The International Writers Magazine: China

The Great Wall
Maria Lambert

It can be seen from space, is one of the wonders of the world and is 6000km long. It took eleven centuries to complete and was finally finished five hundred years ago and, amazingly, it’s still standing. The high point of a trip to China was, for me, unquestionably, the Great Wall. It should not be missed and is within easy striking distance of Beijing.
Pic: Wall from Space

The first thing to decide is what section to visit. Those sites nearest to Beijing have been restored and are the most popular. Bear in mind that easy access for coaches mean lots of people. I didn’t fancy standing on the Wall accompanied by another five hundred eager tourists. I wanted a more solitary, isolated experience, so, I shared a taxi on a bumpy three hour journey to remote Simatai.

We arrived at a tiny village and were immediately pursued by a gang of ladies carrying large bags. They began running after us even before the taxi had stopped. The bags contained t-shirts and some other touristy knick knacks. They were all giggling and seemed to be really excited. I got the impression that they weren’t ever inundated by tourists, so that, as well as a sales opportunity, our arrival appeared to provide entertainment for them anyway. They were really friendly and their constant giggling made all of us smile.
However, three hours is a long time in a taxi, so, first things first, I needed to locate the toilet. I can’t remember how we conveyed this to our little entourage of ladies, but, they must have got the gist of what I was saying as I was eventually led about half a mile in companionable twittering down a bumpy track, until we reached a rectangular, concrete block and was unceremoniously waved in the door. They apparently were going to wait for me. Six cubicles, no doors and instead of the now familiar footprints and circular hole, each toilet had a one foot by three feet gaping hole. It was clear this was not a tourist trap. I returned to the taxi and, after buying a few t-shirts from the ladies, reluctantly left my new friends at the village and began the short walk up to the Wall.

The Simatai part of the wall has not been restored and consequently has relatively few tourists. On a cold, winters day, there were only two other people in the distance. The sky was clear and the air was fresh and cold. I climbed for about half an hour. Bits of the wall were crumbling and treacherous but the view was endless and the past was palpable. The Wall appeared to be surrounded by wilderness and it was very easy to imagine sentries from the Tang dynasty looking out over an identical landscape. It was impossible not to feel a sense of achievement and exhilaration.

Second on my agenda in Beijing was the Forbidden City. In ancient times it was exactly that, forbidden to the common people and the emperor was venerated like a god. As you approach, the sheer size can’t fail to impress but it is the colour which resonates. Red. Red and gold everywhere. It looks rich and proud. Even the details of each building are arresting; tiny dragon statues linked down gables, ending with an open dragon’s mouth to allow rainwater to drain. In amongst all this Chinese splendour, I smiled as I listened to my audio guide, realising that the distinguished voice was none other than 007; Roger Moore guides you through the Forbidden City adding a touch of the surreal.

The Summer Palace is on the outskirts of the city and is a welcome break from the sprawl of modern Beijing. Set in a beautiful park with a sizeable lake and mountains nearby, it is a popular destination in the summer as the name suggests. It was winter when I visited and the lake was frozen. In the summer the lake is full of people on boat trips but on a cold winter’s day, it was empty. You could opt for a sledge ride around the lake so I decided to give it a go.

The ice cracked as the sledge crunched towards the centre of the lake. Not good. My husband, Steve, was sitting behind me on the sledge and our combined weight could not be considered light. The shore and the Summer Palace looked very far away as we reached the middle of the lake and the ice seemed to be thinner; there were loud thumps and cracks underneath us. We glided to a halt. Our guide got off the sledge. He was gesticulating wildly and appeared to want something. Slowly the meaning dawned on us; he wanted extra money or he would abandon us out here on the thin ice. We were being ripped off. We handed over the equivalent of fifty pounds in Yuan and were pushed back to the shore and safety. This was unexpected and wasn’t repeated and certainly didn’t spoil the excitement of being in China.
Leaving Beijing, my next stop was Yangshuo in the far south of China. Traditional pictures of Chinese landscapes depicting steep, sharp mountains in the mist are based on the landscape around Yangshuo. The town, however, is a bit of a disappointment being just a shabby collection of traveller cafés with the inevitable banana pancake type menus. But it is the countryside which is the star here. Time appears to have stood still. Small rural villages surrounded by fields where labourers wield the most basic of agricultural tools. I rented a bike and cycled for five miles or so to the river then hopped on a boat with my bike and spent a relaxing hour watching the scenery drift past. It was the festival of the Hungry Ghosts that day and fire crackers went off in the distance as people celebrated and honoured their ancestors. The roads were flat and the cycling was easy. One word of warning; if you do hire a bike in China, check you have working lights even if you plan only to travel during the day. I cycled without a care into a mile long tunnel before realising that there were no lights in the tunnel and strangely, none of the vehicles had their lights on. That was the most terrifying five minutes of my life. I couldn’t see the front of my bike it was so dark but could hear the growl of massive trucks trundling past me. When I finally emerged at the other end I threw myself into the grass and lay shaking, amazed that I had survived unscathed.

My last stop was Hong Kong. It is everything you would expect from a modern city and more. Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the mainland can compete with New York and London for glinting high rises and modern architecture. But the real pleasure for me was turning down a side street from the sophisticated Central district to discover a noisy, bustling market selling everything from fruit to live frogs and fish. The contrast of traditional and modern architecture and culture is startling. You get a real sense of Chinese culture and feel that you are in touch with the vibrant heart of the city.

Hong Kong is an assault on the senses; from the smell of the sea and the wood and oil on the Star Ferry to the smell of roast duck from one of the open air stalls. The buildings, old and new, crowd together and tower above you and neon signs are everywhere. Giant TV screens are at major junctions and crowds of people jostle past. Cars and the ever present yellow Hong Kong taxis beep and rumble in the background. The city has a pulse and it beats with excitement.

The food stalls are amazing and a triumph of Chinese culture over sterile supermarket convenience. There is always a huge butcher’s chopping table perched precariously outside the shop with a massive cleaver ready to snap the duck into portions. Ten sometimes twenty ducks hang in the open air glistening with baked-in sauce. Temperatures soar and nothing protects the ducks from the dust and city pollution. This might sound like a health a safety nightmare but, I can assure you, the duck tastes delicious.

Shopping in Hong Kong is a great experience; there is something for everyone. Designer shops crowd Central on Hong Kong Island whilst Kowloon is the best place for electrical and fake items. One shop which must be experienced is Shanghai Tang. It is on Pedder Street in the heart of Central and is unlike any other shop. There are branches in other major cities now including London but it is the flagship Hong Kong shop that is the most evocative. Brainchild of entrepreneur David Tang, it sells the most beautiful clothes based on traditional Chinese designs with a 21st century twist. Bright neon colours such as lime green and fuchsia pink make the shop a riot of colour. The shop assistants are all beautiful, even the men! They waft about the shop dressed in long cheongsams and Mandarin suits while Twenties jazz plays softly in the background. It even smells wonderful, scented with one of their trademark fragrances, Ginger and Lotus flower. Don’t miss it but be prepared to spend lots!

Stanley Market in the south of Hong Kong Island is well worth the trip just to see the other, quieter side of the island. The south side has beaches and a famous temple to the goddess of the sea. It also has an excellent example of Feng Shui in action and the lengths to which Hong Kongers will go to meet the Feng Shui rules. A large multi storey apartment block has a hole two storeys high and six apartments wide. This is to allow the dragon to emerge from the sea and fly without obstacles to the mountains.

The new airport, Chek Lap Kok is on Lantau Island, which is a short train or ferry ride from Hong Kong Island. Before the new airport was opened, pilots had to navigate a path just above the tower blocks of Kowloon and land on an airstrip which ended right next the sea. Unbelievably, a large black and white chequerboard sign, which can still be seen on a hill in Kowloon, was used as a navigational aide telling pilots when to turn and begin their descent. It all sounds very hairy and thankfully is not required anymore thanks to the new airport There are fast links from Lantau airport to Hong Kong Island, but there are lots worth checking out before you leave.

Lantau has one of the biggest bronze statues of Buddha in the world. Seated at the top of hundreds of steps, Big Buddha is at the centre of the Po Lin monastery and is magnificent. It is a long climb to the top, especially in the hot, humid weather of Hong Kong, but the views of the surrounding countryside and bamboo forests are worth it. Although there are tourists and tourist shops at Po Lin, this is still very much an active temple so it feels spiritual rather than a tourist attraction. It is a bustling place with people buying incense sticks and fortune sticks and crowding around the massive incense burners to worship and pay respects. There is also a vegetarian restaurant at the monastery which is huge and always busy but do try it as the food is excellent and cheap.

China is vast and my visit, which only covered three destinations, left lots still to see. Modernisation and global economic success has not erased China’s unique and vibrant culture and most places are easily accessible. I looked down on the amazing Hong Kong cityscape as we took off and I knew I would be back for more.

© Maria Lambert Nov 2006
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