Synonymous with Confucianism, ancient fortifications, culinary uniqueness and political stringency, China serves as a point of intrigue for many. Regardless of one’s motivation for buying a ticket to the ancient land of the Oriental East, a journey through China is bound to titillate even meagre curiosity and send visitors on a voyage of discovery. Closeted to the Western world for years, there are hidden faces to the emergent nation waiting to be revealed. My ten-day journey, although archetypical, opened my eyes to a different world.
Beijing: A Portentous City Blanketed in Smog
Clothed in a blanket of grey, arriving in Beijing was partly foreboding. As the taxi inched forward, wedged between tail-to-bonnet traffic, skyscrapers emerged through the pollution-cloak enveloping the city. I knew questions in English would be left unanswered, as I’d had to hand the driver a sheet of paper on which the hotel’s address had been scribbled in hànzì. A month following the Beijing Olympics, I had been amiss to assume English would be widely spoken. In a city of nearly seventeen million, it was unreasonable to expect every soul to learn a language to which they’d historically not been exposed. I sat in silence, and watched the cityscape transform as it transpired through the smog.
En route to Tiananmen Square later in the day, an area dating to the Ming dynasty - parts of which were rebuilt four centuries later, a seemingly kindred couple approached and opened a line of inquiry in simple English: “Where are you from?” queried the well-dressed woman, not a blemish present on her youthful face. As I diffidently replied, choosing every word carefully, a solar smile emerged on her partner’s face. They invited me to participate in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony only two streets away. Reservations I’d had remained, but after years of cynicism – having often been the victim of exploitation on foreign escapades, I chose to engage: perhaps I’d finally be exposed to an authentic encounter following which I’d walk away with a trace of new cultural and unexploited understanding in tow.
After entering the dimly lit miniscule building, as promised only two streets from the infamous Square, I could see set before me assorted varieties of tea presented in glass caddies. As I sat, another woman emerged from a disguised back entrance, her face leathery and tarnished by the pollutant Chinese winds of time. She brought with her a timber tray, transporting a porcelain cup beside a pot with various other pieces of tea ceremony paraphernalia. The original two bodies disappeared from the room, while I sat across from the old woman and hesitantly sipped on each glassful of tea-infused water. Diverse spicy aromas permeated the stale air each time her wrinkled hands poured steaming water from the glass pot.
The decadent-cum-spicy flavours temporarily cured me of distrust, until the front door creaked open and the sting of a familiar male voice requested, “Fifty American dollars.”
Refusing to pay such a steep price, I laid one hundred Chinese Renminbi on the table in front of the old woman – the equivalent of AU$20 – and uttered “Unbelievable!” under my hot breath as I hastily exited the premises.
I painfully learned another valuable lesson: never completely trust those who approach you with offers on foreign streets; it’s often a ploy to rip you off.
As the bitter taste of manipulation added fuel to the indignant fire burning within, I walked the streets. Later, over a bowl of food - a mysterious dish I’d selected at random from a restaurant menu - the spicy flavours blotted out the impurity of the tea ceremony. With nine days left in China, I needed an open mind to embrace other facets of the national culture.
The Mighty Wall
Following a visit to the lakes surrounding the enigmatic Summer Palace, located in the north-western corner of the city’s modern periphery, the Great Wall and its ancient fortifications beckoned. The smog started dissipating as the minivan transported the load of eager faces one-and-a-half hours out of Beijing, to the original northern borders of the ostensibly ageless country. Built originally to serve as a buttress against invading forces, the eight thousand eight-hundred-and-fifty-kilometre wall - constructed mostly out of assorted raw materials – has not entirely withstood the test of time: standing alone amid natural surroundings, its exterior is at the whim of both mother and human nature, often resulting in erosion and vandalism.
As I walked the part of the wall open to visitors, I couldn’t help but consider the magnitude of operation undertaken to erect its solid structure, done without the help of modern machinery. Built over a period of two thousand years by various dynasties, it is purported that close to one million people lost their lives. Supposition aside, the magnitude of the wall and its meandering path that cut through the Chinese landscape was hypnotising. Ergo, no visit to China is complete without a stroll along the imposing wall.
Xi’an’s Western Entreat
Sitting amid fellow travellers in Beijing West Railway Station, I heard the intermittent hocking of saliva from deep within people’s pharynxes. Rotating right, I witnessed the result of such vocal acoustics: a grotesque ball of thick slimy sputum wobbled its way through the air after being spat out of the offender’s mouth, landing before a pair of feet on the concrete station floor. Commonplace, the unappetising practice stems from a belief rooted in Chinese Medicine: considered toxic, mucous is expelled forcefully whenever necessary to relieve the body of pathogenic proliferation. Perhaps some national health promotion is warranted to deter the uncovered distribution of liberated pathogens clung to the green and white lurgies so courteously shared in public spaces.
The train journey ended the next morning in Xi’an North Railway Station. Following a day of dumpling indulgence and city wall exploration on bicycle, the ancient army of terracotta warriors summoned. Conceived during the third century BC, the terracotta entourage was constructed – analogous to the funerary rituals of Egypt’s Pharaohs being buried with their assorted regalia - as a safeguard for Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. Similar in size to the country of San Marino, the warriors, their weaponry and their battlement of mighty horses have been uncovered progressively for the last forty years. Intact and formidable, the terracotta force has endured thanks to a chromium covering, purportedly invented by America in the nineteen fifties.
As I stood, bewildered, at the front of the army - arranged in precise battle formation, I began to see puzzle pieces of yesteryear slot into the spaces my mind hadn't conjured of contemporary Chinese society. Devout and unquestioning, the people have always moved obediently to the dictatorial beat of the government’s surreptitious order. Ancient dynasties and suspicious emperors perhaps laid the foundation for many of the cultural norms present today. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the terracotta army was impressive, and transmuted the ancient history textbook notion from my mind to reality. Following a visit to a local school supporting the rights of disabled people, another train journey ensued, destination: Suzhou.
A City on Water
Before voyeuristically prying through locals’ backdoors from the comfort of a canal-bound gondola, I devoured more delicious dough-wrapped savoury surprises at Suzhou’s famous Yangyang Dumpling Restaurant. Following the harsh crunch of a fried cricket consumed at Beijing’s night markets, the soft-textured bite of a savoury dumpling was otherworldly.
Packed together like sardines, the homes dotted along the city’s canals exposed daily Chinese life to our curious prying eyes. The show’s actors, hanging washing on tidal lines and emptying bowls of kitchen waste into the canal below, were unperturbed by the audience passing in packed vessels. Replete with red lanterns and oriental trimmings, the rows of homes projected an exotic image to those unfamiliar with East Asian design. Despite the touristy appeal, making waves in the gondola under the grey sky was an idyllic way to pass time in Suzhou.
Dressed in traditional attire replete with silk trimmings, the woman’s painted face – evocative of a Chinese doll - remained unchanged, as her angular fingers plucked the four strings of the pear-shaped wooden pipa sat on her lap. Set to a backdrop of manicured beauty in the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, tremolo reverberated through the courtyard as the middle finger of her right hand whizzed to and fro across the instrument’s body, while her left hand generated portamenti. The night air filled with oriental harmony, a traditional Chinese regale to a captive audience. It was the perfect finale to the tour of a place so charming and elegant.
Beijing’s Exotic Counterpart, in Shanghai
The city’s name alone is evocative of as much exotic intrigue as is the kaleidoscopic array of diverse features inherent to its charm. Complete with a skyline of futuristic appeal, Shanghai left little to be desired. Although still as polluted as its northern counterpart, it can almost be forgiven: from hot pot gourmandise to the Pearl Tower’s wide-sweeping panorama to the manicured gardens of Yuyuan, there was no shortage of activities with which to fill my three-day itinerary. To top off my stay, a germinal visit to the Shanghai Centre Theatre highlighted how the Chinese Olympic Gymnastics team always take home a bag-full of gold and silver medals. It was a night replete with mouth-gaping performances of gymnasts contorting their bodies on bicycles, diving through fiery rings and creating human towers while on bicycles moving around the stage.
Following a daytrip to Zhouzhuang, China’s little Venice to the south of Shanghai, I flew home with open eyes. Once a country shrouded in a cloak of mystery, I was able to personally taste – albeit briefly - the entreats of modern Chinese society in its natural habitat. With a slightly less ignorant and stereotypical portrayal in mind, I returned several years later to further indulge my curiosity, to the country’s south.
For flights to China, compare the following websites to locate the most reasonable fares:
The author stayed in various hotels and hostels throughout the country, including the Mingtown Etour International Youth Hostel in Shanghai.
Consult the following websites for up to date information regarding prices and availability of accommodation in cities throughout China:
The currency utilised in China is the Chinese Renminbi. Please refer to the following website for current and up to date exchange rates:
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