There’s a Starbucks inside Beijing’s Forbidden City. This was my focal point in a kaleidoscope of images illustrating the booming modernization of The People’s Republic of China over the past 15 years.
Admittedly it’s a discreet Starbucks, but there it is, in the 600-year-old former capital of a 4,000-year-old culture, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site since 1987. Your clients might be happy to know they can get a good coffee here, but prepare them to pay about $4 a cup. They’ll need one after exploring the world’s largest palace complex at 74 hectares. Now known as the Palace Museum, it’s where 14 supremely powerful emperors reigned through the Ming and the Qing dynasties until 1911, but the last emperor was allowed to live here until being driven from the Inner Court in 1924.
And where have all the bicycles gone? Fifteen years ago, a few cars and taxis laboured through a sea of cycles. Today, streets are crammed with motors, while the seemingly endangered bicycle is relegated to one special lane. The resulting air pollution casts a tangible pall over this city of 15 million-plus, but that won’t stop Beijing’s enthusiasm for this summer’s Olympic Games (August 8 to 24), the first ever to be held in China. The people are ecstatic.
“We’re so proud,” said a smiling Jasti, our guide from China Travel Service. (“What does Jasti mean?” I asked. “Well, I like jazz, and I like tea, so I put the two together.”) We were strolling through massive Tiananmen Square (literally translated as Heavenly Peace Gate) while hundreds – many of them children waving national flags – patiently waited for the nightly flag-lowering ceremony in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait. Our location raised the spectre of 1989’s massacre.
“It’s unlikely that would happen today,” she said, “but I don’t know much about it. I was a tiny child.” We turned our focus instead on the adroit kite flyers, whose handcrafted creations swoop and dip above the crowds in a favourite national pastime.
The Forbidden City (completed in 1420), with its palaces and the magnificent Temple of Heaven where the emperor would pray twice a year for good harvests, is Beijing’s top visitor attraction. Add a “must-do” visit to the Great Wall, some 90 kilometres north, and the 2008 Olympic Games complex, and you have Beijing’s Big Three.
Popular with domestic tourists is dressing up as members of the imperial family for souvenir photos in the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. You can see them clambering into beautiful antique sedans once used by the emperor. Along the Great Wall I noticed similar souvenir photo ops, this time ranging from camel rides to cowboy scenes involving a magnificent white stallion made to rear up with a tourist on his back, and the ubiquitous imperial family group shots.
The Great Wall stretches across the north of Beijing for some 600 kilometres (less than a tenth of the entire length). It snakes across deserts, over mountains, and across grassland, spanning the country from east to west.
Our access is at Badaling, a 90-minute drive from Beijing, where a large section was refurbished in 1990. It looks new but the massive scale, extending over the hills into the horizon, makes it easy to imagine the million people, then one-fifth of China’s population, building it like busy ants.
The thousands of daily visitors are mostly from China, identified by their group hat colours – green, red, yellow, blue – bobbing along the wall like a sea of coloured mushrooms.
A Hutong Tour
Another Beijing highlight, perhaps an endangered one given the modernization program underway, is a hutong tour. The word means “water well” and quadrangle complexes were built around these. The old wooden courtyard gates have high steps to keep ghosts out and wealth in. Labyrinthine lanes led us to these old buildings, some dating back 300 years.
“A lot of older people prefer to live here,” said Jasti. “They don’t want modern apartments.”
Mishzuo Shuxian is such a person. She has lived here 45 years, raised two children, and has two grandchildren. Her home was part of her employment package as an accountant, and the two sizeable rooms plus kitchen and bathroom can be passed on to her family at the fixed rent of 83 RBM per month (about $4.50). Today she’s happy to work with Beijing Tourism and show off her dwelling to visitors.
Shuxian is 75, with a complexion the envy of women 20 years younger. How does she do it?
“I go three times a week to Youth Exercise,” she explained through Jasti. “And I keep calm. I only allow my grandchildren to visit on Saturdays, because I enjoy mahjong with friends on other days.” Shuxian knows her priorities.
Between this year’s Olympics and Shanghai’s World’s Fair planned for 2010, China expects international visits to increase exponentially. Both cities are bigger and busier than any in North America, and you can do your China-bound clients a huge favour by incorporating a leisurely Yangtze River cruise in their itineraries, providing balance to a hectic visit.
China Regal Cruises with its fleet of three German-built vessels suits the pickiest of passengers. Asian and western food is served buffet style to a multitude of nationalities. It’s not easy to please such a diverse group, but the staff pull it off, turning their talents from daytime jobs to darn good evening entertainment.
I sailed on the Princess Jeannie from Chongqing, a 90-minute flight from Beijing. Chongqing has been an important trading centre for centuries, and is today a thoroughly modern city. Not so the boarding facilities for Princess Jeannie, which were far from the town centre and down a decrepit ramp. (I later learned from Jeannie’s hotel manager that this dock will be underwater once flooding is completed in 2009 and a new cruise terminal will be built.)
It’s a common misconception that, with the programmed flooding only a year from completion, “there’s not much left to see.” In fact, there’s plenty, even on the kind of misty days we experienced. In 2009 the river will settle at 175 metres above the original water level but the cruise from Chongqing to the dam – about 190 kilometres – will still offer worthwhile sights, plus a visit to the dam itself, the world’s highest at 600 metres.
“Heaven Isn’t Ready Yet”
Among the included excursions is a trip to Fengdu, a town whose residents have been relocated but whose hillside temples are not affected by the flooding.
“So we ascend to hell on the chair lifts,” said guide Connie, grinning at our puzzled faces. “We call it hell because these temples all house statues of demons and devils, some dating to the Tang dynasty.” They’re garish, theme-parkish, and entertaining. Cross the high-arched bridge in seven steps to ensure a happy afterlife. Enter the good luck gate for prosperity. Stroke the fortune symbol to bring wealth and harmony. And light joss sticks for the gods.
Across the way, a huge, white, Buddha-like countenance dominates the hillside. This will be the entrance to heaven, a new attraction to complement hell.
“But heaven isn’t ready yet,” apologized Connie. “You’ll have to come back in 2009.”
Another favourite day-trip is through the Bamboo Gorge and up Shennong Stream, travelling in “pea pod” boats resembling long canoes, propelled by a crew who paddle through the depths and pull the boat through the shallows, wearing nothing but swimming trunks and rope sandals.
Three “little gorges” are the attraction along this waterway, where bamboo groves line the banks and huge caves dot the high cliffs (one with a hanging coffin at its entrance) evoking curiosity about their former inhabitants.
This, we’re told, is yeti country, and scientists from around the world come to study footprints, teeth, and other yetibilia found in the area. It’s easy to imagine the creature watching us from dense foliage along the bank.
After four nights, our cruise came to an end in Wuhan. The slow river trip was relaxing and interesting, and revitalized us for the rigours of Shanghai, a short flight from Wuhan.
The city (with almost 18 million people in 2005) was always a major trading centre, and its frenetic pace and financial standing today has enhanced its stature.
China National Tourist Office
Shanghai’s character is encapsulated by a stroll along the 1.6-kilometre Bund. Along this stretch of Zhongshan Road East sit imposing buildings from the town’s colonial past including the Peace Hotel, the Bank of China, and Shanghai Gold Exchange. Well-preserved facades house domestic banks, luxurious hotels, and upmarket restaurants and bars. The ambience is European.
But check out the contrast.
On the eastern bank of the Huangpu River directly across from the Bund is Pudong (or Lujiazui) where the city’s space-age buildings (such as the Pearl TV Tower and Jing Mao Tower) have become national landmarks.
This most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities has retained some old attractions, too, like the Temple of the Jade Buddha, the Yuyuan Garden (a magnificent Ming dynasty rockery) and on the outskirts, the old canal town of Zhujiajiao with its pretty stone bridges and narrow streets. These are included on popular Shanghai day tours, and your clients would not want to miss them.
But Pudong does tend to pull visitors back. It did me. A Bund-Pudong tunnel carries little silver passenger trains below the river across the 647-metre stretch. It’s a five-minute “thrill ride” of sorts, with psychedelic light effects, voice-overs, and music. It’s a fun way to arrive. Then ride to the top of Pearl TV Tower for a panoramic city view. (The view depends on weather conditions but take the ride anyway.)
In the square below, swarms of vendors sell fake designer watches. I thought it would be fun to bring home a couple, and bargained the asking price of $36 down to $3 per watch. Not bad, seller and buyer grinned at each other, each enjoying the game. And, it occurred to me, much cheaper than that Starbucks coffee in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Things To Know
• Contact China National Tourist Office (in Toronto at 416-599-6636 or on the web at www.tourismchina-ca.com) for visa and other information.
• Departure tax on leaving China is 90 RMB, which must be paid in local currency.
• China’s currency is the Renminbi (RMB) also named the Yuan.
• ABM machines for Canadian bank cards are NOT easy to find, except in airports. Warn clients to take travellers’ cheques (C$ or US$) and cash. Major credit cards are accepted in hotels, large stores, and on China Regal Cruises.
• The Yangtze River cruise is not suitable for clients with mobility problems because of the stairways.
• Baggage allowance on domestic flights in China is 20 kilograms.
For more information on China contact the China National Tourist Office, visit www.tourismchina-ca.com, or call (416) 599-6636 in Toronto, 1-866-599-6636 toll free.