Amazing food, hordes of tourists, rich history going back thousands of years and all the quirky little stories behind every thing. There are places in the world that you either love or hate. Then, there is China, which you love and hate at the same time.
Two face Shanghai
Skyscrapers surrounding traditional houses which have fallen in disrepair, super cars sharing the roads in The Bund with old tuk-tuks whilst street food stalls try to compete against michelin-starred restaurants. Our first destination in China gave us a taste of what the economic reforms that the country has seen in the last few decades have brought to this traditional society.
Of all the historical places in Shanghai, Yuyuan Garden looked, on paper, the most promising. It was built during the Ming Dynasty by a government officer, as a place for his parents to enjoy a happy and tranquil time in their old age. Funnily enough, the place is now far from peaceful as it is surrounded by hundreds of souvenirs shops and other parafernalia that make it look as part of a theme park. Despite all that, it is relatively easy to find a quiet corner to admire its many features, our favourite being the detailed scenes that decorate the roofs of the many pavilions.
Worlds apart from Yuyuan are the peaceful residential streets of the French Concession dotted with both impressive colonial mansions and big blocks of flats. Here is where you can find the Propaganda Poster Art Center and its collection of 3000 anti-US posters from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It is a great way to understand the history of this country and the events after WWII.
Overall, mixed feelings in Shanghai, but somehow the city left us wanting more of China, and more of China is what we got in Beijing.
Late afternoons in Beijing
Unlike other countries, domestic tourists in China are bigger in numbers than those coming from abroad. Outnumbered, one just needs to go with the flow, get the elbows out and forget about queueing like everyone else does.
For that reason, visiting Beijing’s main attractions is probably best done in the late afternoon. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City will not be empty, but it will be easier to enjoy them after the big crowds have left.
The same thing applies to the Summer Palace with the plus of some nice sunsets. One thing to note though: it is not “a” palace, but a huge complex of lakes, gardens and… yes, palaces.
The Great Wall
Choosing which stretch of the Great Wall to visit is an art. If you are short of time, chances are you will be visiting Badaling – you and the vast majority of people. However, if you want to wander along the Wall in peace, then your best shot is to escape to one of the further sections. And in between both options, there is Jingshanling, a part of the Wall which lies 2 hours away from Beijing.
The bus trip is pretty straightforward, especially when one of the passengers speaks Chinese. The 4 hour trek on China’s most famous sight is breathtaking. Most of the Wall around Jingshanling has been restored but there are still a few patches of wild Wall which make the whole trek even more authentic.
Was it worth the bus trip? Hell yeah! What an amazing day. And to top it all of, nothing better than a good bowl of noodles for £1.
Just need to look a bit harder
Our heart froze the minute we set foot inside the city wall of Pingyao. It was like Yuyuan all over again! The charm that undoubtedly this town had a few years ago, had now been replaced by souvenir shops and oversized golf carts taking tourists around the citadel.
At night the town put on a big show, with red lanterns adorning every corner. The beauty was there, but boy it was hard to see. Some locals were enjoying a game of Go, Mah Jongg or Xiangqi ignoring everyone else around them. But it was only when we stepped on to the quieter roads that we started to appreciate how Pingyao looked like years ago, way before massive hordes of tourists (like us) arrived.
Encouraged by our findings from the previous night, we spent the next morning away from the main streets of the old town. And in just a few hours we found out just how random and awesome China can be at times: from an independent photography exhibition with some rather special top models (see picture below) to a man reading the future using a little bird.
And after such a lovely morning strolling through the not-so-crowded little alleys of Pingyao, we sat down and had a bowl of noodles on a stall of dubious hygiene standards. They were delicious 🙂
This is more like it.
We celebrate Paula’s birthday with a very special crowd and then we head to the mountains.