Tavel review: Beijing direct from Manchester

With direct flights now available from Manchester, the fascinating sights of Beijing are no longer too far east says Mark Casci.

Undated Handout Photo of Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. See PA Feature TRAVEL China. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout.

Whichever way you look there is an endless expanse of lush, green, rolling mountains.

I am also fairly confident the view I have from atop this particular stretch of the Great Wall of China will not have changed in the 1,500 years since it was constructed. Even on a cloudy day you can see for hundreds of miles, allowing you the unique opportunity to imagine first hand the hundreds of years worth of history it has witnessed, the thousands of invaders it has repelled and the seismic change that has been seen inside the country it was built to protect.

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Even more amazingly, this extraordinary scene is just 70 miles from the capital, Beijing.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China. See PA Feature TRAVEL Yangtse China. PA Photo/Handout.

Home to 20 million people, the city offers the chance to witness first hand some of the most crucial elements of China’s ancient and extraordinary history.

As well having this immaculately preserved section of the Great Wall within a reasonable driving distance you have the option to visit Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and a host of other, undiscovered treasures.

And now, wonderfully, you can travel to Beijing on a direct flight from Manchester Airport. The direct route has been established by Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines. Announced by leader Xi Jinping in 2015, it is expected to yield a huge benefit for businesses, universities and tourism across the North.

For such a vast city in the Far East, central Beijing does not have the gigantic skyscrapers you associate with the likes of Shanghai, Tokyo and Singapore, and indeed what strikes me almost immediately is how low-rise everything is.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beijing. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout.

This is by design.

The Forbidden City, the historical home of the Chinese emperors, is still venerated, and as such the authorities are disinclined to allow the construction of buildings which may detract from its glory.

And what glory it is.

To enter you must pass through Tiananmen, the historic gateway and an experience in itself. Dating back to the 15th century Ming Dynasty it now gives its name to the square built in the 17th century.

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China. See PA Feature TRAVEL Yangtse China. PA Photo/Handout.

It was here that the infamous massacre took place in the 1980s, it is where Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and it is also the site of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and the Mao’s Mausoleum.

All visitors must approach Tiananmen from the bottom of the square, meaning the gateway, famous in recent years for the giant portrait of Chairman Mao which sits above the doorway, looms larger and larger as you approach.

Outside, you are forced to jostle with camera-wielding tourists and mourners.

Yes mourners. During Mao’s reign, as many as 45 million people are estimated to have died from starvation.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China. See PA Feature TRAVEL Beijing. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout.

However, as I enter I see people bowing and crying before his portrait. As a well-seasoned traveller it is mind-blowing to see the effect propaganda and revisionism can have on a population.

The Forbidden City is equally fascinating. The imperial palace for China’s emperors from 1420 to 1912, it comprises hundreds of buildings and spread over 180 acres. It was here that the emperor would preside over matters of state, with admission only granted to those within the inner sanctum of government and the military, as well as his vast array of concubines.

The next day yields a unique experience, and one that takes place not far from the Forbidden City.

The Hutong is the old town of Beijing, an amazing glimpse into what the pre-industrial city looked like. Much of the Hutong was demolished following the revolution but a sizeable section remains, almost untouched by time. Narrow streets connect a series of interlinked courtyard dwellings.

We are taken to the home of a local resident who shows us how to make dumplings in his kitchen before we tuck into them. An unforgettable experience.

The real highlight, however, comes on our final day on the Great Wall. Even for those afraid of heights like myself, the thrill of scaling and ascending the undulating walls and moving through the series of guard towers is one I will never forget.

So, in an ever-evolving period of world history, the chance to the see the best of both China’s ancient and modern cultures is now just a 10-hour direct flight from Manchester.

You will not be disappointed.