CHINA: THE WALLS OF HIS­TORY

Two vis­its with a decade in be­tween, shows what has changed and what hasn’t in Bei­jing.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY FLASH PARKER

Two vis­its with a decade in be­tween, shows what has changed and what hasn’t in Bei­jing.

Apart of me is de­fined by China. I’m de­fined by crum­bling ram­parts and an­ti­quated fortresses, bub­bling vats of culi­nary wiz­ardry, his­tor­i­cal cache and mod­ern vigour, im­pos­si­ble vast­ness and seething crowds.

China be­came a part of my char­ac­ter when I first vis­ited Bei­jing back in 2008; sent to ex­plore the great red dragon on my first of­fi­cial travel as­sign­ment. What I saw, what I learned and what I ex­pe­ri­enced changed for­ever the way I live, work, and play.

I’ll never for­get tak­ing an­cient step af­ter an­cient step at the Great Wall, sur­vey­ing from the bat­tle­ments the en­tirety of a con­ti­nent, and won­der­ing if I would ever again feel so free. I re­mem­ber how nearly ev­ery stranger smiled, waved, or shook my hand, break­ing down my pre­con­ceived no­tions of strangers in strange places in the process. I re­mem­ber wan­der­ing im­pos­si­bly sprawl­ing mar­kets, buy­ing knock off watches and knock off hats that would fall apart and melt in the rain, re­spec­tively.

And I re­mem­ber slip­ping into a tiny hu­tong café to sip yak milk tea, wan­der­ing Wang­fu­jing Street Mar­ket into the night, and rev­el­ling in the sen­sory as­sault of what was then the most far­away land I could imag­ine. My as­sign­ment was a small one for a small re­gional mag­a­zine with an even smaller au­di­ence, but it per­suaded me to think big. It was my first visit to Asia, my first time in a sea of un­fa­mil­iar faces, and the most rev­e­la­tory ex­pe­ri­ence of my life.

Some 70 coun­tries later, and count­less as­sign­ments into my ca­reer, I still look back fondly at China for what it taught me about travel, and what I learned about my­self. When Goway Travel came calling and asked if I would ven­ture east with them on an ex­pe­ri­en­tial odyssey from Bei­jing to Shang­hai, I hes­i­tated. I won­dered how the years be­tween vis­its had coloured my vi­sion of China: how could a des­ti­na­tion that had be­come al­most leg­endary in my mind live up to my out­sized ex­pec­ta­tions? I ac­qui­esced. I was ready to dis­cover whether or not China could again turn my life up­side down.

Bei­jing was dif­fer­ent from the be­gin­ning. Sure, the city it­self seemed the same – it’s dif­fi­cult to change a way of life thou­sands of years in the mak­ing in less than a decade – and the sights, sounds, and smells were sim­i­lar. But I had changed sig­nif­i­cantly since my last visit.

My first day in Bei­jing, I was whisked out of town and de­liv­ered to the Jin­shan­ling sec­tion of the Great Wall, in ru­ral Luan­ping County, He­bei Prov­ince, some 80 miles from Bei­jing proper. Jin­shan­ling and nearby Si­matai are vis­ited less fre­quently than sec­tions of the wall closer to Bei­jing. They’re also known for sen­sa­tional moun­tain scenery, and the state of preser­va­tion of the wall it­self. That same wave of awe I knew years ago washed over me as I looked out over the ser­pen­tine spine of the wall as it slith­ered through the coun­try­side, and I was charged by the good for­tune that has brought me back to this most re­mark­able place.

Where once I was happy sim­ply to travel, now I was struck by the spec­ta­cle of the mo­ment, and the might of the des­ti­na­tion. A Tues­day af­ter­noon in June, the wall was void of vis­i­tors; it was mine to dis­cover, and as I ex­plored tow­ers and for­ti­fi­ca­tions and crum­bling bits of his­tory, I won­dered where else China would re­flect my own changes.

Craft cock­tails at the W Ho­tel; a few pints of Ger­man pilsner in the gar­den at the New Otani Changfu­gong Ho­tel (be­cause ap­par­ently Ger­man beer is some­thing you’re sup­posed to drink when vis­it­ing Bei­jing); a few sips of lo­cal fire­wa­ter pro­cured from a street ven­dor’s rolling apothe­cary cart: this is how I primed my­self for ex­plo­ration when back in Bei­jing.

I wan­dered the end­less fer­ret war­rens of hu­tongs (nar­row al­ley­ways cre­ated when tra­di­tional court­yard homes were built ad­ja­cent one an­other) near beau­ti­ful Houhai Lake, my cam­era primed by at­mo­spheric mar­vels and cu­ri­ous lo­cals. I was sur­prised with a lunch with a lo­cal fam­ily, where I learned a lit­tle of what it’s like to live tucked in tight with a few mil­lion of your clos­est friends; how truly ter­ri­ble I am at hand-craft­ing dumplings; and that I know vir­tu­ally noth­ing about mak­ing the per­fect cup of tea. It was an en­liven­ing ex­pe­ri­ence I wouldn’t have oth­er­wise had ac­cess to, and it broad­ened my scope on what life is like in ever-bustling Bei­jing.

I mixed in the can’t miss at­trac­tions (For­bid­den Palace, Drum Tower, Shicha­hai Lakes), and mea­sured them against more eclec­tic at­trac­tions, like Bar Street, where I had the chance to karaoke my heart out; tug my own rick­shaw down a busy road; rub el­bows with lo­cal folk at hole-in-the-wall restau­rants; and snack on starfish and scor­pi­ons at the Wang­fu­jing Street Mar­ket, a bustling area of the Dongcheng Dis­trict that re­ver­ber­ates with the pulse of thou­sands of ex­cited ex­plor­ers.

“I looked out over the ser­pen­tine spine of the wall as it slith­ered

through the coun­try­side, and I was charged by the good for­tune that has brought me back

to this most re­mark­able place”

My trip was in­fused with an un­ex­pected cul­tural vigour, with our es­capades capped with a din­ner of leg­endary pro­por­tions at Quan­jude.

I’ve learned over the years that many of the cuisines of the world have been in­spired by the Chi­nese palate, and that nearly ev­ery city has an en­clave where the dis­cern­ing foodie can track down dowdy dumplings, unin­spired ma po tofu, or chewy chow mein, but for any­one with a pang for Pek­ing roast duck there are only two places worth men­tion­ing; Quan­jude and Biany­i­fang, two of the old­est restau­rants in the world.

One is the grail, the other Sean Con­nery. To­gether they are the Last Cru­sade of Duck. We dined late into the night, and put an ex­cla­ma­tion point on a Bei­jing ex­pe­ri­ence that proved to me a des­ti­na­tion can be what­ever it is you de­cide to make it.

We said good­bye to Bei­jing and rock­eted to­ward Hangzhou by high-speed train, where UNESCO World Her­itage Sites, the grand West Lake, strange song and dance per­for­mances and end­less other at­trac­tions waited.

Bei­jing’s mad­cap bus­tle was re­placed with a grace­ful pace; I spent evenings tour­ing the lake, af­ter­noons din­ing in style at the leg­endary Jin Sha Restau­rant at the Four Sea­sons, morn­ings in bon­sai shops and tea­houses, and even had an op­por­tu­nity to di­ag­nose my wan­der­lust at a tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine mu­seum and phar­macy (pre­scrip­tion: keep wan­der­ing).

Hangzhou, on China’s east­ern lip, is but­tressed by the wa­ters of the Qiantang River, and has been known for cen­turies as the south­ern sta­tion of the Grand Canal that be­gins in Bei­jing. The tem­ples, pago­das, gar­dens and bridges here have been the sub­ject of song and script since the 9th cen­tury; the city’s al­lur­ing verve en­dures.

We wan­dered out to the liv­ing his­tory mu­seum that is Wuzhen, an an­cient wa­ter town that op­er­ates to­day much as it did cen­turies ago. We ven­tured be­hind the scenes to a num­ber of work­shops and into tra­di­tional homes I oth­er­wise would have missed, with guides that pro­vided heady in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Wuzhen and the en­cy­clo­pe­dic his­tory of the city, and pulled back the cur­tain on one of China’s most unique his­tor­i­cal sites.

We also took time out of our day to visit the rather eclec­tic Bed Mu­seum – no lay­ing down, please – a tex­tiles fac­tory – you can wear any colour you want, so long as it’s blue – and an an­cient pawn shop – no pic­tures, please. I could write vol­umes about what I saw, ate, and ex­pe­ri­enced in Wuzhen and Hangzhou; I could wax poetic about the lan­guid oa­sis at the cen­tre of China, a des­ti­na­tion as in­spir­ing as ex­ists in East Asia, or I could sim­ply tell you im­mers­ing my­self in this wildly dif­fer­ent world, for a sec­ond time, charged me again with a de­sire to see as much as the world as I can put in front of my boots. •

Open­ing im­age: Clas­sic modes of trans­porta­tion in the al­ley­ways of Wuzhen.

Above: West Lake is one of China’s most beau­ti­ful get­away des­ti­na­tions. Right: Art and an­cient cul­ture col­lide in Hangzhou’s historic cen­tral gal­leries.

Page at left, clock­wise from top left: The pace of life slows way down in Bei­jing’s an­cient hu­tongs; The leg­endary Great Wall of China in all its glory; A glimpse from the Bund at iconic Shang­hai Tower.

Right: Tra­di­tional tex­tiles are still made by hand in time­less Wuzhen.

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