‘Ancient to Modern – Essential China’

This was the name of the 6-night escorted tour that we booked with Travelsphere.

As a multi-centred tour, we would take in Shanghai, Xi’an & Beijing, allowing us to see each of the cities as they are now, along with a throwback to ancient China by means of Shanghai’s Old Town, Xian’s Terracotta Army and The Great Wall of China in Beijing.

DAYS 1 & 2
First stop – Shanghai!
International flights from Scotland are never the easiest so firstly we had to fly down to London Heathrow to connect with the tour group. From Heathrow, we had a connecting flight in Beijing before we reached Shanghai – good thing we like flying!

After finally arriving at Shanghai airport, meeting our Chinese guide and transferring to the hotel (Greenland Juilong) for our 2 night stay, we were left to settle in. With the time difference, we’d spent almost an entire 2 days travelling and by the time we arrived at the hotel it was already late afternoon.
Travelsphere offer a range of optional excursions in each area and I think we booked onto all of them to really make the most of our time in China.
This evenings’ optional excursion was the ‘Shanghai By Night’ river cruise.
Those who wanted to go were collected from the hotel and transferred to the terminal for the 1 hour scenic cruise along the Huang Pu River. The cruise took in the architectural buildings on the West Bank, standing opposite the more modern skyscrapers on the East Bank, as well as the dramatic skyline of the Pu Dong business district, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Bund and both the Yangpu & Nanpu Bridges.

Todays’ itinerary showed us the highlights of the city, including the renowned Nanjing Road shopping district, the Old Town and the traditional Wu Xing Ting Teahouse & the Yu Yuan Garden.

The scenic drive through the city had our guide pointing out buildings of significant interest before we were dropped off by the Bund and left to our own devices on the understanding that we meet up at the agreed time to allow us to continue onto the Yu Yuan Garden.

I’m not a shopping fan and so to keep mum (who is!) away from the shops on Nanjing Road (Shanghai’s busiest shopping district), we decided to get coffee and a cake at a fairly fancy looking coffee shop which turned out to be part of the Fairmont Peace Hotel. Fairmont Hotels aren’t exactly in abundance in Scotland so we hadn’t been to one before or realised how upmarket they were! It was a nice experience though!
After coffee and a wander around we found the pearl shop where we were to meet the group. We were given a tour of the shop and the exhibition that came with it, explaining about the pearl process and the differences between natural and farmed pearls.
Once we’d all had a look around and completed any purchases, we were back on the bus, heading for the Yu Yuan Garden in the Old Town.

The Yu Yuan Garden (‘Happiness Garden’) is a traditional Chinese garden dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), spanning around 20,000 square metres (5 acres) and is rated as one of the must-see attractions in the city.
Split into six scenic areas, the Garden combines traditional Chinese architecture with intricate sculptures and carvings. Pagodas, water features, pavilions, zig-zag bridges and more all come together to create a beautiful, tranquil area.
An interesting part (and probably one of the most well known) of the Garden is the Wu Xing Ting Teahouse, which stands in the middle of the lotus pond. Reached by the winding  Jiu Qu Bridge (‘Bridge of Nine Turnings’), it is the oldest existing teahouse in Shanghai with capacity for 200 guests.
The teahouse itself is made completely out of wood, with joints being made of bamboo wedges and has never been rebuilt in over 200 years.
The Jiu Qu Bridge is famous in itself. The Chinese believe that the number 9 represents auspiciousness and so walking along the bridge is thought to bring you luck.
Next to the Yu Yuan Garden is the Yu Yuan Bazaar which was our next stop for a quick look about. The Bazaar combines mall-style shopping with small streets and lanes leading to restaurants and teahouses. There are plenty of street food vendors in the square too, offering traditional-style noodles and steamed or fried stuffed buns.
In the Bazaar itself, Yu Yuan Old Street offers traditional Chinese items such as lanterns, artwork & decorations.
Once we left the Bazaar, it was time to head into the Old Town for lunch which had been arranged for the group at a local restaurant.

Next stop before heading back to the hotel was the Jade Buddha Temple – a Mahayana Buddhist temple featuring intricate carvings, walkways & halls and the two jade sculptures of the Buddha; one sitting and a smaller one reclining.
As part of the itinerary, we visited a local theatre in the evening to see the renowned Shanghai Acrobats display.

Today saw us leaving Shanghai and flying to our next destination – Xian.
Xian (‘City of Eternal Peace’) used to be the centre of culture and imperial power in China for over 2,000 years and was the start of the famous Silk Route.
Once we arrived, we met our new guide and were taken on a tour of the City Walls before being dropped off at our hotel for the night, the Grand Metropark Hotel Xian.
That evening, we had booked onto the optional excursion in Xian – the ‘Xian Tang Dynasty Show’.
Accompanied by our guide, we were the only members of our group to go to the show, listed as one of the top 10 things to do in the city. The Shaanxi Song & Dance Troupe have a world renowned reputation and are the largest performing group in western China. The show includes everything from an ancient Chinese instrument ensemble to music and dance dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The show itself follows ancient Chinese folklore, performers are incredibly talented and many have been training since the early 1980s.

Time to see one of the ‘Seven Wonders of China’ – the Terracotta Army at Li Shan Mountain.
Located about 35 miles from Xian itself, the Terracotta Warriors & Horses were built to defend the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China and are the most important archaeological find of the 20th century.
The site was first discovered in 1974 by local farmer who found broken pottery pieces whilst digging a well. The State Council authorised for a museum to be built in 1975 and work is still continuing.

The museum itself is a huge complex split into 3 separate sections – Pit 1, Pit 2 & Pit 3, named based on discovery. So far, teams have recovered over 7000 warriors, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses in total. The soldiers have been identified as being part of 4 main categories: chariot warriors, cavalrymen, infantrymen and resistance warriors and are all arranged in battle formation – vanguard up front followed by infantry, with chariots at the rear.

Pit 1, the first to be discovered, is the largest of the three and houses more than 6,000 warriors and horses.
Pit 2 is close-by and counts 1,000 warriors, 500 horses and 89 wooden chariots.
Pit 3 is about 25m from Pit 1 and was excavated within a month of the discovery of Pit 2 and contains 68 pottery figurines, 1 war chariot and 4 horses – this is thought to be the command centre.
The museum itself was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and has been hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Excavation is still being carried out.

It’s incredible to see the museum and the work that went into creating the Terracotta Army. Each soldier has his own unique expression and facial features & no two are the same.
Many of the best preserved are housed in the main museum, behind glass.

The next leg of our tour came that evening with our onward flight to Beijing. On arrival, we met our third and final guide at the airport and were taken to our hotel, Radisson Blu Beijing, were we would be spending 3 nights.

There’s a lot to see in Beijing!
We started off with an introductory city tour, beginning in the heart of Beijing – Tian an Men Square. This is the largest public square in the world. Tian an Men (the ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’) is the main gate to the ancient imperial palace, the Forbidden City.
Within the Square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China.
The Square does have other historical significance, mainly for being the location of the 1989 ‘Tiananmen Square massacre’, a protest which ended with a military crackdown.

Moving through the gate and into the Forbidden City
With a total area of 7,800,000 square feet, it’s the largest palace still in existence anywhere in the world and it’s incredibly impressive!

The construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406, initiated by the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty and lasted 14 years. The Forbidden City was the seat of the Ming Dynasty from 1420-1644.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, the Forbidden City now contains extensive collections of artefacts and artwork dating back to both the Ming & Qing dynasties.
The complex contains 980 buildings in total and is listed by UNESCO as ‘the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world’.

You really do need a good few hours to properly explore the Forbidden City as it’s made up of various Halls, Gates and Towers which are all worth seeing. Due to its’ history and UNESCO standing, it’s incredibly popular (over 14 million tourists every year) so you certainly won’t be the only one there!

Later in the afternoon we went to the Temple of Heaven, an imperial religious complex constructed by the same Emperor that was responsible for the the Forbidden City.
The complex was visited annually by Emperors of both the Ming and Qing dynasties where they would pray to Heaven for a good harvest.
As with the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven played its’ part in the Boxer Rebellion – it was occupied and became the temporary command centre for the forces in Peking (now Beijing).
The temple complex was turned into a park and opened to the public for the first time in 1918 and was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most well known. The circular building is made completely of wood, right down to the joints. The original building burnt down in 1889 after lightening caused a fire and the building that we see today was rebuilt a few years later.
Beautifully decorated, the Hall of Prayer was incredibly important to each of the Emperors who would take the trip bi-annually from the Forbidden City to camp out at the Temple to perform the prayers associated with the coming harvests.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests has four inner pillars representing the four seasons, twelve middle pillars showing the twelve months of the year and twelve outer pillars representing the twelve traditional Chinese hours.

Another ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ day! This time, the Great Wall of China.

At around 3,800 miles long and at least 2,600 years old, it’s very surreal to be looking at it in person, let along walking along the ramparts as we did.
It’s such a busy place, not like the photos you see online with not one person in sight. We were given time to ourselves to walk the wall in whichever direction we chose. We went left and found it to be incredibly steep in places. There are hand rails so that you can essentially haul yourself up the steps, as well as hopefully stopping you from falling down them – they’re literally vertical in some parts!
There’s obviously been a huge footfall over the years, so much of the stone is quite worn and uneven, making walking quite difficult at times. Parts of the wall are now inaccessible due to deterioration of the stonework but the whole experience is amazing and you actually can walk quite far.
Had we chosen to go to the right, this would have taken us along the wall and further up the hill but this looked to be jam packed with people, even more so than going to the left!
The gift shops at the Wall sold the usual tourist souvenirs but also had a huge collection of what looked to be traditional bags and kimonos. One of the shop owners was determined to sell Mum a traditional bag but the last thing she needs is another handbag, so no sale!

Next & final stop for the day was the Summer Palace, built in 1750, which incorporates lakes, palaces and gardens and was an imperial garden during the Qing dynasty.
The ensemble is beautiful and everything flows together effortlessly in design. The whole of the palace ensemble is centred around Kunming Lake which spans 2.2 square kilometres and is entirely man-made; the soil which was excavated was used to create Longevity Hill, standing at 200ft high with various buildings built along it in sequence. One of the most noticeable buildings is The Tower of Buddhist Incense. Built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, it’s a display of classical Chinese architecture and at around 135 feet high, it also gives unprecedented views out over Kunming Lake.

One of the most notable structures at Kunming Lake itself is the Wenchang Pavilion. This is the largest of the six gate forts found at the Summer Palace and is paired with the ‘Tower of Cloud-Retaining Eaves’, located on the west bank of the lake. Together, the pavilions represent the support of both scholars and warriors in the ruling of the empire.

Announced as another UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, it was deemed “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value”. Personally, I couldn’t agree more.

For our last evening in China, we had booked to go and see The Red Theatre Beijing Kung Fu Show.
The traditional show follows a young monk who sets out to become a Kung Fu Master. The actors do not speak throughout so subtitles are posted above the stage to allow the audience to follow the story. It’s a brilliant modern dance fused with traditional Chinese martial arts and showcases the best Kung Fu performers from all over China, with an impressive average age of 17!

Though we only had a week or so in such a huge country, we really packed in both the sites and the highlights, getting a much better understanding of the culture and history in the process.

Next stop – Hong Kong!

Published by Carina Storey

Aspiring travel photographer & blogger, bookworm & film lover.

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