Most westerners were given a glimpse of Beijing's unique architecture during the Olympics; the bird's nest and water cube are the most architecturally stunning and technically engineered permanent structures that remain. However, those images failed to convey the cleanliness and floral beauty of the host country. Today the straw-wrapped trees [a trick to conserve moisture], flower-filled baskets, and foliage-filled medians dress the entire landscape.
The Chinese love the colour red. They believe it brings them luck and prosperity and it is everywhere: red and gold shine throughout Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City's palace.
Built between 1750-1764, during the Qing Dynasty, the Summer Palace boasts the largest imperial garden in China. Situated on a lake, its use of rocks, plants, pavilions, ponds and covered walkways provide a taste of history and a photographer's delight.
The brilliant blue Temple of Heaven, constructed from 1406 to 1420, is where the Emperor prayed each winter for good weather and crops: if they failed, so could his reign. The entire structure uses numbers. For example, the number nine, considered the most powerful digit: nine slabs are used to form the temple's circular altar. Pillars and columns represent days and months. In order to appreciate these structures fully, study their history prior to visiting the site.
Beijing, once called Peking, is the capital city and known as "Old China." Highlights include a trek along the grey-stoned Great Wall and sitting back in a red rickshaw while a smiling guide peddles you through a Hutong (lanes and alleys) formed by lines of siheyuan, a typical form of Chinese architecture where houses surround a courtyard. This tour gives visitors a taste of old Beijing, including a visit inside a siheyuan.
Shoppers and souvenir hunters will want to visit a cloisonné workshop to watch this ancient art form in action. Cloisonné refers to a decorative or ornamental enamelwork where delicate thin wires of gold, silver, brass or copper are fused to a metal plate in the form of a design. The cells in the design or cloisonnés are filled with vitreous enamel. Thin metal wire or metal strips separate each compartment or coloured area. A paste form of enamel is heated to join the enamel to the surface resulting in high gloss products from glowing jewelry to magnificent vases.
Before departing the city, restaurant connoisseurs must feast on Peking duck, a true delicacy especially the crispy skin, Beijing dumplings and the ever-popular dim sum, a treasure trove of steamed surprises.
A two-hour flight to Wuhan with its 60 universities makes this city the "educational centre" of China. A highlight is exploring the Provincial Museum, where 200,000 cultural relics from intricately painted pottery, jade carvings and bronze vessels are on display. Also featured are the Bianzhong bells, which were unearthed in 1978 from the 2,400-year-old tomb of "Marquis" Yi along with a 125-piece orchestra and 25 musicians. Costumed musicians play a replica of the chimes daily.
The Yangtze River, which originates in Tibet, is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world; enjoy a tour of the Yangtze Three Gorges from YiChang to Chongqing or Shanghai. The riverboats are comfortable and the food is fantastic while navigating down a long gorge guarded by stone cliffs. In 1994, the gorge was flooded to begin work on the Three Gorges Dam, which resulted in controversy and concern for inhabitants who lived along the river. Today, over 80,000 have been relocated either higher up the cliffs or on farmland. One of the cliff walls supports a lone Ba hanging coffin – an ancient ethnic Chinese custom of placing the dead body in a coffin and hanging it over a precipice.
Changing to a sampan, a small flat-bottomed Chinese boat crewed by five glistening oarsmen, we traverse the Shennong Stream where we are delighted to see golden-haired monkeys bathing in the clear water. All along the riverbanks, next to forgotten tombs, caves and foliage, cliff swallows build their nests. Stone steps and crumbling walls disappear into cobalt waters. The sound of a flute fills the air; perched at the entrance to a cave sits a man in blue joyfully serenading nature. When the water becomes shallow, the oarsmen hop onto the riverbank and with bamboo ropes pull the vessel through the narrows.
Back aboard the cruise ship *Sunshine*, we make our way to foreboding Fengdu, "the Ghost City" land of spirits. There are 75 Buddha and Tao temples in the town of Fengdu, most of them gathered on a famous hill named Ming Mountain, the legendary Taoist spirit world. Grotesque statues border temple entrances where displays of hideous tortures keep flash bulbs popping and children hiding in their mother's skirts.
Travellers disembark in Chongqing and fly to Xian for a quick walk through the most famous Buddhist pagoda built in 589 AD - the Wild Goose Temple. It is a land of red and gold. The sweet aroma of incense permeates the air as worshippers bow and pray before temple gates. Big Buddha, an 18-metre-high statue carved from one magnificent sandalwood tree, is stunning, as are an array of Buddhist sculptures throughout the pagodas.
Next stop, the incredible Terra-Cotta Museum: touted as the biggest on-site museum in China. In 1974, farmers drilling wells in search of water came upon pottery fragments and bronze weapons. The find was immediately reported to government officials and an archaeological team deployed to unearth an army of 7,000 plus soldiers, horses and chariots, birds and even some construction workers who were buried alive while guarding Emperor Qin's tomb since 210 BC. Today, a work in progress, the excavation and reconstruction continues. Visitors are encouraged to purchase the book *The Qin Dynasty Terra-cotta Army of Dreams* in the museum gift shop, where the farmer who discovered it all sits waiting to autograph each copy. The contents of this publication are not only enlightening but also contain a fascinating history.
On to Suzhou and the silk market where the life cycle of the silkworm is explained as we listen to the worms crunching mulberry leaves. We learn the intricacies of removing worms from cocoons, spinning and weaving hair-thin threads and lastly a shoppers delight browsing silk products from clothing to lighter-than-air duvets. The stretching of silk fibres for the duvets is an experience unto itself and definitely not for the feeble.
The Master of Nets garden is breathtaking, as are the residential buildings within. Imagine sitting overlooking a pond of lotus blossoms listening to each raindrop's song on the lush green leaves while a curtain of pearls cascades from a nearby roof and you, sipping green tea, compose one poem after another.
Words cannot describe the artisanship at the Embroidery Institute, where one piece of cloth with two very different designs on opposite sides is pure magic.
Visit the Zhujiajiao Watertown, China's Venice, complete with boat cruises and local shops. This tour gives one a real insight into everyday living as we peek inside shops and cafes.
Finally, Shanghai, China's city of the future: 20 years ago, much of the land was a rice paddy. Today, construction cranes work endlessly building futuristic high-rise homes, hotels, restaurants and work places for the city's nearly 19 million people. The construction crane is now the official bird of Shanghai. Ride the elevator in the 88-stories JinMao Tower at 30 feet per second and not feel a thing. See the Oriental Pearl Tower lit at night as you stroll the Bund and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Shanghai. Plan to return, as this city is a tourist's dream well worth exploring.
This taste of China's engineering, technology and natural beauty is only a chopstick's view of a vast evolving country. A little pre-tour net surfing into one's itinerary is highly recommended as this country's history and culture is far beyond the retention of any tourist's mind.
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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