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Impressions of China     —   I was there ten years ago. Going back today, I have the impression that China is both entirely similar and totally different.

Similar, with its ubiquitous culture, its not-to-be-missed sites, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, its gardens, temples, pagodas, tombs and Buddhas. To say nothing of its numerous sites classified on the UNESCO World Heritage List, all worth a visit.

Different, with its impressive infrastructure built around its tourist sites, its immense high-rise housing units forming huge walls close to large cities to welcome the 13 million peasants who move to the city every year.

Different as well with its megacities that are astonishingly silent, such as Beijing and Shanghai, with their numerous gardens and flower-lined highways and where honking is forbidden and electric motorcycles and bicycles run without noise.

Different, with its wind turbines running in parts of the country, as well as its solar panels covering entire mountains. Plus the blue skies, without smog, that we enjoyed, even in Beijing and Shanghai. 

Highlights of my trip

The historical dimension 

It hardly comes as a surprise to find many traces left by the 33 dynasties that ruled the country and contributed to its history. The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs in Beijing and the Terra cotta army at Xi ‘an are certainly the most remarkable.

And we should of course add all the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Some of those sites have defined my trip, such as in Beijing the Temple of Heaven and its garden built in the 1400s, with its columns and beams assembled without any nails to support a 40 meter high and 30 meter wide rotunda; the Summer Palace at the centre of a masterpiece garden with its Hill of Longevity from the Qing dynasty (at the beginning of the 1900s) looking over Lake Kunming, on which millions of canoers and paddle boaters navigate in the summer or skaters in the winter, as the lake becomes a skating rink for a few weeks.

The Hanging Monastery on Mount Huangshan; the impressive karstic rock along River Li on its 83 km; the Suzhou gardens with their meticulous design, pavilions, stones and lakes, true masterpieces of the genre that have inspired many poets and painters.

The ethnic dimension  

The country is home to 56 ethnic groups, of which the Hans represent 92% of the population, leaving 55 minorities.

Two of those minorities are still visible in Longsheng, in the mountainous region of Guanaxi, taking care of the impressive terraced rice fields that rise up to 1,180 meters and were built by their ancestors during the Yuan dynasty (thirteenth century): the Zhuang and the Red Yao.

The Zhuang, the largest minority with a population of close to 18 million, are well represented in the region.

The Red Yao live in fir houses on stilts where cereals, nuts and corn are hanging on the second floor, which is used as a drying room, while the living area occupies the first floor. The ground floor is used as an animal shelter. Yao women are easily recognizable since they have a haircut only once in their lifetime, at 18 years old. They wear that hair rolled up into an elegant twist that is secured with lovely wooden combs. Just imagine such long hair that it almost touches the ground once unrolled!

Everywhere along the road, little kiosks offer grapefruit, oranges, mandarins, sweet potatoes, corn and peaches grown with the rice and the tea on the field terraces. The mountains are also covered with wooden frames on which grow monk fruits, which are particularly fond of the hot and humid climate in the region.

A little further, near Guilin, a real forest of cranes are building houses for those choosing to spend a quiet retirement in the middle of forests of osmanthus in this luxurious region.

The social dimension

One cannot deny that pagodas and temples occupy a large place in the Chinese culture. The Lama Temple, certainly one of the most beautiful lama temples in Beijing, is a must.

In the province of Shanxi , in the North, close to Inner Mongolia, we arrive in Datong. With its population of 3 millions, it is a very polluted coal basin with hundreds of trucks carrying the coal. Two remarkable sites are worth the trip there.

The first one: the 253 Buddhist Yungang grottoes that were dug around the year 460 and their 50,000 statues, big and small, covering walls and ceilings: China’s most ancient sculptures and a masterpiece of early Buddhist cave art. 

The second: is the famous Xuankong Monastery on Mount Huangshan, one of China’s five sacred mountains. The Monastery has been literally clinging to the mountain for roughly 1,400 years. In addition to being a real architectural feat, it reunites three different religions represented by the statues of Buddha, Confucius and Laozi, sitting side by side. Perched very high in the mountain, the rooms, stairs and balconies where visitors circulate in single file are quite narrow. To be avoided if you are nervous!

A little further, in Taiyuan, in the capital of the province, the Sakyamuni pagoda of the Fogong Temple is a famous monument of ancient China built in 1056. A landmark of the city, it is the only Buddhist pagoda in the world entirely made out of wood. It rises some 67 meters high.

Of course, one should not forget Confucius, who lived in the 6th century B.C. He is one of the most important historic Chinese figures. Considered the first educator in China, his philosophy emphasizing personal morality and correctness of social relationships was promoted as a state religion. Our Chinese guides, even the youngest ones, often cite his thoughts. The Confucius Temple in Beijing and the museum of the Forest of Stele, a “library” with 3,000 remarkable pieces of calligraphy engraved in stone, many of them carrying Confucius’ thoughts, are, among others, two places that reminds us of the philosopher.

The cultural dimension  

China would not be China without its opera, Kung Fu and circus. We were privileged to some great shows, such as the amazing Kung Fu Legend at the Red Theater in Beijing; a song and dance show of the Tang Dynasty at the Grand Opera Shaanxi; a spectacular circus and impressive acrobatics performance in Shanghai, without leaving out the unforgettable Sound and Light Show on River Li. Not to be missed!

Cooking is of course part of the Chinese culture and it is made out of the addition of all its regional specialties, such as: spiced dishes in Guilin; rice in bamboo and smoked pork in Yangshuo; fish in beer in the Yanghou (River Li); Beijing roasted duck; beef and lamb Mongolian fondue in Datong; noodles and meat and vegetable wontons in Xi’an; sweet and sour pork shank, shrimp and fried fish in Shanghai; duck with its curried potatoes and seafood in Suzhou and finally dim sum, lobster, shrimp and fish in Hong Kong.

Do I need to say we had quite a treat, stunned by the variety and the quality of the dishes offered, including the tofu dishes that even the most skeptical of us tasted with pleasure. And almost all of my travel companions even adopted the use of chopsticks!

Gardens 

We see some of the most beautiful gardens in the Taiyuan region, an industrial and commercial centre with a population of 4.3 million and the capital of the province of Shanxi, in the North.

At 30 km from Taiyuan, the Jinci Temple is really worth the detour. It is in fact a mix of historical vestiges (built in the 5th century) and pavilions erected in the middle of an extraordinary and immense garden. Impressive century old cedars grow there with branches so long and so twisted that they have to be supported by huge beams. A welcome stop in an atmosphere of peace and calm!

In Suzhou, a few gardens, such as the Humble Administrator’s Garden, an immense botanical garden in which bushes and trees grow among small pavilions and tiny bridges cross ponds full of flowering lotus and colorful fish. In the same city, the Net Master’s Garden is another type of garden with larger pavilions, where a family used to live among small streams and rocks of all kinds.

Close by is Tongli, a charming village built alongside gardens and canals. One can even travel in a gondola… exuding a small air of Venice! In the area, many fish farms grow crabs and shrimp that we will of course make a treat of on our tables at noon in an old coffee mill, now a charming restaurant.

And we cannot forget the flower and garden-lined highways near and in the cities.

Large cities 

Beijing, the capital of this country of 1.4 billion people, is a city where it is easy to mingle despite its size, since the urban plan designed in the 15th century with streets at right angles has been preserved.

Place Tiananmen, in the center of the city, the 4th world largest square, faces the Gate of Heavenly Peace with the large Mao portrait, one of the gates to the Forbidden City. To the West, the Great Hall of the People (the parliament) borders the place and the National Museum of China flanks its eastern side. In the centre, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a 38 meter high obelisk, a symbol of the triumph of the communist group, as well as Mao’s mausoleum, almost hidden behind an immense sculpture in homage to the workers of the Party.

The Forbidden City, enclosed within a 10-meter high wall, is really a true city covering 72 hectares, of which 50 are gardens. Inside the walls, there are two spaces: one dedicated to public life and the other for private life. Courtyards, buildings, ceremonial halls, private apartments for the imperial family and the concubines follow one another in perfect harmony. The Forbidden City also houses the Palace Museum displaying many treasures of Chinese civilization, such as paintings, ceramics, bronzes, lacquer, etc.

Beijing’s hutongs, narrow streets and alleys, must of course be seen. A small, historical type of private house with inner courtyards, called siheyuan, are hidden behind grey stoned walls (maintained by the State). Some families have been living there for generations. A woman artist living in one of those siheyuan with her family greeted us warmly and treated us to a great and delicious variety of dishes in her tiny eating room.

Another site not to be missed: the 2008 Olympic site with its most impressive architectural statement: the Bird’s Nest. The magnificent vast esplanade along the pavilions, such as the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, is still very crowded.

At 40 km northwest of Beijing, a detour worth taking: the Ming tombs and the Sacred Avenue. Thirteen Ming emperors were buried in this valley of Shisanling, where 13 small pavilions, with red walls and a yellow tiled roof, symbols of the earth and the sky, were built as reminders. The entrance of this imperial necropolis, the Sacred Avenue, stretches along 7 km bordered by stone sculptures of animals and figures that are larger than life. The valley is a very fertile one as well, covered with orchards. Many kiosks border the road, offering juicy peaches, mandarins, grapefruit and more.

Shanghai

Arriving in Shanghai by night certainly leaves an indelible memory, especially after an astonishing peek taken of its famous seafront view, immortalized by multiple camera clicks, where a forest of skyscrapers compete in colors and designs. It is better known as “The Bund” and is also worth a visit during the day.

We get another stunning view on this city, the largest commercial, industrial and financial one in the country, from the top of the landmark TV Oriental Pearl tower (468 meters). Under our eyes and all around us is a display of futuristic metal and glass towers glittering under a brutal sun and forming a perfect skyline on a brilliant blue sky. The bravest ones venture on the gallery around the tower observatory, even lie on the GLASS floor to get a selfie showing them … dominating the city. Not for me!

By contrast, the People’s Square, in the urban centre of Shanghai, in the middle of the business district, is a real public garden, an oasis of calm where Chinese practice dance, Tai Chi, giant Chinese calligraphy and play ball. Here, one feels very far from the frenzy of the city!

In the background, the Shanghai Museum, the largest Chinese ancient art museum, displays collections of exceptional bronzes, costumes, porcelains and ceramics. One can easily spend a few hours there.

Another coup de coeur, the Jade Buddha Temple with its exquisite jade sitting Buddha, sculpted in a single block of priceless white jade. You may say that there are so many Buddhas in China … but believe me, this one is really exceptional and you will feel something special, unique and almost magical looking at him.

Tourist areas  

The most visited tourist region is Yangshuo, with the River Li: an urban area of 35,000 residents welcominge 88 million tourists year after year.

Its fame is due to the fabulous scenery formed by the immense karst mountains all along the river, which we follow on a boat for an enchanting four-hour cruise.

Delights will keep on rolling in during the evening Sound and Light Show on the river in the natural setting of those mountains. It is a show designed by the famous Zhang Yimou. Yes, the one who shot the movie “Raise the Red Lantern” and directed the opening ceremonies of the 1998 Olympics in China.

Ping Yao

The Ancient City of Ping Yao is know as the “Turtle City”, with city walls stretching over 6 km in a pattern reminiscent of a turtle, with 3,000 battlements and 72 watchtowers. 

Its ancient wooden houses are covered with grey tiles, some of them (close to 4,000 we are told) are still very well preserved and are examples of an architecture proper to this region. They were built under the Qing and Ming dynasties, some 2,700 years ago.

The residence of the Qiao clan, a rich merchant family is a lovely example of this architecture. Built on a surface of more than 8,700 square meters with gardens, twenty yards and 300 rooms, where 300 members of that family empire still live today, it is designed as a real imperial palace. Zhang Yimou, the famous Chinese filmmaker shot his film “Raise the Red Lantern” on the property.

Ping Yao is listed on UNESCO World Heritage List since 1997. It is also a “green city”, since 30% of the land must be dedicated to vegetation in new construction projects.

Xi’an

Xi’an, in the province of Shaanxi in Central China, is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. Eleven out of the 33 dynasties that reigned over China have chosen Xi’an as their capital and the city is strategically located at the beginning of the Silk Road.

Xi’an is also a city of contrasts, particularly stunning in the Muslim district. The beautiful Mosque and its gardens, which are punctuated by the beauty of the flowering bushes and the joyous trills of the birds, is built in the middle of commercial streets that are very animated, especially at night.

Ramparts covering 14 km encircle Xi’an. Built under the Ming dynasty in the 1370s, they are China’s oldest walls. Inside those walls is the ancient city with its low buildings. Outside, modern high-rises are erected, forming true walls of glass and stone.

Archeologists have dug 56 square kilometers to uncover the famous terra cotta army with its thousands of soldiers, all of them illustrating different features, and as of today they haven’t yet dug under the tumulus, nor discovered an emperor’s tomb. On the other hand,, workers are digging 14 subway lines in the city, of which two are already open.

In fact, public transportation is largely promoted in Xi’an. Busses have air conditioning and the bus card includes one Bixi ride, those 65 and over travel free and students pay a very low fare; the city is a very young one, with one million students that are enrolled in its 5 universities and more than 60 graduate schoolsS.

Souvenirs to take home 

One would expect that there is no shortage of opportunities to buy souvenirs in China. Nonetheless, globalization is present here as well and the major chain stores for electronics and clothing have storefront locations in most cities with prices that can indeed be compared to those in our Western countries.

That being said, it is still fun to stroll around the immense Nanjing pedestrian street, Shanghai’s main shopping street, and to see all of the high-end boutiques and stores mixed with more local stores offering local products at more reasonable prices. For example, I saw cashmere sweaters offered for less than $25. Unfortunately, they were all adorned with motifs I would never have dared to wear!

Otherwise, jade, pearls and silk might be smart choices for souvenirs.

Jade is the ultimate noble stone in China. Its color and quality vary enormously and one should be wary of plastic imitations. However, good deals can be made when the stone is bought in a specialized or high quality boutique.

The same goes for pearls and cloisonné, which are metalwork objects made according to a technique consisting of soldering a thin metallic strip on a metal object and to fill compartments with enamel and then firing the piece.

If China is the cradle of silk, Suzhou, with its network of canals and small streets and lanes lined with picturesque houses and boutiques, is the best choice to find a silk scarf, dress, shirt and even a silk duvet!

A country on the move 

This trip has been for me a rediscovery of this great, huge and so fascinating country. A rediscovery that was altogether exciting and inspiring! Everywhere, we can feel that this country is changing at a very rapid pace. But we can also feel that its roots and traditions seem to be valued and enhanced more than ever.

In short, it is a fascinating country in every aspect to visit and revisit!

Christiane Théberge

This trip was taken with a group traveling with Voyages Traditours, that offer this exceptional circuit in China. 


 

 

Bridge on Lake Kunming

Huge wall of high-rise housing units

Humble Administrator's Gardens

Suspended monastery on Mount Huangshan  

Red Yao houses in Longsheng

Red Yao woman 

In Tongli

Traditional bread in Tongli

Place Tiananmen

A garden at Place Tiananmen

In the Forbidden City

The Bird's Nest in Beijing 

On the Sacred Avenue of the Ming tombs

The Bund in Shanghai at night

The Bund in early morning

The People's Square, Shanghai

River Li

The Yungang grottoes

In the muslim district of Ping Yao

One of the pavilions in the Qiao clan residence 

Soldiers at Xi'an

Artist working on a cloisonné

In Suzhou, at the silk spinning mill 

 

  

 

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