Our Trans-Mongolian railway adventure came to an end as we reached Beijing after traversing 8000km, 3 countries and 5 timezones in, quite frankly, an absurdly short period of time. An unforgettable, inimitable experience, no doubt. One I wouldn’t change for the world but probably wouldn’t look to repeat in an immediate return journey!
Stepping gingerly but gratefully off the carriage and onto the platform in the Chinese capital, we felt a little bit like vampire commuters trying to become human again, blinking in the natural light and adjusting to the lack of momentum. A great sense of achievement (albeit, admittedly, for something quite useless) and relief washed over us in equal measure. I’d wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway for longer than a decade and it was brilliant to be able to say I’d finally done it. Not just as a typical traveller ticking-off exercise, but more the satisfaction that comes with having first-hand memories from one of the most vast, remote and under-visited places on the planet.
G & I had a couple of final days together in Beijing before he returned home. Luckily, I wasn’t on my lonesome for long as mother, the infamous Carol Ross, arrived on a flight pretty much exactly as G departed.
Mum & I only had about 10 days together but packed in an impressive whirlwind tour of Central-East China. Rather than bore you all with a standard chronological recounting of our time in the country, I have decided instead to focus on one highlight from each of the places we visited. Travelling with mother dearest is something I am hugely grateful to be able to do – it is so lovely to see new places and create novel memories together. She also makes me laugh a lot. I hope on most occasions we are laughing together rather than me laughing at her. However, I will let you be your own judge of this as I will preface each of the highlight sections below with an amusing Carol anecdote (forgive me, mother…).
Beijing – Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
What Carol did
On our initial arrival at Tiananmen Square, I began one of my typical lengthy quasi-intellectual poorly-informed diatribes. This time focused on the chequered history of this location, the rise to power of Chairman Mao, the millions who starved during his reign, the massacre of students in the square, how the repression of the populace continues to this day and how these horrors are still reflected and evident in the multitude of soldiers positioned at key entry points and throughout the square. Carol’s response: “Hmmmm, yes, but they do look lovely and smart”
All visits to Beijing should really start at Tiananmen Square – the best place for a window onto the tumultuous recent history of China. The area is intimidating in its vastness (covering 109 acres in all) and flanked on all sides by imposing grandiosely-titled communist buildings (including the Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao). On the day of our visit the area was smothered by a heavy smog, one of the more unfortunate common characteristics in many Chinese cities – unbridled and unregulated pollution creating a quite literally poisonous atmosphere that can make your eyes raw and throat sting.
|Tiananmen Square through the smog|
For a deeper historical foray into ancient China, you only need to take a few steps North from Tiananmen Square and into the neighbouring Forbidden City. Built in the early 15th century during the Ming dynasty the complex is so-named as it was strictly off-limits for the general public and only open to the emperor, his family and carefully selected cronies and eunuchs. Incredibly, the palaces within the city functioned as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government for a full 500 years, only ceasing to fulfil this role at the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. In a country
where many important historical and religious relics were destroyed during Mao’s devastating ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the 1960/70s, it is a great relief that the Forbidden City has remained largely safe and intact. An astonishing, well-preserved historical bonanza with 980 buildings, numerous great halls and courts, a moat and artificial river running through the centre, all connected via a maze of interlocking alleyways. UNESCO has recognised for many years the importance of this site to World Heritage and decreed it to be the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
|Forbidden City Palace|
My own personal highlight of Beijing, and perhaps China-wide, was the incredible food the country has to offer. Cooking is an art-form here and all chefs from those working in tiny roadside shacks to the heads of internationally-lauded high-class restaurants are truly miracle workers with the astonishing variety and strength of flavours they can create from the fabulous herbs, spices and other ingredients at their fingertips. Each menu is the length of a novel that requires serious contemplation from you and your dining companions. And you do need companions – Chinese food is made to be shared. There are so many irresistible dishes available that you need a large group to allow you to order it all and sample everything on offer. As G & I and mother & I found out during our trips – you can’t help but order enough food for six even when there are only two of you. We ate like such disgusting pigs. Blissful gluttony.
|Forbidden City Courtyard|
Datong – The Hanging Monastery and Yungang Grottoes
What Carol did
We only had one night in Datong with an early train to Pingyao the following morning. Heavy traffic and the unpredictable availability of taxis means that there is a need to leave plenty of time when you have somewhere urgent to be. However, despite this impetus to get moving ASAP and my strong innate need to be super early for all transport, the incredible skimpiness of the outfit in which Carol emerged from her room – a pair of hot pants and vest more suitable for a Spring Break beach party then an early morning train in a conservative communist state – meant that I gently suggested we could maybe actually leave in another five minutes if she wanted to consider changing. We really have gone full circle when I’m telling my mother she “Can’t go out wearing that!”.
Datong is probably the least-touristic town we visited in China and it was refreshing to get off the
well-beaten track for a while. There isn’t much to see in the town itself as the main reason for visiting sits outside the city limits. In fact, there are two reasons really – the Hanging Monastery of Xuankong (40 miles southeast of Datong) and the Yungang Grottoes (10 miles east). First stop for us was the monastery. On initial sighting across a river in the valley bottom, it looks like an architectural impossibility – precariously perched 75 metres up a sheer cliff-face, seemingly suspended in mid-air. This feeling only amplifies as you approach the steps hewn from the natural rocks and begin to ascend into the temple itself. Not an attraction to be enjoyed without something of a head for heights! Incredibly the temple was constructed over 1500 years ago, legend says single-handedly by a monk named Liaoran, and is the only religious building that still exists in the country with a combination of all three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Mesmerised by the hanging temples, we assumed our day had already reached its peak. That is until
we began to explore the Yungang Grottoes – a bewildering complex of 53 caves adorned with over 50,000 Buddhist carvings and statues from the 5th and 6th centuries. The size and scale of the sculptures, the time, patience, dedication and effort required to create them – all genuinely mind-blowing to contemplate. Each new cave we entered, a palpable sense of wonder and anticipation. No matter how long you spent taking in the spectacular artworks in the previous grotto, the next one never failed to take your breath away all over again. The main Buddha sculptures are huge (up to 17m tall). Often, after glimpsing part of the work through the cave entranceway, you wouldn’t realise what this huge chunk of rock depicted, until approaching a bit closer the viewpoint widened to reveal that this was in fact just the foot of a full Buddha. The epic sense of time passed across the centuries since these sculptures were first chipped and chiselled into being is enhanced thanks to the policy of not renovating or repairing the works that have been exposed to the elements and badly deteriorated over the years. The result being that many of the statues are in a slow and steady state of decline – cracked, faded and broken. This only adds to the all-encompassing sense of awe as you walk through the various caves and across the centuries past. Such a feeling seems very fitting for a religion that teaches the impermanence of all things. In summary: GO visit the Yungang Grottoes.... while you still can! :)
|Rundown Buddha Statue|
What Carol did
Just a brief mum-ecdote here – on returning late one night to our lovely hotel, Carol was infuriated to find that there had been a power cut in her room meaning both the lights and the electric shower were inoperable. Rousing the apologetic night warden, the situation was promptly fixed when he entered the room and pointed out the electronic keycard had fallen out of the power slot.
We didn’t do a huge amount in Pingyao, but that was exactly what made it so perfect. After the
relentless pace of our first few days in China, we needed somewhere for a bit of R&R. This is something the city can definitely deliver. The main attraction of Pingyao is simply being there – more specifically, within the walls of the Old Town. The walls were first constructed in the early 14th century and today Pingyao can boast to having the best-preserved and most complete walled Old Town in China with 100+ narrow streets and lanes lined with 4000 historical shops and residences. We spent our time here slowly wandering the cobbled walkways, sampling tasty local treats and avoiding the millions of domestic tourists all attempting to shelter from the rain under umbrellas wielded at perfect eye-gouging height. Note for the future: Avoid Pingyao on a weekend, especially if it’s raining! The town really comes into its own after nightfall, as the traditional shopfronts are bathed in a moody red glow from the lanterns that festoon every building. A magical place to wander and soak up the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of China’s past. Sensory overload in a time capsule. Wonderful.
|Pingyao by night|
Xian – Terracotta Army
|Carol in Pingyao|
What Carol did
Two quick tales for you here: 1) On arrival in Xian, Carol discovered that one of her bras had gone missing during the laundry run we did in Pingyao. Rather than discretely letting me know this unfortunate lingerie mishap, mum shouted down the hotel corridor that her bra was missing and suggested we contact the previous hotel and get them to post it to us! 2) Our budget hotel offered a ‘free beer welcome drink’. When they came to our table with the small cheap bottles, Carol’s cunning eye spotted that they were actually cider which is not what was promised in the hotel literature and demanded that the receptionist honoured the offer correctly. End result is that we got a litre of imported beer each that probably cost the hotel more than we paid for our rooms.
Xian is the 9th biggest city in China with plenty to offer, but in reality everyone comes here for one
reason only – the Terracotta Army. Truly a wonder of the world, the army is a huge collection of life-size terracotta sculptures that were buried with the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, around 200BC. There are over 8000 figures in total including acrobats, musicians, officials, horses and chariots as well as the well-known warriors whose purpose was to continue to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The entire mausoleum complex is so large (covering nearly 100 square kilometres!) that construction started as soon as the emperor ascended to the throne aged 13 with over 700,000 workers involved in the project. Soon after its completion and Emperor Qin’s internment, the entire necropolis was lost to the winds of time and forgotten about until it’s rediscovery in 1974. Local farmers digging for a well stumbled across a few pottery fragments, prompting further investigation. After 2200 years sealed unknown and underground, the Terracotta Army was rediscovered. It’s enough to send a shiver down even the most historically apathetic of spines. If you’re still resisting the wonder, the fact that the main tomb of Emperor Qin still remains completely unexcavated to this day may be enough to tip you over the edge.
His tomb is located under and built within a 76-meter mound of earth (shaped like a pyramid – hello, Ancient Egypt!). The layout is modelled on the ancient Qin capital Xianyang and divided into inner and outer cities. An accurate, underground microcosm of the Emperor’s empire and palace – a replica of his world to take from real life to the afterlife. The possibilities of what is still left to discover here are endlessly exciting with unimaginable treasures just waiting to be revealed. They remain tantalisingly out of reach however, due to concerns over the resilience of the artefacts inside and what may happen to them if the hermitically sealed tomb is breached. Harsh lessons were learnt during the excavation of the Terracotta Army where the painted surfaces of the sculptures began to curl within 15 seconds of being exposed to the modern dry air of Xian, and completely disintegrated within minutes. The Terracotta Warriors seen today are all plain red-brown clay, but we know they were originally painted with bright pigments, variously coloured pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac. Perhaps Qin’s tomb should remain sealed and undisturbed. It’s a beautifully agonising conundrum, to know that the only way to keep something perfectly preserved is to resist laying eyes upon it.
|Terracotta Warriors in formation|
|Terracotta Warriors ready for action|
Bonus ‘What Carol did’
This blog has gone on long enough, so I’m going to skip recounting much about our time in Shanghai (although, I would recommend a visit if you are following a similar itinerary to us; the futuristic sky-scraper scattered skyline, pleasant waterfront promenade and impeccably-clean streets provide a great insight into modern-day China and a stark contrast to the ancient historical attractions focused on up to now). Instead, to finish on a high, here’s one final Carol-ecdote to see you on your way....
While taking respite from the hectic city by meandering through the Ming Dynasty oasis of pavilions, ponds and rockeries that make up Yu Garden, we passed a cute, bespectacled, cheerful young Chinese girl. I commented that her appearance was incredibly reminiscent of the girl from Little Miss Sunshine. Carol initially concurred, but after giving it a moment’s thought, challenged my initial assumption saying she wasn’t actually sure she looked that much like Little Miss Sunshine. Cue a long debate back and forth that only ended when Carol also observed that she was surprised a feature-length film about Little Miss Sunshine had been made and admitted she hadn’t seen it herself. The penny finally dropped and I realised mother thought I was comparing the appearance of a small human girl to the bright-yellow no-bodied drawing of Little Miss Sunshine from Roger Hargreaves popular children’s books rather than the actual human character from the film of the same name. By this point, the child who was the focus of our debate was long gone and Carol couldn’t remember what she looked like so we never did find out if there was agreement between us regarding her similarity to the girl from Little Miss Sunshine. If this was exhausting to read, imagine actually being there.
|Little Miss Sunshine (Roger Hargreaves illustration) & Little Miss Sunshine (real life human girl from the film)|
Now, here's some more China snaps... You're ruddy welcome!
|Chairman Mao cross-stitch|
|Chairman Mao still revered|
|Carol limbers up...|
|View down from the Hanging Monastery|
|Yungang Cave entrance with Buddha hands on show|
|Pingyao by night|
|Pingyao by night|
|Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian|
|Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian|
|Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian|
|Street Scene in Xian|
|Terracotta Army with Horses|
|Headless Terracotta Warrior|
|Carol in bloom|
|Great Wall of Carol|
|Great Wall of Carol|