is the former legation quarter.
vantage points within the quarter, it’s easy to see the Qianmen Gate and
Beijing’s first railway station, which would have been just outside the walls
close to the gate. It’s now a railway museum.
The quarter gained considerable fame or infamy
during the Boxer Rebellion beginning in 1897. This was a period when the last
imperial dynasty (Qing Dynasty) was struggling to cope with the turmoil being
driven by resentment over standards of living and more so over foreign
concessions. The “Boxers” were a loosely organised movement initially opposed
to both the Qing Dynasty and foreigners; but were persuaded to focus their
attention on the foreigners. In 1900, Boxer fighters converged on Beijing with
the slogan “Support the Qing; exterminate the foreigners.” Foreigners and Chinese
Christians sought refuge in the legation quarter. In response to reports of
armed foreign landings and demands, the Empress Dowager Cixi authorised war on
foreign powers. (She’s a fascinating character worth a closer look from
quarter was subsequently under siege by both the imperial army and the Boxers
for 55 days before an eight-nation alliance brought 20,000 troops to China,
defeated the imperial army and the Boxers, captured Peking and lifted the siege
on the legation quarter.
events are captured dramatically, with an inevitable Hollywood touch, in the
movie 55 Days at Peking. Charlton
Heston saves the day as the US marine commander. David Niven as the head of the
British Legation plays a significant role in the events. And Ava Gardner as a
Russian countess is in awe at the US marine commander.
Some of the
original buildings were destroyed in the siege, but many survived and others
were built in the years after the siege. The quarter continued to house foreign
legations and other foreign institutions until the founding of the PRC in 1949.
feature of the former legation quarter is the old Legation Street, now, of
course, renamed. Crossing it half way along was a canal that flowed into the
city moat. Now it’s a park. There are several streets and lanes that make up
the quarter. The old Legation Street is a shady tree-lined lane with many of
the former legation buildings adding an age old charm to the street.
Some of the
buildings could be readily identified from information and photos on the
Internet. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to determine if a building was pre-siege or
post siege, but that wasn’t really an issue as the quarter has a significant
history apart from the 55 day siege. Several of the buildings are now
government agencies with guards who ensure photos are not taken. Some let me
look through the gates at the buildings behind their walls. Others were less
cooperative. I would not have liked to pass up the opportunity to photograph
the former French Legation but the plain clothes guard didn’t even want me to
get close enough to read the plaque on the outside wall saying in English that
this used to be the French Legation! After a bit of negotiating and
remonstrating on my part – and seemingly with the help of the uniformed guard
who gave me the impression that he was used to seeing foreign tourists
searching out the former legation buildings – the plain clothes guard
begrudgingly nodded his reluctant agreement to a photo.
splendid building in the street has a plaque saying it was “The Former
Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China.”
Across the road from it is the Beijing Police Museum, with a plaque
saying it was “The National City Bank of New York.”
compound was also on this street. Interestingly, running off the street was a
tiny lane which doesn’t appear on contemporary maps but it had its name etched
into a brick wall: “USSR Embassy Compound Lane”, indicating that the former
Russian Compound became the USSR Compound after the Bolshevik Revolution of
1917. I couldn’t tell exactly where the boundaries of the compound might have
been, but it seemed certain that the wall along the lane would have been one of
them. There also seemed to be a mix of old and new buildings in the compound
area. An Orthodox Church roof could be seen behind the walls, the tell tale
sign being its Orthodox Cross clearly visible.
US compound fronting onto a parallel street would seem to have had a rear
entrance onto Legation Street. It’s now located behind a modern wall and
consists of four or five buildings housing various institutions and companies
but still dominated by the former legation building itself, now one of
Beijing’s classiest restaurants.
fascinating to see so many elegant buildings of mixed architecture along what
today are narrow lanes and in a quiet leafy district of the city. It was an
interesting and pleasant walk through history.
Our Hutong and
That’s our hotel, unimaginatively named because its street number is 161. The
address is 161 Lishi Hutong. What’s a hutong, you’re wondering. Well, let me
introduce you to hutongs and our hutong.
hutongs are alleys formed by traditional courtyard residences. Many
neighbourhoods were formed by joining one courtyard residence to another to
form a hutong. Sometimes the term is used to refer to the neighbourhoods
We were in
a neighbourhood that has innumerable hutongs running between main roads and
intertwining with one another in the blocks between the roads. Our hutong was
Hutong has a history dating from the Ming Dynasty. You might recall that it was
the third Ming emperor that moved the imperial capital to Beijing and built the
Forbidden City as his palace. Seemingly, he and his successors and their town
planners were instrumental in constructing what now remains of old Beijing. One
of those features are the hutongs, in both meanings of the word.
– and I assume others – was so narrow that a car struggles to negotiate past
and through the obstacles of parked vehicles, road-side stalls, men playing
Majong around small tables and pedal-power ‘utes’ transporting goods of all
sorts. Most of the residences are accessed by a 1-2m wide entrance path. Along
a hutong, such as ours, there are a couple of sets of communal toilets.
Presumably, the small, humble residences do not include bathrooms.
contrast to such residences, there are obviously some ‘palatial’ residences set
behind high walls with exclusive parking reserved for them along their walls.
In fact, many of the hutongs boast having had residences of very senior and
important figures in imperial times. I wondered if some of today’s grandiose
residences might have been the progeny of such former residences.
of Lishi Hutong was its restaurants. The end of the hutong in which the hotel was
located is almost door to door restaurants of varying grades and tiny ‘corner
shops’. We certainly didn’t have a problem finding somewhere to eat at night or
somewhere to replenish our supplies of water, alcohol and mixers.
Beijing’s hutongs have disappeared under the necessity of wider roads and
high-rise apartments, but several hutong neighbourhoods have been preserved and
undoubtedly will remain as legacies of a very unique tradition of Beijing life.
Eating Out in
It would be
remiss to have spent time in China without mention of eating out; not that we
ever ate in.
meals at any time of day and sometimes indistinguishable as to whether they
were breakfast, lunch or dinner; like noodles and vegetables for an early
morning meal or noodles and vegetables for a late afternoon meal. Generally we
had a multi-plated mix of fried or steamed treats that invariably made up a
very delectable repast – equally invariably accompanied by local beers of high
A few times
we had English translations of the menu, but even then some descriptions were
not exactly revealing: descriptors such as “fried delicate and nourishment”.
Others got straight to the point: “chicken gristle”. Often enough there were
pictures from which we could chose, taking educated guesses as to whether we
were choosing chicken, pork or beef – or some form of offal of unidentifiable
origin. We even resorted (successfully) to charades to ask for specifics such
as chicken, beef, port etc. A couple of times it was totally “take it as it
comes and wonder about it later.” The bottom line – inevitably an important
benchmark – was that consistently all our meals ranged between excellent and
great. We ate very well and thoroughly enjoyed every meal, notwithstanding a
dish or two that left us wondering.
surprise was the price. Prices did range a little but not by much. We mostly
paid the equivalent of about $40.00 Australian Dollars for the four of us
including beers. We rarely paid more than $2.00 for a 600ml bottle of beer!
were the occasions when we ate really out – like on the street. There was the
quick and easy breakfast of a pancake omelette dished up by a lone, footpath
vendor from his small wheel barrow. But there was also the permanent day and
night food market on a particular street that we stumbled across on the way
back from our ‘Imperial Beijing’ day. We later returned to it on our last night
in Beijing. Its array of food waiting to be instantly cooked on purchase was as
varied as it was enticing: seafood of all sorts, Peking Duck, skewered meats,
vegetables, and an assortment of fruits and deserts. Then for the aficionados –
although we noted this was as much a novelty to the Chinese as it was to us: a
spread of such delicacies as scorpions, silk worms, snake and big black
Moving on from
a few other highlights in Beijing that I had earmarked for a visit. However, by
the time I had covered the ground described above and taken in a few
spontaneous sights, such as the Railway Museum housed in Beijing’s first
railway station located right beside where the main city gate would have been, and
a couple of unexpected pedestrian precincts, I reckoned I had done enough
justice to Beijing’s attractions to warrant a last quiet day before catching
the plane to Kathmandu.
Here is a slide
show of my photos from the China Tour. When you open it, click on “slide show”
in the Picasa Web site and view in full screen: