We left Beijing behind today aboard a flight bound for Heathrow Airport. As always when traversing the globe we have a big transit day ahead of us, which gives us plenty of time to reflect on the last few weeks of our trip. This was our first trip to China and, after a month there, we leave with a mix of emotions and impressions. Some of the things we saw, experienced and tasted whilst in China were incredible – memories we’ll cherish forever. Other experiences we had were shocking, unpleasant and just plain perplexing. We certainly learned a lot about Chinese history, culture, landscape, food and people during our time in China, which for us is the point of travelling. In that sense our time in mainland China* was great. Overall though we didn’t really enjoy mainland China the way we enjoyed Japan or Hong Kong. Many people who visit China love it, but we just never really connected with the country or (most of) it’s people. It was an interesting place to visit, but it wasn’t FUN for us and in all honesty we’re glad to be moving on!

*We are very intentionally making the distinction between Hong Kong and mainland China. They are NOT the same thing!




Some of the things we DID really enjoy about China include:

The beauty of its landscapes and natural wonders. We only got to see a tiny portion of China’s great variety of sceneries, but what we saw was often spectacular. The mountains, valleys and gorges of Yunnan were especially memorable for us; as was the karst topography around Guilin and Yangshuo; and the incomparable beauty of the Three Gorges.






The grandness of Chinese history. China has more than 2,000 years of history as a unified nation, and a civilisation that stretches back 3,000 years. It was fascinating getting a glimpse into China’s complex past and trying to better understand the modern, developing nation in light of its history. In Beijing and Xi’an especially we were awed by achievements of ancient China. Not since visiting Egypt have we seen such incredible ancient sights and felt so small and insignificant.




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China’s unique, ancient culture. Before this trip we very ignorantly viewed China as one nation, homogenous in nature. Now we know better. This is a nation roughly the size of Europe made up of 23 provinces and 56 ethnic groups that are as different from each other as each nationality in Europe. We got to experience some of the cultural differences between ethnic minorities when we visited the terraced mountain villages of Longsheng, outside of Guilin, and in the Bai villages of Yunnan. Some of our favourite moments in China were during these visits to “minority villages”. There we found a slice of REAL life, untainted by pretence and beautiful in its simplicity. We only wish we’d had more opportunities to see more of the various minority cultures that combine to make up China.






The fresh, delicious food. We’ve always liked Chinese food at home, but we LOVE Chinese food in China. Just like the variety of minority groups and cultures, Chinese cuisine is so much more varied and heterogenous than we realised. Now we better appreciate the differences between Cantonese style cooking, Sichuan food and Wenzhou fare. We learnt to appreciate the subtlety of flavours in different regions, and the value of fresh* produce. It was also interesting to see how the Chinese use every part of every animal, fruit and vegetable – they waste NOTHING, unlike in western, developed countries.
*Like “pick your chicken so they can slaughter it for you” fresh!






Some of the people. More so than in most other countries we’ve visited, China’s people are extremely diverse. We noticed vast differences in behaviour, ideology and thinking between ethnic groups, regions and generations. There’s also a VERY marked difference between city people and country people in China. Some of the people we met were great – open, friendly, welcoming, quick to laugh, and willing to discuss their thoughts and opinions with us (sometimes filtered through our guides due to the language barrier). These human interactions we hold dear because, unfortunately, they were relatively few and far between.






Unfortunately many of our interactions with Chinese people were unpleasant. We found most of the people we crossed paths with were rude, inconsiderate, and pushy. No doubt the only way to succeed in life in a country this densely populated is to elbow your way forward and get your way at other peoples expense. We quickly learned to detest their inability to follow even the simplest instructions, to behave like civilised human beings in crowds, and their lack of consideration for anyone else. This seems to be a nation populated by a vast mass of selfish, ignorant people who are extraordinarily concerned with “saving face” but are very happy to rip you off and break the rules, as long as they don’t get caught. Most of the Chinese people we met were completely obsessed with superficialities and outward appearances, with a preponderance of what can only be described as ignorant nouveau riche attitudes and behaviours.

Where ever we’ve been in the world it’s always the people that really help make our experiences in a country truly wonderful. A nation’s people are its greatest asset when it comes to welcoming tourists and making us as visitors feel like we want to come back. Unfortunately we did not feel welcome in China and left with a very negative impression of many of its people.




Other things about our trip through China that we didn’t enjoy include:

The rampant pollution. Lakes, rivers, air – so much of China is so dirty and polluted that it makes us wonder what will be left to see in another 10 years’ time. This disturbing thing for us was that, more than the filth of simple poverty (like we saw in Africa), the pollution in China is chemical, industrial and horrifyingly toxic.




Unchecked destruction of history, culture and beauty. China is developing at a rate that is almost incomprehensible. We heard a number of people joke about how China’s national bird is the crane – as in construction cranes. No doubt you’ve seen images of all the construction on TV, but to see it in reality is quite overwhelming. It’s also tragic when you see what is being destroyed in people’s mad, desperate rush to modernise and get rich quick. It just seems such pity because once all that history, culture and beauty is gone, they won’t be able to get it back.



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The ridiculous fakeness of things. Many of the places we went to in China were fake – poor copies of the real thing, or “improved” versions of the natural thing. This was, more than anything else, the most disappointing thing about China. There’s just a real lack of authenticity – almost everything is for show, and it seems most Chinese people would rather take a photo of themselves in the “perfect setting”, even if it’s totally fake. They really don’t care if the setting is completely artificial and fabricated to look like what the natural thing would have looked like it hadn’t been ruined. We did have moments of authenticity, mostly in the small, isolated villages that Chinese tourists don’t really visit! We’ve decided that’s the key to finding the “real” China – learn some Mandarin Chinese, visit the villages that aren’t on the main tourist trail, and travel under your own steam.




The appalling service culture. Service as we know it does not exist in China. We certainly don’t expect to get treated like VIPs, and are generally pretty easy going, so it is actually quite easy to impress us when it comes to service. Like even if you just smile, we’re happy. Most of the time in China, however, hotel staff, waiters and other people in positions of service treated us like an inconvenience at best, or a stinky dog turd at worst. And God forbid anyone smile! Must be against the law or something. Not that there was ever a lack of people available to do the serving (if they could be bothered). Labour is obviously cheap in China and we invariably saw 3 people standing around doing (or not doing) what would ordinarily be 1 person’s job. We also found that often getting anything done (e.g. buying a ticket to a tourist site, getting some laundry done, going through a security check somewhere) was sooooooo complicated and beaurocratic that we were just left feeling perplexed. It’s like people with even the smallest amount of authority felt compelled to exercise their power by making our lives difficult. Seriously, we felt like we were stuck in an angry, cranky version of “Fawlty Towers” most of the time. Would have been funny if it was happening to someone else!




Are we glad we went to China? Absolutely. Would we recommend it for others? Maybe, depending on where you’re going and what you’re going to see. Would we go back? Not in a hurry – there are too many other more interesting, more beautiful, and friendlier places in the world to explore. Still, there’s so much history and natural beauty there that maybe we’ll find our way back one day! For now though our 2 month sojourn in Asia has come to an end and the European leg of our trip is just about to begin. It’s been a great start to our adventure and we’re excited about what’s still to come….








Beijing’s Summer Palace is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and halls about 50km west of the city. Traditionally used as the imperial family’s retreat during the warmer months, the Summer Palace spreads out across 600 acres and made for a (relatively) quiet outing for our last day in China.



Originally built in the 15th century, the Summer Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts millions of tourists every year. It was certainly busy when we were there, but the size of the gardens meant we easily found a quiet spot to sit and enjoy some peace and serenity (not always an easy thing to find in China!).



Central to the Summer Palace is the vast expanse of Kunming Lake. This man-made water body was today dotted with paddle boats and pleasure cruisers enjoying the views of the surrounding halls, bridges and gardens from the water.



All around the lake there are walkways, bridges and covered corridors that connect the various islands of the lake together. We walked all around the lake, enjoying the cool breeze that was drifting across the water.



We also spent some time walking through some of the pavilions and halls of the Summer Palace, admiring the elaborate Chinese architecture and colourful decorative touches present on every surface.





The Summer Palace underwent many restorations during its 600 years history, including an extensive renovation in 1749 at the behest of Emperor Qianlong. This vast expansion work was done in celebration of the 60th birthday of the emperor’s mother, the Empress Dowager Chongqing. Unfortunately Emperor’s Qianlong’s efforts were enjoyed by the imperial family for only 111 years as, in 1860, British and French troops burned the palace down at the end of the Opium Wars.



Restoration of the Summer Palace were not carried out in the late 19th century, this time under orders from the Empress Dowager Cixi. We learnt a lot about the controversial figure of the Empress Dowager Cixi today as it is her vision of the Summer Palace that remains standing to the present day.



Cixi was the empress dowager of China from 1861 to her death in 1908. She effectively controlled the Chinese government for 47 years and is spoken of derisively by many Chinese as a power-grabbing “dragon lady” who over-stepped her authority and contravened the “natural order” of things by taking control of the empire.



Selected as an imperial concubine for the Emperor Xianfeng in her adolescence, she gave birth to a son in 1856. With Xianfeng’s death in 1861 the young boy became the next emperor, and she became Empress Dowager. Cixi ousted a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency. Cixi then consolidated control over the dynasty when, at the death of the her son, contrary to the dynastic rules of succession, she installed her nephew as the next ruler of China in 1875. By all accounts, her nephew (like her son before him), was no more than a puppet however, with Cixi being the true authority in China.



Although she refused to adopt Western models of government, she supported technological and military reforms and tried to bring China into the 20th century as a modern, industrialised nation. Her attempts at fostering change upset many of the established royal hierarchy, however, who labelled her a controlling, domineering force of evil.



Unfortunately the establishments in ability to change and modernise ultimately resulted in the demise of the entire imperial system. In 1911, just 3 years after Empress Dowager Cixi’s death, the feudal system in China was overthrown and the Republic of China inaugurated. Here in China it seems she is popularly portrayed as a despot responsible for the fall of the dynasty, however we can’t help but wonder is Cixi just made a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s problems at the time.



One thing is for sure, under the Empress Dowager Cixi’s (unofficial) rule, the Summer Palace was beautifully renovated. We got to enjoy the fruits of her labours and vision today, was we spent most of the day strolling through the gardens and relaxing in this green oasis.



Beijing is such a huge city, with so much traffic, noise and people everywhere that, after just 3 days here, we were already craving some peace and quiet! That made today’s outing to the Summer Palace just perfect. We had a great time enjoying the gardens and reminiscing over the experiences we’ve had and the things we’ve seen over the past month here in China. It really has been a fascinating experience, travelling through this immense country. We feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface though!


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Our sightseeing adventures today focussed on some of Beijing’s most iconic sights: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. Clustered together at the geographical centre of this great city, these sites also represent the cultural and psychological centre of China. The size and grandeur of these landmarks left us awed, whilst the heat and crowds* left us overwhelmed and more than a little baked. Still, we were very lucky because strong winds kept the smog away again today and we got to enjoy Beijing at its blue-skied best!
*Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are China’s most visited tourist attractions, with 140 million domestic Chinese visitors and 5 million international visitors flocking here every year. Do the maths – that’s almost 400,000 people EVERY SINGLE DAY!



We arrived first into Tiananmen Square and spent 1 few minutes just standing there with our mouths hanging open, marvelling at its size. Designed to accommodate 1,000,000 people the square measures 880m x 500m and covers and area of 109 acres. This immense public square is named after the Tiananmen Gate (i.e. the Gate of Heavenly Peace), which separates the square from the Forbidden City and marks the southern entry into the palace complex. Built in 1417 the Tiananmen Gate marked the line that common people could not cross – only royalty and aristocrats were allowed beyond.



Originally much smaller the square was enlarged in the 1950s after the Chinese Communist Party came into power. They destroyed numerous flanking buildings to create what was designed to be the greatest square in the world. Concomitantly the Great Hall of the People* and the National Museum of China were built on the western and eastern sides of the square. These imposing Stalinist buildings reminded us so much of some of the hideous “official” structures we saw in Russia and Romania that we immediately knew when they were built and under what influence!
*Effectively China’s parliament house.




The granite Monument to the People’s Heroes lies at the centre of the square. Built in 1952, this monument is dedicated to Chinese “freedom fighters” who died during the unrest and civil war of the 1930s and 1940s, and whose sacrifice ultimately helped the Chinese Communist Party ascend to power.



The year after Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, a mausoleum was built on the south side of the square. We didn’t join the 3 hour long queue to see for ourselves, but were told by our guide that Chairman Mao’s body lies inside, in a crystal coffin surrounded by fresh bouquets of flowers. The queue for the mausoleum, combined with the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao at the northern end of the square certainly helped cement in our minds how alive and well the “Cult of Mao” is – even after all these years he’s spoken of reverently and with great respect. We’ve heard some criticism of some of his policies (e.g. the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s advocacy of “The Hero Mother” whose duty it was to bear as many children as possible “for China”, etc), but generally everything that’s said of Chairman Mao is glowingly positive.

Trees line the east and west edges of Tiananmen Square, but the square itself was an open, treeless expanse of grey concrete. Very intimidating! Even more intimidating were all the security cameras and policemen patrolling the square. We were stopped a couple of times and asked brusquely for our passports. Luckily our guide intervened both times and (presumably – not speaking Chinese we really have no idea what was said) explained our purpose. It seems 2 white people on their own are rare enough that we warrant some suspicion (most tourists here, regardless of country of origin, travel in large packs)!



Thoroughly awed we moved from Tiananmen square, through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and into the Forbidden City.



Seat of supreme power for over 5 centuries (1416-1911), the Forbidden City is the world’s largest palace complex and covers 74 hectares. Surrounded by a 52-meter-wide moat and a 10-meter-high wall are more than 8,700 rooms. The wall has a gate on each side, one for each direction of the compass; the distance between the northern and southern gates is 960m, while the distance between the eastern and western gates is 750m. In case you missed it: that’s BIG!



As the royal residences of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties the Forbidden City was the centre of state power in feudal China. Over a period of 505 years 14 Ming and 10 Qing emperors were enthroned here. The final imperial resident of the Forbidden City was driven out in 1924 (a story famously told in the 1987 movie “The Last Emperor”) when China’s 2,250 years of history as a united, feudal state officially ended.



The Forbidden City is an extremely formal place: it is almost symmetrical and hierarchically arranged so that all the important buildings run down the centre, north-south. The various halls have poetic names, like the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. These halls we passed through first as these comprise the outer palace where the Emperor met with ministers and supplicants and exercised his supreme power over the nation.



Moving further into the Forbidden City we passed into the inner palace where the imperial family lived. The emperor, his empress and 300+ concubines, and up to 5,000 eunuch servants all lived in the rear third of the palace compound. Most of these areas are in closed to the public today, though some have been partially restored and are used as museum rooms housing various displays.





Construction of the palace complex began in 1407; it was completed 14 years later and is said to have taken a million workers to complete. Given the scale of the complex we believe it!



Significant engineering and artistic skill went into building the palace complex. The grand red city wall, for example, was built with bricks made of lime and glutinous rice mixed together, and held together by a “cement” made of egg whites and rice. These incredible materials make the wall extraordinarily strong.




Even the paving of the entire palace complex is more than it seems: there are 15 layers of paving, 7 layers with bricks lain vertically and 8 layers with bricks lain horizontally. This alternating pattern ensured enemies could not easily tunnel under and up through the ground.



Since yellow was the symbol of the royal family, it is the dominant colour in the Forbidden City. Roofs were built with yellow glazed tiles; decorations in the palace were painted yellow; even the bricks on the ground were made yellow.



Also repeated everywhere is the dragon motif. Of all the animals of Chinese mythology and symbology, the dragon is the most regal and was exclusively used to decorate imperial buildings, clothing, and possessions.



We spent quite a few hours strolling through the Forbidden City, exploring the various wings and museum displays. There’s just so much to see! Eventually though hunger drove us to seek an exit and we headed out for lunch in the old part of Beijing.

After lunch we headed a little further south to our last imperial site for the day: the Temple of Heaven. Never a temple for general public use, this was where the emperor would go every year to pray and beseech God in Heaven for a bountiful year and a plentiful harvest. Today the 267 hectare grounds have been converted into a vast public park, with just the central temple area walled off for tourist visits. This meant we had to walk through the park on our way to the Temple of Heaven. It was wonderfully cool under the shade of the ancient cedar trees, and in contrast the chaos and noise just outside, it was nice and quite in the park. We saw groups of retired Beijingers enjoying a relaxing afternoon of mahjong with friends, or just snoozing in the shade.



The main Temple of Heaven was stupendous; this 38m high wooden structure was built in 1420 and was where the emperor would say his prayers. The building itself was beautifully decorated and, peering inside (no one is allowed inside unfortunately), we could just see the 12 wooden pillars that hold up the ceiling without any nails or cement.





Exhausted and full to the brim with facts and figures about Chinese history, emperors, empresses, eunuchs, and concubines, we called it a day at this point. As always it took us a stupidly long time to get back to our hotel (the traffic in this city is RIDICULOUS!), but now we’re relaxing and enjoying a real cup of coffee in a small café we found near our hotel. Ahh…., so much pleasure from such small comforts!



Tomorrow is our final day in Beijing, and our last day in China in fact. In some ways the last month has flown by so quickly that it incredible that it’s almost over; in other ways these have been a very challenging few weeks for us and we can’t wait to get the hell out of this place!






Today is Shane’s birthday and he got to celebrate it by walking along the Great Wall of China. It was so cool! Actually it was bloody hot – summer is in full swing here and temperatures got up around 36C today. Up on top of the Great Wall, the sun beating down on us mercilessly, we almost baked! But it was still really, really awesome – it’s not often you get to touch a living piece of history like that (and I don’t mean Shane)!


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The Great Wall of China is a 6,259km long fortification made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and granite, built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China primarily to protect the Chinese empire against raids by the Mongols, Manchurians and other nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe. The defensive nature of the wall is apparent even today with guard houses built every kilometre or so.


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The Great Wall functioned to control China’s borders, limiting immigration into the empire and controlling entry from outsiders. As merchant caravans had to enter via one of the gates, the wall also allowed taxes to be levied on goods being transported and and out of China via the Silk Road. Even though the Chinese empire later grew beyond the Great Wall, its physical presence also did much to help define the Chinese sense of nationhood.


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We learnt today that the Great Wall wasn’t built all at once – sections of it were constructed as early as 600BC; other parts were added as late as 1500AD. The initial vision to join all the smaller pieces of the wall into one continuous defensive barrier came from Emperor Qin Shihuang (of Terracotta Army fame) in 220BC; then, over the centuries the wall was repeatedly reinforced, added to, and enlarged.


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The human cost of the construction is unknown, but it has been estimated that hundreds of thousands, if not up to a million, workers died building the wall (many of them political prisoners and captured slaves). Some section of the wall even have the bones of those that died working on the wall built into the very structure.


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Despite the epic proportions of the Great Wall, it was ultimately ineffective at turning back invaders from the north – both the Mongols and the Manchurians invaded China over successive centuries. Genghis Khan is famously quoted as saying, “A wall is only as good as those that defend it”. Now that’s a damning review of the great Chinese imperial army!


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The section of the wall we went to see was the Juyongguan section, which is just 60km (but 2 hours’ drive) north of Beijing. This section was very important as it was used to defend the ancient city of Beijing. Today this section of the wall is one of the most visited sites as it’s one of the best preserved parts of the structure. The Great Wall was built out of available materials: in the deserts the wall was made from compacted sand; in the far west it was constructed from mud and straw; here in the north-east of the country, where the ground is rocky, the wall was built from granite. This means that today, more than 2 millennia after construction began, many of parts of the Great Wall have been eroded by time and the elements. The solid granite of this section of the wall, however, has endured.


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It was amazing, thinking back on 2,000 years of history as we climbed up some of the steeper sections of the wall. Imagining the countless steps that have been walked along the wall over the centuries by construction workers, then guards posted on the wall, and most recently, by hordes of tourists like us!


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We walked about 3km of the wall before the heat forced us to turn back. Most of the section we walked was steep, which made for a strenuous walk, but was worth it for the views. The area around Beijing’s north is very hilly, and the views across the forested and rocky slopes were magnificent. We were also incredibly lucky today as the prevailing winds blew most of the city’s smog away from us; not only did we have reasonable air quality today, but we even got to see blue skies!


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It was a wonderful morning – a real highlight of the trip so far for us. And we were hoping it would get even better after lunch as we had an afternoon visit to the Ming Tombs booked. Unfortunately the Ming Tombs were as disappointing as the Great wall was magnificent. There was nothing down there but an empty bunker with concrete walls and (bad) reproductions of the imperial burial coffins themselves. We thought it was a joke at first, but it seems the Chinese penchant for replacing natural beauty and archaeological wonder with fake, tacky and nasty had struck again!


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The Ming Tombs were on our list of places to visit as this area houses 13 imperial tombs form the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). We knew that only one of the tombs has been fully excavated and is open to the public: the Dingling Tomb, which is the mausoleum for Emperor Wanli and his 2 empresses. So this is the tomb we went to visit.


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The excavation of Dingling began in 1956 and revealed an intact tomb, containing sandalwood boxes filled with thousands of items of silk, textiles, wood, gold, precious jewels, and porcelain. In the central chamber there were sandalwood coffins containing the skeletons of the Wanli Emperor and his 2 empresses. Unfortunately however, the tomb and its contents were treated in ways that defies logic, with the large amount of silk and other textiles simply piled into a storage room that leaked; wooden artefacts were stored in large sheds without adequate protection; and many of the jewellery and gold simply “disappeared”. Even worse, during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Dingling tomb was stormed by Red Guards and the remains of the Wanli Emperor and his empresses burned. Many other artefacts were also destroyed in the fervour. As a result all that’s left today is replicas. As lovers of history, visiting the Ming Tombs was almost traumatising, especially as the tragic history of the tombs was revealed to us by our guide.


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The destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution is incomprehensible to us. We’ve seen so many sites around China that used to house temples and palaces, that are today just soulless gardens and parks. For a nation to lose so many of its cultural and historical sites so quickly and violently is shocking. It leaves us wondering what the long-term consequences of the Cultural Revolution really are – what changes has that decade wrought on the national psyche here in China? How different might modern China be if the changes of the 20th century hadn’t meant annihilation of so much history and the severing of so many links to the past?


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Certainly the Ming Tombs didn’t impress us in the way we expected, but they did make us think about China’s history. In that sense they were well worth the visit and made an interesting counter-point to the morning’s trip to the Great Wall. There is so much history here – layers and layers of history, all interwoven with politics to create a fascinating tapestry that is just so interesting, and just so uniquely Chinese.


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Our whirlwind tour of China is coming to an end – we just arrived in Beijing, the last city we’re visiting this time around. As the country’s capital, Beijing is also one of the biggest cities in China. With 24 million inhabitants, 7 ring roads, and countless high-rises, this is certainly one of the biggest cities we’ve ever seen! We’re here for 4 days to explore the historical sites in and around Beijing, but after our flight in from Xi’an this afternoon, all we had time for tonight was a driving tour through the city and an awesome dinner of Beijing’s famous Peking duck.


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Our day started with a quick visit to Xi’an’s Dajianfu Temple and its accompanying Wild Goose Pagoda. Built in 707AD to honour Emperor Gaozong, the temple was one of the most important Buddhist temples in Xi’an for many centuries. The pagoda was used to store sacred Buddhist texts, brought to Xi’an via the Silk Road for study and translation into Chinese.





Like many temples in China, Dajianfu is no longer used for religious rites* and the grounds of this once flourishing temple are now just used as a public park. It’s a nice enough park, and made for a nice morning walk before we headed back out of Xi’an to the airport.
*With the ascension of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 many Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist temples around China were destroyed and religion deemed “unnecessary”. As a consequence of this, most Chinese are proclaimed atheists – only about 30% of the population adheres to a faith, though superstitions still seem to reign supreme.



After an uneventful flight (no one smoked on board this time!), we arrived in Beijing and were taken to our hotel to freshen up before dinner. The drive from the airport to the city took 2 hours, which doesn’t seem too bad until you realise it was a 30km drive! The traffic in this town in legendary (not in a good way either) – we’ve been hearing about how bad Beijing traffic is from our first day in China. Despite being psychologically prepared for it, however, we were still shocked by the sheer number of cars jamming up the highways – especially given it was Sunday afternoon! Apparently there are 6 million cars registered in Beijing, and on weekends, they’re all allowed out to drive*.
*To reduce traffic congestion and minimise air pollution on weekdays they have a system that excludes cars whose number plates end in different numbers on different days of the week.


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Besides the traffic we also couldn’t help but notice all the high rises and the atrocious colour of the “sky”. The high rises make sense given all the people, but the air pollution was beyond anything we had expected. Knowing air quality was an issue in China we’ve brought some disposable face masks with us to wear when it’s bad. So far we’ve lucky though, even in big cities like Chengdu and Chonqing the air quality wasn’t too bad. In Beijing today, however, readings were up around 170 (i.e. well into the “red zone”), so on went the masks.


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We read a lot about the issues with air quality and pollution before coming over here, but coming from Aus where the air is clean and fresh, today was a shock. How do all these poor people handle it*?!
*From what we’ve been able to gather, they don’t cope very well at all; China has one of the highest incidences of lung and throat cancer in the world. No doubt the ubiquitous Chinese habit of cigarette smoking contributes largely to this, but the air pollution can’t help. We read some studies that showed the air pollution along China’s eastern sea-board is so bad that it’s affecting air quality as far away as Canada and the USA!


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Beijing, formerly known as Peking, is the capital of the People’s Republic of China and one of the busiest and most populous cities in the world. It is the centre of government in China; home to the headquarters of most of China’s largest state-owned companies; and a major transport hub for the country (Beijing Capital International Airport is the second busiest in the world by passenger traffic). It’s also one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history that stretches back 3 millennia.

Beijing has been this political centre of the country for almost 1,000 years; it’s been home to hundreds of emperors and is renowned for its opulent palaces, temples, parks and gardens, tombs, walls, and gates. Beijing is home to no fewer than 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, and the Grand Canal. We’re not going to get to see them all, but we’ll try to fit as many as we can into the next few days! Starting tomorrow with one of the world’s most famous walls…





The Terracotta Army is Xi’an’s most famous archaeological discovery and is one of the main reasons we wanted to come to this city. Like the treasures entombed with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, this collection of terracotta sculptures was designed to protect Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, during his afterlife. To date more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots and 750 horses have been unearthed in Lintong, a small farming community about 30km east of Xi’an. Like most people we had seen photos of the Terracotta Army, but nothing prepared us for the sheer scale of Emperor Qin’s necropolis.


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The Terracotta Warriors were discovered in 1974 by two farmers who were digging a well. For centuries occasional reports trickled in mentioning pieces of terracotta figures and fragments of pottery being discovered in the region; but it wasn’t until these farmers unearthed a large collection of warriors that Chinese archaeologists went to investigate. What they found has become the stuff of legends: an army of warriors, each with their own weaponry and all of them unique.



The Terracotta warriors are buried in pits, with Pit 1 being the largest. The pits are arranged around the central burial tomb* of Emperor Qin, with all the warriors are facing outwards in defensive poses, ready to protect the emperor in the after life.
*Interestingly the emperor’s main tomb is pyramidal, which again made us think of Egypt. What was it about ancient rulers wanting to live forever, buried with all their treasure under pyramids? Emperor Qin’s necropolis complex is not open to the public, but we learnt that it is constructed as a microcosm of his imperial palace. It consists of several offices, halls, and stables, and contains a river of liquid mercury to represent waterways around the palace.



A number of terracotta non-military figures were found in other pits, including acrobats, strongmen and musicians. In order to protect the sculptures and treasures within, these pits have not been excavated however.



Up to 5m of reddish, sandy soil has accumulated over the site in the two millennia following its construction around 210BC. Archaeologists working to uncover the warriors have had to remove all this dirt, and then carefully break away the “roof” of the pits to uncover the warriors, chariots and horses underneath.



Most of the warriors discovered have been broken, with the weight of all the earth above them crushing them into small pieces. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle of 8,000,000 pieces, the army is gradually being put back together by archaeologists.



We got to see a number of warriors that have been reconstructed, and marvelled at the detail in each one. With unique facial features and expressions, each solider really was a work of art.





The terracotta figures were manufactured in workshops by an estimated workforce of 7,000 labourers who worked for 40 years to create the army. Heads, arms, legs, and torsos were created separately as hollow pieces, and then assembled. Eight face moulds were most likely used, with clay added after assembly to provide individual facial features.




In those times of tight imperial control, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on items produced to ensure quality control. This has aided modern historians in verifying which workshops were commandeered to make items for the terracotta army. Upon completion, the terracotta figures were placed in the pits in precise military formation according to rank and duty.



The terracotta figures are life-sized and vary in height, uniform, and hairstyle in accordance with rank and function within the army. Most originally held real weapons such as spears, swords, or crossbows; although the wooden handles of most of these weapons have long since disintegrated, the spearheads and swords are still on display. What fascinated us was that the swords discovered are still sharp; and modern scientific analyses have shown that they are coated with a 10um layer of chromium dioxide that has helped keep them rust-free for 2,000 years. No one knows how Chinese artisans were able to produce such a thin layer of coating to protect the swords, which just adds to the mystery of the Terracotta Army.



Originally, the figures were also painted with bright pigments, variously coloured pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and purple. In the main museum they had a figure painted to show how colourful the warriors would have once been.



We visited 3 of the unearthed pits, with Pit 1 being the biggest. Pit 1 contains the main army of more than 6,000 figures and was awe-inspiring in its size and scale.



Pit 2 contained cavalry and infantry units as well as war chariots and is thought to represent a military guard.



Pit 3 is the command post, containing high-ranking officers and chariots.




All of this was built to honour and protect one man: Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BC). Revered in China as the man who conquered the 7 Warring States and united China in 221 BC, Qin was also the first ruler to take on the title of “emperor” – a title that would continue to be borne by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia.



Qin Shi Huang also worked with his ministers to enact major economic and politic reforms aimed at the standardisation units of measurements such as weights and measures, currency, and the length of the axles of carts to facilitate transport on the road system. His public works projects included initiating the construction of the Great Wall of China and a massive new national road system. Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese script was unified. This newly standardised script was then made official throughout all the conquered regions, thus doing away with all the regional scripts to form one language, one communication system for all of China. These changes are acknowledged as laying the foundation for a successful, prosperous China down through the ages. He ruled until his death in 210 BC after a futile search for an elixir of immortality.



We spent most of the day in Lintong, exploring the various pits and museums that house the Terracotta Army. The Terracotta Army really is an incredible sight and left us in awe of the man that designed this incredible necropolis for himself. Even with everything we’ve seen in China so far, today stands out for us as one of the best days so far. It was truly amazing to see all those rows and rows of soldiers, still poised ready to defend their emperor, even after 2,250 years.







The light rain and mist that settled over our cruise ship last night developed into a dense fog that closed the locks of the Three Gorges Dam. That meant that, rather than waking on the downstream side of the dam and cruising into the port town of Yichang, we had to be rushed off the cruise shop at 8:00 this morning and bussed into town. And the tour of the Three Gorges Dam we were supposed to enjoy turned into a couple of rushed photo stops on the way to Yichang. Not nearly as relaxing or majestic a start to the day as we had hoped! The afternoon in Xi’an more than made up for it though, with our visit to the city walls and into the old Muslim part of town reinvigorating our enthusiasm for sightseeing.


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Usually the cruise ships travel down the 5 locks of the Three Gorges Dam overnight, taking about 4 hours to descend the 180m to the lower side of the dam. The dense fog* put an end to that for us, however. Instead we got to enjoy a chaotic bus trip through the Three Gorges Dam Scenic Area and into Yichang, the biggest town near the dam. Still, at least we got to see the dam wall and marvel at this immense engineering feat.
*Interestingly we later found out that such fogs are increasingly common around the dam, especially in the warmer months. The immense collection of water behind the dam is also bringing more rain to the towns in the immediate vicinity.


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We learnt today that the Three Gorges Dam was primarily built to control the flow of the mighty Yangtze River; to store water and release it in a controlled fashion during the dry season and to reduce the risk of flooding downstream during the wet season. It has also helped make shipping along the Yangtze easier and is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. The dam’s 32 turbines produce about 100 billion kW of power every year. This is an astronomical figure, but we were even more shocked when we learnt that this barely meets 3% of China’s total energy demands!
*More than 75% of this country’s energy comes from fossil fuels, with nuclear power, wind and hydroelectric power making up the other 25%.


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Construction of the dam began in 1993 and finished in 2012. The “official” description we were given today stated that the project is a historic engineering, social and economic success; however, whilst we can respect and marvel at the engineering, we can’t ignore the fact that dam flooded numerous archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.3 million people*. Additionally the Three Gorges Dam has caused the extinction of a number of animal species native to the Yangtze (including the Chinese pink river dolphin) and is threatening the existence of others (such as the giant 400kg Yangtze sturgeon that would once swim all the way upstream to reproduce but now cannot and only continues to exist as a species thanks to fish farms that repopulate the river each year). Many plant species native to the Three Gorges area have also been threatened. Like a lot of things in China, it seems the benefits the Three Gorges Dam brings have come at a significant cost to people and nature. Not that any of these things were discussed during our perfunctory tour of the Three Gorges Dam; unsurprisingly only the benefits of the project were highlighted and all questions smoothly redirected.
*Most people were relocated to towns and villages rebuilt higher up in the gorges – the whole way along the cruise we could see new homes built for these relocated farmers. Some villagers, however, were given funds and told to move to urban centres. Unfortunately these funds were often insufficient to help these farmers settle in the big cities and, in one district, relocation funds “disappeared” after being sent to the local government, leaving residents without compensation!



Between the dense fog, the badly organised exit off the cruise ship*, and the disappointing tour of the Three Gorges Dam, we arrived in Yichang pretty bemused. Luckily we were quickly whisked away to Yichang airport for our flight to Xian, where our day quickly improved.
*Travelling in China is, in our experience, a bit like a never-ending episode of “Fawlty Towers”. No one seems to know what’s going on half the time, and the other half of the time everyone’s just doing their best to work around the chaos of day-to-day life to get things done. We’ve learnt to just laugh and roll with it, though the sheer frustration of it all would send us grey if we had to live here!


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Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province and our base for the next few days. This modern, bustling city of 8 million is also one of China’s most historically important cities. Once known as Cheng-an, Xi’an was the capital of China for 600 years during the early years of a unified China (i.e. prior to 1000AD); it was also the starting point of the Silk Road and a flourishing international city in the 14th to 18th centuries; and, most famously, Xi’an is home to the Terracotta Warriors.



We arrived in Xi’an in the early afternoon and, after dropping our bags at the hotel, set out to explore one of the city’s bets known features: its intact city walls.




Xi’an’s city walls are the most complete of any in China, with all 13.7km still standing after more than 600 years. Built in the 15th century to help protect this wealthy trade city, Xi’an’s city walls are 12m high, 14m wide at the top and 18m wide at the bottom. The walls originally had a deep moat surrounding them too, though today this has been filled in and is now an extensive public park. Every 120m there is a rampart which extends out from the main wall; atop each of the 98 ramparts there’s a guard house from which archers could shoot crossbows at enemies. And at each of the four points of the compass there was a gate and drawbridge to control entry into the city. Very cool!




We walked a section of the wall, looking over into the old town to admire the buildings there that have been reconstructed in traditional Chinese style.



Looking over in the other direction, towards the new part of Xi’an, we could see lots of fancy shopping malls and high-rises. The contrast between old China and the new China has never seemed quite so marked as it did this afternoon in Xi’an!




Coming down off the immense city walls we strolled through the old town towards the Muslim Quarter. This small area of Xi’an is all that’s left of a once thriving Chinese Muslim community that flourished during the years of the Silk Road. We spent most of our afternoon strolling through the Muslim Quarter, enjoying the sights and smells. It was quite odd smelling barbecued lamb and seeing women with their hair covered – these are not sights or smells we have come to associate with China! It was fascinating to see how Chinese culture and Islam have become interwoven, to create this unique community here in Xi’an.






As the sun began to set we made our way back out of the old town and away from the Muslim Quarter and the now illuminated city walls of Xi’an. This really is a fascinating town, with a wealth of history to explore. Tomorrow we’re going out to enjoy more of this history: we’re see the Terracotta Warriors!


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