On an organised tour of some of China’s highlights, Leanne Rinne discovers a land of contrasts.
China is nothing if not efficient.
At the airport, when queues begin to form at passport control, extra staff hurry to open more desks. Once the other side, just after a huge “Welcome Friends” sign, Alan, our cheerful tour guide, is there to greets us. He’s waving a Travel Department flag above his head, beaming from ear to ear and treats us instantly like friends, which is just as well, considering we’re going to be spending the best part of the next 11 days with him on a tour of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai.
Before even checking in at Beijing’s five-star Four Points by Sheraton hotel, which will be our base for the first five days, the sightseeing begins, stopping off on route at the Temple of Heaven, entering the gardens through pastel-tinted pathways.
Locals come here to relax, on a typical afternoon there will be everyone from girls practising dance routines with beautiful rainbow-coloured cloth to groups of elders happily playing poker under the temple’s sleepy shadow.
Tourists also flock here to make a wish on a sacred stone, and press their ears against a “magical” wall to listen to the soft echoes of voices within.
It’s the perfect introduction to our trip and after a good night’s sleep, day two sees us taking in a string of highlights, including the famous Tiananmen Square.
Like lots of people, I’d seen it on TV and read about it in books, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. Passing soldiers in smart green and black uniforms, the iconic Tiananmen Gate, which separates the Square from the Forbidden City, is a towering presence. The Square itself still resonates with the aftermath of the 1989 protests which saw several hundred innocent civilians shot dead by the Chinese Army and it is impossible not to be moved by the sight.
We step through arching passageways, narrow corridors and majestic halls into the vast open courtyards of the Forbidden City, then walk along the old crooked cobbles, peering up at traditional statues and Chinese artwork which decorate the high walls in swirling gold patterns, emerald dragons and dark calligraphy.
China certainly has no shortage of iconic views and one of its best loved and best known has to be of the the Great Wall of China. One of the country’s – and indeed the world’s – most famous landmarks, tourists in their millions flock here to walk the wall.
We make our way to the highest fortification in sight, where the views are breathtaking and, despite the inevitable crowds, as both a feat of engineering and a testament to the country’s great history, the wall is hard to beat.
Next we travel northwest of central Beijing to the enchanting Ming Dynasty Tombs, where giant weeping willows sweep along the sides of the aptly-named “sacred way” path, which is lined with striking animal statues known as “guardians” thought to watch over you as you pass.
From the Olympic Park where the 2008 Games took place to the colossal golden Buddhas of the Lama Temple and the gardens of the romantic Summer Palace, you could spend months in Beijing and still not have time to explore every corner. However, after five days it’s time to move onto Xi’an. A short flight from Beijing, must-sees on any Xi’an itinerary include the iconic City Wall where residents exercise under bright red lanterns that hang like ripe tomatoes, the Lesser Wild Goose Pagoda, stacked high like layers on a wedding cake and of course, the Terracotta Army, dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”.
At first it looks like any other museum, but when you enter, suddenly confronted by rows of 2,000-year-old terracotta warriors and horses standing timelessly in a deep, earthy pit, you quickly realise this is something very special – the craftsmanship is so intricate it almost defies description.
On our final day in Xi’an we travel to the countryside to see a different side of China, following narrow, bumpy roads, grazing goats and farmers working in golden fields until we reach Anwu Primary School. The countryside tour is an optional part of the itinerary, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a great chance to see rural life in China, and on the way back we stop off at a local farmer’s house where we’re presented with fresh, homemade bread, and meet the village doctor who cares single-handedly for everybody in the area.
The final leg of the trip sees us boarding the world’s fastest train, the Shanghai Maglev, and shooting into the city centre at over 400mph past a swirl of skyscrapers. In Shanghai, we climb the Oriental Pearl TV Tower for views of the cosmopolitan city smouldering under the sunset.
We also visit the famous Bund waterfront, which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River and the majestic Yu Garden in the Old City of Shanghai, where beautiful flowers cluster on secret pathways and fish glisten in ponds under the midday heat.
By the end of the trip, I can hardly believe how much we’ve packed into just over a week. There are lots of benefits to doing an organised tour. Alan was full of knowledge, divulging interesting nuggets and explaining the historical significance of everything we saw.
He also always knew where the nearest toilets were (very handy!), which spots were great for taking photos, and whether or not we were being sold souvenirs at fair prices. It was hectic, but Alan also ensured there was plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and the result was a unforgettable trip through China’s treasures.
Travel Department offers worldwide escorted holidays including a choice of itineraries to China.
The 11-night Beijing, Xi’an & Shanghai holiday is available from £1,829 pp for May 24 departures from London Heathrow. Departures from Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast start from £1,899 pp. The price includes return flights, coach transfers, accommodation in five-star hotels and excursions with a tour manager. Accommodation is on half-board basis (some evening meals are in local restaurants rather than the hotels).
To book visit www.traveldepartment.co.uk or call 020 7099 9665.