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Shanghai, Xian and Beijing - Carol Mallett

Shanghai, Xian and Beijing - Carol Mallett
MAY 2007.

We flew China Eastern Airlines, economy class.
The aircraft was clean and in good condition and all flights departed either on time, or only slightly late.

The food was adequate, mainly Asian style, except for breakfast where you had a choice of Western or Asian. The movies were on central screens. On the flight to Shanghai they played two Chinese (only one sub-titled) and one English film.

Shanghai airport is huge, but there is English signage so it is easy to find your way around. It is common for departure gates to change, so passengers must frequently check the boards. Ours only changed once.


Wendy Wu Tours
We did the “China Experience” 10 day tour, as per the Wendy Wu brochure.

The Wendy Wu guides were exceptional - knowledgeable, friendly and fun. We had a national guide, who traveled with us from start to finish; as well we had local guides in Shanghai and Beijing.

The pace of the tour was quite hectic and several group members felt concern for elderly clients. However, China is not a destination where everyone would welcome free time as it can be difficult to get around on your own.

Most meals are included in Wendy Wu tours. The meals are Chinese banquet style or buffet. Overall, I thought the food was excellent. There was always a good choice so everyone found something they liked.

Shanghai
Our tour started with three nights in Shanghai. Driving into town from the airport in the evening was spectacular. The high rises of Shanghai go on forever and it looked like something out of Star Wars.

The next morning we took 2.5 hour coach trip to Wuzhen, a traditional water town built around a river delta. Most of the streets are water and people still live in the town and work surrounding farms. A house once inhabited by a very rich family is now an exhibit of old furniture and a lifestyle long gone. Wuzhen was interesting although a long day.

On the second day in Shanghai we visited all the city sights. Being a port city, Shanghai has an interesting history with a lot of European and Japanese influence. In the morning we visited the Shanghai History Museum and Yu Gardens. The Yu Gardens is very peaceful (apart from all the tourists) and around them is a bazaar of market shops selling all sorts of souvenirs.

In the afternoon we visited the Bund area. It is a street promenade along the river where many of the buildings are European, built by early bankers, merchants and hoteliers. It looks like a river promenade of a European city.

In the evening we took a cruise on the Huangpu River. This is very popular with tourists so you must get there early if traveling independently. Across the river from the Bund is East Shanghai. This part of the city has been built in the last 15 years and now houses several international hotels and shopping centres. The skyline is famous with the TV Tower and it is hard to believe it was farmland just 15 years ago.

The main tourist shopping area is Nanjing Road; it is good to visit at night as the whole street is lit up. It is 5km of shopping, with international brands and department stores. Several hotels are nearby and I would recommend staying in this area if not on a group tour.

Upon leaving Shanghai, some of our group opted to take the Maglev Train to the airport instead of the coach. It cost CPY40 ($8) and was well worth it. It is the fastest ground speed train in the world, reaching 431km/h. The journey takes 6 minutes. It climbs to 431km/h, stays there for about a minute, and then starts to slow down. It can go up to 550km/h, but the journey is not long enough. The only disadvantage is that the station to board the train is a little out of town.

Xian
The airport of Xian is approximately one hour from the city. On the way in, our guide pointed out several large mounds in the landscape. These are tombs of emperors and kings. Many emperors made Xian their capital so are buried in the area. These tombs will never be opened.

Xian city is small by Chinese standards, about 5 million people. The central city area is within an ancient city wall which is still complete and is a major tourist attraction. The wall is 12m wide and 13km around and you can rent bikes to ride around. Unfortunately, we were unable to do this due to rain.

There is an ancient Bell Tower in the centre of town and all streets leading from here, north, south, east & west, have good shopping.
Xian has a large Muslim population and a 400 year old mosque. Around the mosque are the Muslim Markets which are full of bargains.

The main attraction of Xian is, without a doubt, the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Emperor Qin Shihuang. Emperor Qin (pronounced Chin) was the first emperor to unify China. He started construction of his mausoleum in 247BC when he was 13 years old. His father had dies and he became King of Qin. Emperor Qin died young at 50 and was buried in his mausoleum, even though it was not finished. The construction employed hundreds of thousands of people for nearly 40 years. Many workers were buried alive with the emperor to keep the secret safe.

Emperor Qin believed that he would need his army in the afterlife and it is estimated that there are 8000 life size warriors and horses buried. As well as being a museum, this is a working archeological site. Workers are absent in the day, but work at night constantly piecing together broken warriors. The whole site is quite extraordinary. The 2 bronze chariots with horses are in the museum, but more are expected to be found in the future.

The farmer who accidentally discovered the Terracotta Warriors on his farm in 1974 is now in his 80’s. He and his family live on a government pension and he sits in the museum gift shop signing books purchased by tourists.

Beijing
We flew from Xian to Beijing for our last stop on our tour. Beijing is more spread out than Shanghai and getting around is difficult due to the distances and traffic. In both Shanghai and Beijing we were advised against using public transport because there are no English signs and it is too confusing.

The Forbidden City, behind Tiananmen Square is another spectacular sight. It was built from 1407-1420 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but was also used by emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Allow plenty of time to walk around because the size will amaze you. Emperors lived here with their extended families and concubines and also had their offices here.

The Summer Palace is on the outskirts of Beijing and was used predominantly as a holiday house for emperors and their families. It was built in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), but was extended by later emperors. It also was destroyed by war and re-built. It is most famous as the home of Empress Dowager Cixi (the only female emperor) who ruled while her weak son and nephew held the throne. The lakes and gardens are exquisite and you can picture the Empress gliding along the covered corridor while her servants scuttled around her.

The Temple of Heaven is another beautiful building, but to get a glimpse of modern Chinese life, visit on a Saturday when it is a social meeting place for many people enjoying exercise, games, music and singing.

The Silk Markets of Beijing is 4 levels of bargains. Replica European brands are found here and it is expected that you bargain (start at one quarter of the price and don’t pay more than half). The prices are great, but the sales staff are pushy and you need to be a tough shopper to enjoy this.

The Great Wall of China was another highlight of our tour. When Emperor Qin unified China in 221BC he ordered that existing state walls be joined together, forming the ‘Great Wall’ to fend off the Huns in the north. Many emperors extended and repaired the wall over time. It is almost 7000km long.

The section of the wall we visited was the Badaling Pass. It is a hilly section and it took us 2 hours to reach the peak of the section and descend again. It was a very tough walk as the steps are uneven. Unfortunately, the day was misty so our view from the top was hindered, but we could see enough as we went along to appreciate the grandeur of the project.

Overall, our tour of China was fascinating. The main draw card is the interesting history. So many buildings, monuments and relics still exist and seeing an original rather than a replica is something special.

Our Wendy Wu guides taught us a lot about China’s ancient history and also spoke a lot about China’s exciting future. Twentieth century history is noticeably lacking in the commentary.

The small group of the Wendy Wu tours is great because it is the sort of destination where you need to be able to hear the guide to fully appreciate the sights you are visiting. Our guides were always happy to answer questions, even about sensitive topics.

With the Olympics in Beijing next year and construction going at a frenetic pace, it is as if China is saying, ‘Look out world, here we come!’.

Carol Mallett

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