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China, an incredible experience

by Freda Bouskoutas  from Australia

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Famous view. The Skyline of Shanghai from The Bund by Freda Bouskoutas

China may have a reputation of having one of the most polluted cities in the world but don’t let that stop you from experiencing a different side of life….

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Chinese proverb

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Shanghai City street by Freda Bouskoutas

Beijing Hutongs

Hutongs are small streets, narrow alleyways active with suburban life and filled with traditional Chinese courtyards that date back some 700 years.

Found in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Beijing, walking through a Hutong is like stepping into a different era.

They have a strong sense of community where families have lived for generations, varying in size and length and some range from 40 centimetres to 10 metres wide.

Each Hutong has its own name, generally named after a landmark, location, business or even named after people. Before there were sign posts each name was passed around by word of mouth.

They began their life around the Forbidden City, where residents were divided by class, higher social class lived closer to the palace and commoners, labourers and merchants were located further away.

The oldest Hutong in Beijing dates back to the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century.

During the 1950s the number of Hutongs rose to 6000, however since then many have disappeared or have been replaced.

They are a dying breed as many are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. Many feel these changes are contributing to a loss of community. However over the past few years some have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this part of Chinese cultural history.

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Beijing Hutong Street by Freda Bouskoutas

Shanghai Marriage Markets

Every weekend parents of single children get together in Shanghai’s Peoples Park in hope of finding a match for their child.

They display, usually on umbrellas, cards with their child’s biography sometimes including photographs. Parents advertise their height, age, income and education amongst other things.

The event takes place rain, hail or shine with parents determined no matter what to find their offspring a suitable partner, with or without their child’s consent.

The success rate remains low however this does not deter the parents. Most return for months to years in hope to marry off their children before they reach thirty.

Such events seem to be the by-product of China’s one child policy. Changes in the policy have recently been made however its impact may be a little too late with reports suggesting that by 2020 men will outnumber women in China by 24 million.

It’s an interesting way to spend some time in Shanghai and witness some of the effects Chairman Mao’s policies have inadvertently created.

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Shanghai Marriage Market, mothers waiting to find the perfect match for their childs by Freda Bouskoutas

Get lost in a market maze  

Get lost in a maze of stalls and people, from the night markets in Xian to the narrow alleys of Beijing markets. Have a taste for all things creepy crawly? Try Beijing’s Donghuamen Night Market or Wangfujing Food Street.

Here you can taste a variety of strange foods such as scorpions, spiders, silkworm cocoons, centipedes and starfish. If that’s not your thing you can play it safe with dumplings or a deliciously colourful skewer of fruit.

In Xian, after spending the day with the Terracotta Warriors, experience another side of the city at the night markets, with its neon lights and vibrant atmosphere it’s a cultural treat.

Stroll through Beiyuanmen Night Markets and watch as they knead dough, roll cigarettes or demonstrate finger painting. Try noodles, roasted mutton or pork dumplings.

Then head down into the Muslim Quarter Markets with various food stalls selling sweet cakes, walnuts or various BBQ meats on skewers.

If it’s souvenirs you are after you can get yourself some chopsticks, terracotta warrior figurines, scarves, plush panda toys, finger paintings as well as many, many knick knacks, be prepared to haggle for a bargain.

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Beijing food markets by Freda Bouskoutas

Venice of the East 

Visit Xitang Water Town for canals, gondolas and long and winding alleyways. A thousand years of history with charm of the old days it’s like stepping back into ancient China.

Wander through maze like walkways, with the widest being 110cm and the narrowest 80cm get ready for some push and shove.

Beautifully photogenic, grab a bite at any of the food stalls from dumplings to chicken feet or visit one of the gardens or museums hidden in the tiny corridors.

This ancient town was built in the Ming and Qing dynasties and still retains historical buildings from those eras with 9 waterways across 8 areas and approximately 104 bridges.

Fun fact -Xitang water town was featured in Mission Impossible III.

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One of the many bridges found in Xitan Water Town by Freda Bouskoutas

Forbidden City

Opulent and extravagant, the Forbidden City is considered one of the world’s top 5 important palaces.

Today 600 years old The Forbidden City commenced construction in 1406 and was completed in 1420. It housed 24 emperors from the Ming and Qing dynasties and was home to emperors, empresses, concubines and eunuchs.

Built as a replica on the idea of the Purple Palace where many believed God lived in Heaven, the palace was anything but Heaven with several rebellions and fires.

It may have been more of a prison for the people on the inside as not many were allowed to enter or exit including the emperor. Many of the 8,000 to 10,000 maids and servants spent their entire lives within the palace grounds.

It ceased being a home for emperors in 1912 after the abdication of the last emperor, 5-year-old Puyi.

There are 9,999 rooms and 13,844 dragon images throughout the palace and is surrounded by a moat where you can see locals fishing at all times of the day.

It is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions with about 15 million a year walking through its gates, so much so a limit has been imposed to 80,000 visitors a day.

However don’t let that deter you, its intricate designs, grand throne rooms and beautifully crafted gardens are worth the experience.

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The Forbidden City by Freda Bouskoutas

Pandas

Native to China what’s a visit if you don’t see a panda! Visit Beijing zoo to get a view of them doing their panda thing, which is pretty much just sleeping and eating.

Here you can see the famous Gu Gu, the panda who has made headlines around the world for having a taste for legs. From 2006 to 2009 in three separate incidents, three men have entered his enclosure in Beijing zoo and all were greeted with Gu Gu snacking on their legs, one even had to be pried off as he wouldn’t let go – ouch!

These cute and cuddly bears are endangered with an estimated 1800 left living in the wild and approx 300 captive pandas throughout China zoos. The Chinese government have stepped up the effort to save the panda with the installation of various research and conservation projects as well as parks dedicated to preserving the habitat of the panda.

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Panda enjoying some bamboo in Beijing zoo by Freda Bouskoutas

Terracotta Warriors

Sometimes people doing ordinary things discover extraordinary things.

In 1974 local farmers digging up a well stumbled upon some clay pottery and called local authorities.

The find turned out to be one of China’s greatest discoveries and, as we now know the beginning of the Terracotta Army. These figures had lay dormant for more than 2000 years and appear to be organised into three major categories: infantry, cavalry and charioteers.

Since then more than 8000 terracotta figures have been unearthed and restored with each warrior having individual facial features.

The Terracotta warriors were the brainchild of the Emperor Qin who ruled from 246 BC with his reign lasting 35 years.

His legacy is not only attributed to the Terracotta Army but also with unifying China and creating the beginning of the Great Wall.

He ascended to the throne at the age of 13 and almost immediately ordered the construction of the Terracotta Army, to not only protect him in the afterlife but so he could also rule the heavens.

The construction lasted 38 years.

During his reign he faced several hurdles from questions of his legitimacy to the throne (his mother was a concubine and rumour has it his real father was the Prince’s friend), evaded several assassination attempts and dismantled a potential coup orchestrated by his mother, stepfather and real father.

He waged war on the six states, defeating them however unable to defeat the North tribes he ordered the construction of a defence wall to prevent the tribes of the North invading. It is said to be the beginning of the Great Wall.

Later in his reign when he began to be consumed by the fear of death he sought out the Elixir of Life, a remedy meant to allow you to live forever.

Ironically it was his morbid fear of death that killed him, he passed away after ingesting mercury pills, which were meant to make him immortal.

In 1987 UNESCO listed the Terracotta Warriors as one of the world’s cultural heritages.

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The Terracotta Warriors. Each warrior has individual facial traits by Freda Bouskoutas

The Great Wall

Its been called the greatest human feat in history and Chairman Mao once proclaimed “He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man”, in Australia it is known for keeping the rabbits out.

More than 2,000 years old, The Great Wall is the world’s longest wall even though many sections are now in ruins or have disappeared.

Its grand architecture makes this one of China’s most appealing attractions with over 10 million visitors each year.

Stretching across rugged countryside and mountains with beautiful scenery it is approx 21,196 kilometres from east to west making it the largest man made structure on Earth. Only a handful of people are said to have walked its entire length taking approximately 18 months.

The wall was first built 656 BC and is the project of many dynasties building on and restoring previous efforts.

Majority of what you see today was built or restored by the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).

It was constructed by farmers, peasants, prisoners and soldiers, many of whom died building the wall with most being worked to death and buried inside the wall.

A military defence against invading forces it is made up of barrier walls, battlement walls, watchtowers, gun emplacements, shooting holes, horse – blocking walls and branch cities.

There are 10 sections of the wall you can visit, each having its own unique experience:

Badaling – this is the most popular section and is always very crowded. It is the best-preserved and complete section and not as steep as other sections.

Mutianyu – this section is fully restored and preserved.

Juyongguan Pass – surrounding the then capital of Beijing, this section of the wall is famous for its infiltration by Genghis Khan and his troops.

Simatai – steep and beautiful, showcases different characteristics of the wall in its original state.

Jinshanling – this is ideal if you wish to experience the wall with only a handful of tourists. Half restored and half original. It is said to be the most beautiful section.

Gubeikou – this section remains unrestored. Due to its location with the North many battles occurred here.

Huanghuacheng – situated on a lake, some parts of the wall are immersed in water. Get a view of both land and water.

Jiankou – completely unrestored this is the most steep and rugged of all sections, has been said to be the most dangerous section to trek.

Huangyaguan – The Great Wall Marathon is held here each May.

Shanhai – this is where the wall meets the sea.

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The Great Wall of China by Freda Bouskoutas

The other wall – Xian Ancient City Wall 

Not as well known as the Great Wall, Xian Ancient City Wall is the understated, underestimated sibling.

In 1370 AD the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang was urged by a hermit to “build high walls, store abundant provisions and take you time in proclaiming yourself emperor”. Taking on this advice the emperor began restoring; improving and expanding the old Tang Dynasty structure.

It was built between 1374 AD and 1378 AD. It stands at 12 metres high, 15 metres wide and is 14 kilometres long making it the largest and most complete surviving ancient city wall in china. It includes a moat, gates, tunnels, watchtowers and battlements.

Built around the city of Xian it is a beautiful blend of modern and ancient China.

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The gates of Xian Ancient Wall by Freda Bouskoutas

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is a city square found in the middle of Beijing. It is named after the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”

It is home to Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

A number of important events have taken place at the square including the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the 1949 proclamation of Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic of China and the 1976 protests, which forced changes in leadership.

However of all these things the square perhaps will forever be synonymous for the infamous 1989 Pro democracy movement.

The protest rose out of frustration with the restrictions of the communist political party beginning with the death of Hu Yaobang whose views on political reform spoke to the future generations of China.

Students demonstrated their right to democracy and freedom of speech for over a month at the square before the Government saw this as a counter-revolutionary riot and claimed martial law. This was brutally enforced resulting in the death of hundreds to thousands of unarmed students and civilians.

Perhaps the most iconic image associated with the protests is the image of Tank Man. An unidentified man who stood defiantly in front of army tanks, temporarily stopping them.

Still to this day his identity remains a mystery. However his defiant act is known worldwide and he is perhaps the most famous anonymous person in the world. His image forever an icon of rebellion.

It becomes apparent that freedom of speech has a long way to go as China continues to enforce their strict censorship laws when as a tourist we are told not to ask about 1989 by our tour guide, as he is not permitted to talk about the event.

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Tourists stroll through Tiananmen Square by Freda Bouskoutas

 Shanghai’s The Bund

Home to dozens of historical buildings, it houses Shanghai’s most popular landmarks and 52 buildings of various architectural styles.

It started its life as a muddy narrow alleyway, and then in 1846 it began to take on new life after it was established as a trading port. Streets began to be paved and commercial buildings were constructed.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries it became the major financial and political hub of Shanghai. It was known as China’s Wall Street behind London and New York.

By the 1970s due to China’s economic policies many of the buildings were repurposed into government buildings, departments and storage facilities. Furnishings were sold off or destroyed and architectural features covered.

In the 1990s The Bund again took on new life, with the revitalization of Shanghai and its purpose was renewed.

After a 33 month long upgrade the bund was finally re-opened to the public in 2010.

It is surrounded by many famous Shanghai landmarks such as the Monument to the People’s Heroes and The Bund Bull.

Across the river is the Pudong district, the financial hub of Shanghai. The most fun way to get there is through the Bund Sightseeing tunnel, which includes a light show. Here you can see the Jin Mao Tower, World Finance Centre, Oriental Pearl Tower, the Shanghai Tower (which is currently the tallest building in China and the 3rd tallest in the world), the Shanghai World Financial Centre (the world’s 8th tallest building) and also the newly created Shanghai Disney Resort.

Strolling across The Bund you can view early morning tai chi classes; wedding shoots and take the iconic photo of Shanghai’s skyline across the Huangpu River.

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Shanghai the Bund by Freda Bouskoutas
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