On our first evening in Beijing, to stave off jet lag, we took a stroll from our hotel to wander through Jingshan Park, formerly the private imperial gardens of the Forbidden City. The mid summit of the hill located in Jingshan Park is the highest point in Beijing. With five peaks constructed almost entirely from soil excavated from the construction of the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City, it is truly inspiring when you think this was accomplished over six hundred years ago by slave labor.
The park itself is surprisingly serene with beautiful trees, picturesque gardens and meandering paths which lead to the five temples of the park. The temples themselves have been beautifully restored, each an elaborate feat of engineering, in the historic red lacquer. Well worth the climb. When we reached the top, we were treated to a most unexpected red and orange sunset spreading over the Forbidden City. From this vantage point, the Forbidden City stretches out in front of you, a seemingly unending complex of pavilions, and courtyards, with Imperial yellow tiled rooftops laid out in characteristic Chinese symmetry, juxtaposed against the disorder and chaos of modern China.
Once inside the Forbidden City, Beijing’s most famous tourist attraction, you are immediately overwhelmed not just by the size but by the grandeur of the buildings which get larger and more magnificent as you walk toward the Emperors quarters. One might expect to see the pavilions and temples full to the brim of antiquities but so much of china’s heritage has been lost, destroyed or looted by countless revolutions or regime changes. Sadly, what furnishings are left in most of the building, although interesting, look a little tired, staged and non-authentic. In contrast, the throne rooms are remarkable. The thrones are carved from wood and the craftsmanship is without rival. The rooms themselves are masterworks, not just of engineering, but the ceilings seem like an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle and every piece is a brightly painted piece of art. The beauty of these ceiling are not hard to figure out as we are all familiar with Chinese symbols and colors from movies or china town, it is the detail, the splendor and the opulence that was unexpected. It is important to look up as you wander the city, on every roofline you will see dragons, on every eave you will find more beautiful paintings and in the overall buildings you will see the grandeur of the Chinese architecture.
To the uneducated eye, the traditional wooden structures of the Forbidden City have been impeccably restored. Each of these princely buildings is constructed from a complicated network of interlocking wooden supports then intricately painted in bold vibrant colors. The resulting palaces are strong, grand and stunningly beautiful. While wandering through the massive courtyards, up the palatial steps and weaving through a maze of buildings, one can understand how many of the 24 emperors who ruled China from the Forbidden City never set foot outside of the city walls.
The Great Wall
Really? It’s a great long wall… not really sure I need to walk on a section of the Great Wall but we are half way around the world after all and will probably never be back. Well, despite my skepticism, it is hugely impressive as it winds majestically through the trees, up and over the mountain. What is particularly spectacular about this wall, this stalwart guardian of one dynasty and then the next; it is still standing, silently, waiting to be called into action. I know it’s just a wall, but I was swept away by the presence of warring dynasties still hanging, almost palpably, in the air. Military function aside, this ancient engineering feat is awe-inspiring; built and re-built, then extended over the centuries to become one of the wonders of the world. We enjoyed the panoramic views as we climbed from watchtower to watchtower, it was truly magnificent!
The Terra Cotta Warriors
Qui Shi Huang was the first emperor of a unified China who ruled from 246 BC to 221 BC. During his reign he enacted major economic and political reforms, built extensions of the Great Wall, and constructed an impressive national road and canal system. Throughout this period, starting from the age of 13 when he took the throne, he also built an imperial guard of terra cotta warriors, horses, and chariots to accompany him into the afterlife.
Standing in the hall, looking down on row upon row of warriors standing in battle formation, in uniforms distinguishing their rank, with full armor and historically correct weaponry, one is awestruck. Whether this was the case in BC China or not, their clay faces, each with different facial characteristics, all portray a sense of pride and great loyalty to their emperor. I was left with the sense that it would have been a great honor to be chosen to protect the emperor into the afterlife. The enormity of this project is almost unthinkable because it is not just a wall or a building, it is a collection of thousands of sculptures; it is art. Many slaves labored and lost their lives (according to the legend, they were sealed in the tomb to protect its location from grave robbers) and this does leave an undeniable pall on the experience. It is rumored that the faces of the warriors replicate the actual faces of the labourers!
A Unesco Heritage Site, the Old Town of Lijiang is rich in the culture and traditions of the region and has a history that dates back more than 800 years. As we wandered through this labyrinth of tranquil brooks, ambiguous alleyways, and cobblestone streets that wind their way over bridges and through the surrounding hills we enjoyed Lijiang’s quaint mix of old and new. The architecture is almost entirely two storey historic buildings which would at one time have been the traditional homes of the locals. Today these homes have been transformed into shops, restaurants and hotels. The center street of the Old Town is very tourist oriented with hawkers selling the usual tourist fare. Take a wrong turn and get intentionally lost, you will be treated to a very unique cityscape where larger homes with tranquil courtyards are now charming boutique hotels or modern restaurants. Here, every inch of living space, has been put to some form of commercial use.
The town of Lijiang was ruled by the Mu Family for a period of nearly 500 years and their family home has been restored and is open to tourists. As with so much of China, the Mu Residence was largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but, unless you have grown tired of visiting temples and quiet garden courtyards, it is a grand representation of what life was like for a family of their stature in China. The Mu Family residence is a large complex of traditional Naxi and Bai architecture. The construction is less complicated and the paintings less detailed than that of the Forbidden City but it is beautiful in its simplicity. The garden itself is a carefully composed landscape influenced by feng shui and superstition. There is the usual collection of rock works, ornate shrubs, an assortment of ponds; the trees grew taller as we climbed the hill to a Daoist temple at its peak. The view from the temple reminds you once again that you are in an oasis amid the sprawl and confusion of modern Chinese architecture.
Shanghia is the largest city in China, one of the largest cities in the world and a hectic global financial center. As I looked over the Bund from our hotel room, my first thought was, “This could be the city of the future.” Constructed in just over 20 years, Shanghai’s financial district is a hodgepodge of eccentric architectural wonders, all competing, it seems, for the title – tallest, weirdest, ugliest – but somehow it works. The city planners get credit for including just enough green space to make it palatable.
In contrast, the other side of the Bund is a collection of elegant buildings all beautifully restored to their previous splendor. The architectural styles of these stately commercial buildings include gothic, baroque, neoclassic and art deco and remain from the period of British and European influence in China in the early 20th century.
We did the usual tourist things in Shanghai, such as the walking the Bund, visiting the City of God Temple and the Shanghai Museum. We also spent the afternoon wandering around off the tourist track to get a sense of what daily life is like for the locals.
As a bit of a health freak, I went to China with a great deal of anxiety about the food, water and air. But I am also a bit of a foodie and wanted to experience authentic Chinese food. The higher end restaurants that deal with tourists use imported ingredients, although delicious, this is still relatively Americanized Chinese food. So we made the leap, we ate in restaurants that cater to the locals and we truly did have THE best Chinese meals that we have ever had. The complex flavors, textures and combinations of foods were amazing. A little research goes a long way in this city.