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?

Four 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. We had met on and returned from our 2010-11 Nepal and Bhutan tour with Bhutan Thangkas of the Four Harmonious Friends (pictured). So that seemed an appropriate moniker for us.

Four Harmonious FriendsA 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 China.)

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 Tour

I prepared a rough guide ahead of the trip. It touches on all the sights I identified as wanting to see. You can find it here.


First stop on the “mainland’ china tour was Chongqing (pron something like chung-ching).

Our Hostel ChongqingEvery 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 Main Street Ciqikouon 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 steep.

Sailing out of ChongqingWith 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.

Yangtze River

Feng Du

Gate of Hell, Feng DuBy 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 excursions.

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.

Judgement Temple Feng DuFeng 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.

City Gate of Fengjie

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.


White Emperor City

Entrance to Qutang Gorge from White Emp CityFurther 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

Sailing into Qutang GorgeHaving 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 in China.

Shennong StreamThe 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.

Locks Opening for our ShipWe 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.


Shanghai from World Finance CentreGetting 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 attraction.

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 buildings.

Buildings on the Bund

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 ‘Frenchesque’ ambience.

Four Harmonious Friends at World Finance Centre

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.

TShanghai Girlhe 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.


Muslim QuarterThe 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!

The 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.

Xi’an was 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.

Drum Tower, XianAn initial 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.

The nearby 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.

A night walk through the Muslim Quarter was fun and got repeated each night. We enjoyed dinners at local restaurants in the quarter with accompanying beers.

Terracotta Warriors

Pit No 1 Terracotta WarriorsA visit to the famed terracotta warriors of Xi’an was a much-anticipated event.

This, in 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.

The revelations were, of course, what we now know as the terracotta warriors.

Forward Rows of Terracotta Warriors in Pit No 1

Three large 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 a revelation.

The pits 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.

The 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.

PPit No 2it 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.

Restored Chariot from near Emperors Tomb

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.

Big Wild Goose PagodaOne reason 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.

On the 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.

It was full-on day, but a richly rewarding one, again finishing in a local Muslim Quarter restaurant.


Ancient City Wall

CGate Tower on City Wallsity walls 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.

Our task 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.

Outer Wall showing crenulations and rampartsThe wall 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.

The outer 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 some ramparts for accommodation of soldiers and more elaborate Gate Towers adjacent to each of the main gates.

TMosque Courtyard in Xianhe whole 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 station.

Cycling 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 warriors here.

Walking 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.

We walked 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.

Example of stele of Confucius writingThe forest 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.

A little 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.

Street Scene in XianWe tried 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.

The Small 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 calligraphy.


Pedestrial Mall south of Qianmen GateWith 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.

Granddad and child BeijingWe secured 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.

The vast 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 preparations.

The train 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.

Ming Tombs

Entrance to Dingling TombThe Ming 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.

I certainly 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.

The tombs 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.)

Throne Room in Dingling Tomb

In addition to walking the Sacred Way, we visited the Changling Tomb and the Dingling Tomb of the thirteenth Ming Emperor, Zhu Yijun.

The 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.

  1. 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.

Mutianyu Great Wall

As implied 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 there.

Mutianyu Section of Great WallUnlike the 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!

The most 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.

Jingshanling Great Wall

The 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 their cottages.

Jinshanling Section of Great Wall

With no 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.

With light 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!

Even from 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.

Already, the approach signalled that Jingshanling was to offer something entirely different from Mutianyu or Badaling.

Jingshanling section of Great WallThe rain 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.

The first 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.

The advice 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.

We barely 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.

Jingshanling Section of Great WallThe first 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.

I couldn’t 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 morning. In fact, the experience of Jingshanling was such that I have made a short slide show of its highlights. You can access it here.

Soon after midday, we set out for Beijing, the trip taking a couple of hours.

It wasn’t 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 (see below).

Imperial Beijing

Inside Forbidden CityFor our 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.

The old 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.

Inside Forbidden City“Imperial 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 Forbidden City.

All this is what I would regard as “Imperial Beijing”.

OAt Tianamen Squr visit 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.

Gate of Heavenly PeaceAny 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.)

Couple enjoying the holiday at Tiananmen SqIf a male, what would you choose in the circumstances?

An easy, 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 Emperor.

Qianmen Gate and Archery TowerLeaving the 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.

Mao 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.

At the southern end of the square are the Gate Tower and the Archery Tower.

That was quite a day’s outing!

National Museum of China

Bronze age wine containerHerein is an interesting story.

The 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.

Over 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.

Oracle Bones revealed a lot about early ChinaThe story 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.

In 1925, 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 Taiwan.

Hence the 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.

Former Legation Quarter

Ols Railway Station and City Gate from Legation QuarterOne 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.

Its history 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.

From 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 Internet sources.)

TFormer Yokohama Specie Bankhe legation 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.

Former Chartered Bank of India Australia and China BankThese, 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.

Former US LegationThe central 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.

Former French Post Office

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.

Former French LegationOne 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.”

The Russian 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.

The former 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.

It was 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 Its Neighbourhood

Out Hutong with Hotel on left161 Hotel. 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.

In Beijing, 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 themselves.

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 Lishi Hutong.

Lishi 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.

Vendor in our Hutong

Our hutong – 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.

Palatial house on Hutong

In stark 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.

One of our neighbours in the Hutong

A feature 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.

Many of 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 Beijing

Stalls at Food MarketIt would be remiss to have spent time in China without mention of eating out; not that we ever ate in.

We had 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 quality.

One of the stalls at Food MarketA 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.

A Happy Customer at Food Market

The real 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!

Then there 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 spiders!


Moving on from Mainland China

There were 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.

Slide Show

Here is the photo album of the tour.


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