Landing in Beijing, the capital, a city with over 10 million people, you are immediately confronted with all the work in progress for the 2008 Olympics; a huge new airport (2nd largest in the world after Dubai) that took less time to build than the environmental review process for a runway extension at our own airport, a stadium, aquatic centre and miles and miles of freeway.
But virtually every other part of the city is also covered with construction cranes as the ancient "hutongs" are being rapidly demolished and replaced with modern high rise buildings. They may have been a colourful and important cultural relic of the past, but the hundreds of thousands of temporarily displaced inhabitants are much happier now to be enjoying the privacy of their own apartment with all the modern conveniences of hot and cold running water, heat, and in-suite plumbing.
First stop is Tian'anmen Square, the largest public plaza in the world, an area of over 44 hectares and, the place where Chairman Mao proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The square includes the Great Hall of the People which functions as the Chinese Parliament, and the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao where, even in the freezing rain, the people line up for blocks every day to get a brief glimpse of his embalmed body. The "Great Helmsman" may have finally united China and started it on the road to modernization, but he also delayed its progress with bizarre policies like the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Cultural Revolution". There's now an attempt to de-mystify him somewhat with books for sale explaining he was only a man, not a god.
Nonetheless Mao's portrait hangs over the hearth of most homes in the countryside and, most conspicuously, over the entrance to the Forbidden City, the old imperial palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. No surprise, this is also the largest palace complex in the world with a floor space of 72 hectares and exactly 9,999 rooms, one less than the emperor of heaven. Surrounded by a 6 metre deep, 52 metre wide moat, and a 10 metre high city wall, the complex takes hours just to walk through in a straight line down the centre, never mind exploring all the various buildings and gardens along the edges.
At the entrance were, of course, the traditional guardian lions, the male holding a ball and the female holding the baby, that seemed to grace most buildings in China, government or private.
After an hour or two of scrambling up and down the pathways between some of these towers you quickly realize that patrolling the Great Wall was an excellent way of keeping the soldiers extremely fit. The vistas are even more breathtaking but, in the back of your mind you are always trying to imagine the hard labour that must have gone into building it all in the first place. The cold weather also made us wonder how they kept warm and we were thankful for the local vendors who sold us our modern day "Red Army" hats.
Not too far from the Beijing section of the Great Wall are the Ming Tombs, another massive complex encompassing 400 hectares and containing the tombs of 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty. A 7 kilometre "Spirit Way" lined with carved animals and humans leads into the temple complex that has been carefully laid out according to "Feng Shui" principles in order to deflect the bad spirits and evil winds descending from the north.
Flying now to Xian (population 8 million) at one time the ancient capital city of China, and the starting point of the Old Silk Road (a trade route network through Asia to the Mediterranean that was formally established by the Han Dynasty) this has always been considered the "cradle of Chinese civilization" and is a veritable treasure house of archeological and cultural relics. The older part of the city is completely enclosed by an enormous rectangular wall 14 kilometres long, standing 12 metres high and 16 metres wide, with sentry houses every 120 metres, complicated gate structures at the four cardinal points, and surrounded by a deep moat. It is one of the largest ancient military fortifications in the world and a great place to not only view the city, but also go for an impromptu rickshaw race.
Another beautiful structure in Xian is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple 65 metres high with a twisted staircase inside that visitors can climb to the top for a spectacular view of the city, though the pervasive smog, that appears to exist in most of China thanks to all the coal fired power stations, tends to obscure things. While China isn't a very religious country, in fact the almost complete absence of religion is probably the best example of their innate practicality, Buddhism does have some adherents, and this masterpiece of construction, with its lovely grounds, is an important holy place with a rich history amongst scholars for the translation from Sanskrit into Chinese that was carried out here during the Tang Dynasty.
But the main attraction in Xian is unquestionably the recently discovered life size terra cotta warriors standing guard over the tomb of Emperor Qin, the same person who completed the Great Wall and united China. Often called the archaeological find of the twentieth century, this tomb, containing thousands of individually sculpted warriors with their horses and chariots, is particularly striking, not just because of its sheer size, but because no two warriors faces are the same. As excavation work is still continuing nobody has any idea what else they will find but, already within the 48 square kilometre mausoleum complex there are more than 20,000 square metres of pits filled with warriors, and a tomb that is 76 metres high with a circumference of over 6,000 metres.
It took 37 years to build all this and, when you add this to all the work on the Great Wall, you can easily understand why a civil war broke out in the country after the Emperor died. The people were simply tired of all this hard construction labour and the taxes to pay for it. To keep the masses calm perhaps all they really needed was a little more of the local snake wine. Not as bad tasting as it looked, and we thought about bringing some home for the reputed health benefit of having a daily tot, but somehow we didn't think this was something we could get past the customs inspectors.
Colourful water taxis with their precariously loaded passengers and cargo would pass alongside, as would ancient looking fishermen with their trusty, well-trained, cormorant companions that happily earned their keep each evening by lantern light. Every bend in the river had another colourful sight or interesting village scene and our cameras never had a chance to rest.
It was also our first real glimpse of rural life with mile after mile of carefully manicured farms and the ubiquitous Chinese water buffalo, that favourite animal of the farmer, who only had to work a few months each year when it was time to plow the land and the rest of the time wandered around the fields in carefree oblivion.
There was also a beautiful night cruise around the lakes of Guilin, all lit up with colourful light displays and inter-connected with little replicas of famous bridges from around the world. The next day we got to see the inside of one of the limestone mountains by touring the "Reed-Flute" cave, a spectacular world of stalactites and stalagmites that in turn have produced fantastic rock formations suggestive of wild animals and lost cities. With names like "lion" and "forest under the glow of dawn", "crystal palace", and "dragon pagoda" and fully illuminated with coloured lighting, the cave feels mysterious and magical as you walk through its ever changing caverns and appreciate why it is called an "Art Gallery of Nature".
First stop was the spooky Fengdu, City of Ghosts, with its temples of underworld demons and gods. For a people who aren't concerned much with religion they are certainly a very superstitious lot with all their focus on lucky numbers, spirits, and good or bad luck.
Passing through the various Gorges of the Yangtze River we learned about the world's largest hydroelectric project, an idea first proposed by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (the father of modern China) in 1919 and delayed by various wars and other ideological struggles until 1994 with final completion scheduled for 2009. Not only will the dam provide power to Shanghai and Guangdong, it will also control the annual flooding and greatly improve navigation. Already there was an endless procession of scows and barges carrying coal and other products between Shanghai and Chongqing.
All in all an engineering project that staggers the imagination with all the logistics involved and we arrived in Wuhan still trying to absorb all the scenery we had taken in along the way and the hustle and bustle of all the river traffic we had encountered. From here we flew to Shanghai, the largest city and urban centre in China, with a metro population of 19 million. The colourful downtown with all its skyscrapers and neon lights was clearly visible from the airplane and you could feel the energy of what is obviously the most vibrant metropolis in the country. Now the largest cargo port in the world, the city also serves as one of the nation's most important cultural, commercial, financial, industrial, and communications centres.
While originally only a tiny fishing village, Shanghai's location at the mouth of the Yangtze River made it an ideal trading port within China. However, from 1757 until the start of the first Opium War in 1839, all foreign trading had to be done through Canton, now called Guangzhou. To help balance the trade deficit they had with China (from all the tea, silk, and porcelain they were importing) Britain and others were actively engaged in smuggling opium into China and had secured a very addictive and thriving business. China tried to stop this opium trade by seizing some of the opium and this started the first Opium War with Britain. China eventually lost and was forced to sign a number of unequal treaties with Britain and other European countries that gave these foreigners access to Shanghai and other ports to continue their opium trade as well as ceding Hong Kong to Britain. It also gave the foreigners rights to set up their own concessions in places like Shanghai where they could make their own laws and police themselves.
The embarrassing nature of all these unequal treaties was one of the events that helped bring about the downfall of the Qing Dynasty and ending Imperial rule in 1912 when the Republic of China was inaugurated by its first President, Sun Yat-Sen, leader of the most successful revolutionary group fighting at the time to overthrow the monarchy. Peace, however, was still a long way off and, until 1949 when the People's Republic was declared by Chairman Mao, there was nearly 100 years of gangsterism, warlords, civil war, and the occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese during World War 2 that kept things in a constant state of speculation and intrigue. All of these events have transformed Shanghai from a quiet, local, backwater to a thriving international focused city with a colourful and dramatic history that has now completely turned the table on everyone involved in those treaty port days.
Since the introduction of market reforms in the 1990's the growth in Shanghai has exploded with over 4,500 high-rise buildings being constructed, new subway lines, roads and bridges everywhere, and the world's first commercial MAGLEV railway, which transports passengers at 430 km/hr. While the often quirky design of the newest buildings demonstrates an architectural freedom unheard of back home, the main attractions are still the seawall along the Bund and the shopping on Nanjing Road. Like everywhere in China the streets are spotless and free of panhandlers.
Taking a break from all the lights and glitz we spent a day at Suzhou, "the garden city of China" with over 100 classical gardens to explore. Unlike Western gardens of flowers and lawns, these gardens are filled with intriguing rock formations, water ponds, intricate pavilions, and carefully groomed trees and shrubs. Perfectly constructed centres of calm for students and artists to write and paint and talk.
Suzhou sits on the Grand Canal, another Chinese engineering marvel completed during the Sui Dynasty. At 1,700 kilometres in length it is the longest canal or artificial river in the world and was built to facilitate trade and commerce between Beijing in the North and Hangzhou in the South. It also links the Yellow River and Yangtze River valleys. As colourful water-taxis toured us around the waterways it was easy to see why Marco Polo was so impressed when he visited here.