China – Reflections

Having been home for a few weeks now, I thought I would share some reflections on our trip.

Before we departed, I had a pretty disjointed mental image of what China would be.  On the one hand, I envisioned an agrarian countryside; paddy fields worked by blue-overalled farmers in coolie hats. Simultaneously, I recognised China as a massive, quickly growing economy; almost all of my technology and clothes are marked, “Made In China,” so there has to be some degree of industrialisation. These were two, fairly distinct, mental pictures though, with pretty much no overlap.

In reality there was, of course, lots of overlap. From the windows of the trains we took, the countryside looks much like the UK; lots of fields (not so much of the rice around here), towns and villages and rural housing with regular industrial areas and manufacturing sites, all frequently under the shadow of power station cooling towers, or the many, many sets of apartment blocks under construction everywhere we went. Continue reading

The Summer Palace



After breakfast in the backpacker bar we’d visited last night, and the second set of farewells to remaining group members, we headed off to find the subway to visit the Summer Palace. We ended up walking for about fifteen minutes through the hutong area north of our hotel and it reminded me a lot of the spots I’d visited on my last trip here. The hutongs around Houhai, that we’d visited earlier in the trip, seem to have been gentrified. They are certainly on the cleaner, better-maintained end of the spectrum. Here, everything was more run down, but also felt like more of a community rather than a showpiece. We had to navigate around a large boarded-off area, bordering the main road to the north though, which had clearly been recently demolished and was being redeveloped.

Ceiling and cross-beam decoration in the Summer Palace

Ceiling and cross-beam decoration in the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace complex, to which the imperial court would decamp in the heat of summer, is set around the edges of a large lake to the northwest of the city and is a beautiful place to explore. Like the Forbidden City, a lot of the murals and ceiling decorations have been beautifully restored – no mean feat given how many there are around the palace; literally every few feet along a corridor, there will be another cross-beam with a scene painted on it. There are miles of corridor here. Continue reading

Tiananmen and the Imperial Palace Museum



For breakfast this morning, we stepped out into the hutong and bought whatever caught our eye from the street vendors. I had some lovely pork steamed buns.

The inevitable shot of Tiananmen

The inevitable shot of Tiananmen

Then we were onto a public bus to take us down to Tiananmen Square. In the aftermath of Thursday’s parade some of the subways underneath the eight lanes of traffic separating the square from the Tiananmen Gate were still closed. As a result there was some confusion and delay getting onto the square.

Once there, it was crowded with visitors come to see the remaining displays from the parade; two big floral affairs, one for 1945 and one for 2015, facing the stands still in place across Chang’an Avenue. As a result, the view north to Tiananmen was obscured and the space between that and Mao’s Mausoleum was occupied. I missed the sense of vastness I’d had when I visited the same – but emptier – space in 1996. Continue reading

The Great Wall of China


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For some reason I was wide awake more than an hour before I needed to be, so I got dressed, grabbed my camera and went for a stroll around the village. At first I headed back along the street towards the main road we’d arrived on. At the junction were a couple of bronze scenes flanking the entrance, one of which described it as the “Gubeikou Scenic and Cultural Heritage Tourism,” which made a few things click into place in my head; this wasn’t an old village making a new path as a tourist stop, it was a new-build.

Later, I walked on up a nearby hill – which turned out to have been part of the Great Wall, but had not been restored – and saw Gubeikou Village proper; a small town a hundred yards further along the main road, which looked a lot like the villages and towns we’d passed through on our journeys. We were staying in a romanticised recreation of village life, rather than the less attractive, modern actuality. Either way, I supposed we were contributing to the local economy of the village, so didn’t mind too much that this fact had been glossed over for us.

The overnight heavy rain had abated, but there was still a drizzle going on and, from the top of the hill outside the village, there were some lovely views of mist-shrouded hills in the distance. Along the line of hills to my left were a series of decaying watchtowers linked by what could just be made out as a wall. Continue reading

Journey to Gubeikou


We had an early checkout this morning ready for a full day of travel. Hotel Housekeeping were extremely on the ball though; in the ten minutes between us checking out and boarding the coach, someone had checked our room and sent a message to ask whether we had deliberately left the two beakers we’d got with our chicken burger meal in Shanghai station. We had, so there was no problem, but I was left wondering why the rooms got checked so quickly; is it purely a service to the guests – which is undeniably beneficial – or was it the hotel making sure before we left the premises that we hadn’t trashed the hotel room…?

Something familiar for breakfast before departing Xi'an

Something familiar for breakfast before departing Xi’an

Our itinerary involved another bullet train to Beijing and, from there, a coach straight out to a guesthouse by the Great Wall.

Whereas we’d arrived at Xi’an Main Station, in the heart of the city, we departed from Xi’an North, a large and modern station a few miles from the centre. Very much like a modern airline terminal, it’s spacious and brightly lit and a definite improvement on the Shanghai Central station we departed on Tuesday. As we hadn’t had time for breakfast at the hotel, almost the entire group headed to McDonalds for breakfast. I can report the consensus was that the Sausage & Egg McMuffins have a stronger, saltier flavour in China – and that Fries and Hash Browns aren’t normally available at fast food outlets. Continue reading


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