The Mistake I Made with China

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It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. I was hiking along the Great Wall of China – a huge dragon spine criss-crossing the mountains between Jinshanling and Simatai. I knew it would be breathtaking, but not on the scale I was expecting. I wasn’t expecting the silence either, or the autumn colours which helped paint this storybook scene.

It was also damn hard:

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We climbed 22 of these towers to reach Simatai. In some places, I thought my boots were going to slide back down the stoney slopes. It was Qin Shi Huang who rebuilt the wall to protect his Empire. He wanted to protect himself too – in the afterlife:

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The Terracotta Warriors are a formidable sight. They even have different expressions. Some of them look quite fearsome and are already drawing their bow and arrow.

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What’s also special about this exhibition is that you’re walking around a working excavation site. Equipment’s left out and there are markers to show what archaeologists have discovered, like the remains of this war chariot:

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Getting to the museum in Xi’an was an experience in itself:

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The bullet train reached speeds of up to 305 km/h. It was super efficient. The guards on the platform shouted at us through loudhailers, ordering us to stand in line at an exact spot. It was like herding hundreds of cattle – but it worked. The door to my carriage stopped right before my feet (which I was told not to put too close to the edge and was ushered back).

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Welcome to the Forbidden City. I didn’t fully appreciate the size of it until I got this view from the top of Jinshan Park.

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At the inner court, you can peek through the windows of the private chambers. There’s thick dust lying on top of these exquisite silks and carpets – as if they haven’t been touched since the end of the Qing dynasty.

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At the outer court, you see where the official ceremonies took place. This is Hall of Supreme Harmony where emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties were enthroned and married.

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108 paces per minute, with 75cm per pace. This is the People’s Liberation Army taking part in the daily flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. When I went through the security check, hundreds and hundreds of excited people were rushing to get a good view. It was a real spectacle. As crowds huddled together and smiled for the camera, it was hard to watch their happy expressions. The news reports you associate with Tiananmen Square remind you of what took place 25 years ago on the spot where they were standing.

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My visit was over. The Trans-Mongolian train was waiting. I was sad about that. When I planned this part of the trip, I was wary – friends’ visa applications had been refused and it was hard for me to envisage an entirely different culture and having to speak a language I couldn’t even read. Subconsciously, I think that’s why I didn’t schedule a longer stay. I wish I had.

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