Sunday, 31 March 2013

Shanghai…A Tale of Two Cities!

Having braved the smog of Beijing and Xian, it was literally like ‘a breath of fresh air’ when we touched down in Shanghai. Not that the city was any less populated or had less traffic and congestion, it was simply that it had the good fortune to be situated near the coast, with regular fresh sea breezes dispersing much of the pollution like a giant fan. Just like every other city we had seen throughout China, the place appeared to be going through a major construction boom with countless cranes dotted around the city and the unmistakable silhouette of yet more high-rise apartments springing up on the distant horizon.

Much like Hong Kong, Shanghai immediately conveyed to us a sense of confidence and assuredness that we felt was somehow lacking in Beijing. As the largest city in China (over 23 million people) and the sea faring gateway to the country, it’s position as a major global player has remained unquestioned and it was certainly clear to us that this city knew it! As we cruised along the Huangpu River which threads its way through the middle of Shanghai, Jules and I could clearly identify two distinct facets to this city. It was like two cities in one. In just a single view we could see both its past and its future!

On one side of the river is ‘The Bund’ which is the famous embankment along the shoreline that is lined with historic buildings reminiscent of Shanghai’s colonial past. With most built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these grand structures reflect the truly international nature of this port when it first established itself as the major financial hub for Asia. The classical architectural styles of banks, custom houses and hotels line the promenade and while all of the statues of foreign dignitaries have long since disappeared, it all looks very much as it did 100 years ago. We were told that strict building regulations continue to maintain the integrity of this area, with building heights restricted and preservation orders for most of the surrounding area. One of the nicest and most historic of these areas is ‘The French Quarter’ (also known as the French Concession), which is a leafy residential area set back from The Bund. Here many of the old residential buildings and European trees remain from the days when the area was essentially a French settlement. Also referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’ there are also quaint little laneways with plenty of street cafes.  We wished that we had a little more time to explore this spot, as it has now become a great location for restaurants, designer shopping and numerous contemporary art galleries.

On the other side of the river there is quite a contrast! This is modern Shanghai, with some amazing architectural structures that are both eccentric and futuristic. The Oriental Pearl TV tower has become a distinctive symbol of the city since being built in 1995, but many other unique skyscrapers have since joined it. The most notable is the 492 metre high Shanghai World Financial Centre or as it is affectionately referred to by locals and tourists alike as ‘The Giant Bottle Opener’! Completed in 2008, this sleek lined architectural marvel is something to behold as it towers over the neighbouring buildings, reflecting the surrounding skyline. Yet there are many more that continue to make this area an essential reference point for any student of high-rise architecture. With more relaxed building regulations on this side of the river, it seems that here ‘the sky’s the limit’!

Both Jules and I were quick to agree that Shanghai is a most impressive city that had successfully managed to combine shades of both old and new. It is truly a global metropolis that continues to attract the very best that the world has to offer and while its urban landscape is continually evolving, it has not lost sight of the essential qualities that make this city livable. Trees, parks and water features seem to soften the more brutal aspects of modern city life, while historic low-level buildings add essential character. With a progressive attitude to urban design that would be the envy of the west, Shanghai remains a city on the move and it will be interesting to observe its development in the years ahead as it continues to address the two distinct sides to the city. With its growing financial opportunities and the ongoing return of foreign investment, it appears that Shanghai is fast re-establishing itself as one of the great cities of the world!

Thursday, 28 March 2013

A Walk Down Muslim Street

When you think about religion in China, you wouldn’t think that the Islamic faith would be strongly represented. However as we learnt, between 1-2% of the population are actually Muslims, which doesn’t sound particularly large until you consider that the overall population of China is quickly heading toward 1.4 billion and those following Islam are now equivalent to that of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria combined. Therefore, it is not surprising that this religious faith has continued to influence various aspects of Chinese culture and society since it first arrived via the Silk Road some 1300 years ago. This was particularly evident when Jules and I were taken on a tour of the Muslim Quarter in Xian.

Wandering down small residential laneways, we made our way to one of the oldest and most famous mosques in China, The Great Mosque of Xian. Entering through a small gate, we stepped into a quiet and tranquil courtyard garden surrounded by distinctly Chinese style architecture. There were no signs of domes or traditional minarets with only a few decorative Arabic carvings providing any indication of its Islamic connection. Historic records carved in stone tablets revealed that the mosque was established in 742 AD and continued to evolve through several major dynasties. Today the well-preserved mosque consists of four major courtyards with several impressive buildings and structures that continue to be used by the 20,000 devout Chinese Muslims who live in the area. The ‘Imperial Hall’ is the oldest building and houses an historic piece of stone called ‘The Moon Tablet’ that once provided the earliest means for calculating the Muslim calendar. However, the centerpiece of the mosque is the octagonal shaped ‘Introspection Tower’ that was traditionally used for the call to prayer. This is a magnificent three layered Chinese pavilion, constructed entirely from wood, featuring classic upturned roofs which are covered with decorative glazed roof tiles. It is quite amazing that in 1956, despite the turmoil following the Communist revolution, the mosque managed to be decreed ‘an important historical and cultural site’. This status was further promoted in 1988 when it was pronounced to be ‘one of the most important sites in China’.

Stepping out of the solitude of The Great Mosque, we found ourselves back in narrow lanes that were lined with market stalls. With tens of thousands of visitors to the historic mosque each year, the stallholders are strategically positioned to follow the tourist trail and well versed in the key English phrases to entice westerners to buy. Much like a Turkish bazaar, there is a myriad of goods for sale and with a bit of the expected haggling, there are many bargains to be had. However this time Jules was not lured so much by the shopping, but by the smell of cooking food that was emanating from the main street. Simply referred to as ‘Muslim Street’, this central road is lined with all manner of produce stores and restaurants, many of which were spilling out onto the flagstone pavement. While most of the time we had absolutely no idea of what was being cooked, the sights and smells were quite amazing. As most of the food venders seemed to be breaking just about every health regulation known to the western world and also heeding the advice of other seasoned travelers, we were content to merely watch rather than taste. That was fine, as the experience of simply being there amongst the bustling crowds as Jules photographed madly was quite enough.

Systematically we worked our way down the street, picking up the last of our bargains and taking in the atmosphere. At the end of Muslim Street (or possibly the beginning) a group of elderly gentleman casually sat on wooden chairs with small birdcages placed alongside. They chatted and smoked, occasionally glancing across at the small group of westerners that looked decidedly out of place there. Not only weren’t we Chinese, but more significantly in this neighborhood, we weren’t Muslim either. While they were clearly used to tourists, it was obvious to us that this remained a very tight knit community that had steadfastly maintained its own culture and traditions over centuries. Against all odds the Chinese Muslims of Xian had managed to establish their own unique enclave circling the Great Mosque and in doing so, they had created a neighborhood with its own distinctive character that appeared increasingly at odds with the rapidly changing city. While the Muslim Quarter certainly provided us with a religious point of difference, it also served to highlight cultural diversity within China itself. While modernization continues its rapid pace throughout much of China, here there appeared to be no hurry, with much of the community happily going about its daily business of socialising, buying food and bartering for goods before slipping down one of the tiny laneways to return to their homes.  Only the ritual call to prayer interrupts proceedings…much as it has done for centuries.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Riding the Ancient City Walls of Xian

Like most of China at the moment, Xian is undergoing a facelift. With the economy booming, increased tourist traffic and a thriving university scene, the city has continued to transform itself into a modern metropolitan city. In fact Jules and I were quite surprised by the sheer size of the place as we drove the 40 km trip in from the airport. With it being one of the oldest cities in China and given its historical significance, I guess we were anticipating something just a little bit smaller. Of course this is China after all and considering its population, everything appears to be super-sized here. Now pushing toward 10 million people, the city of Xian has sprawled well beyond the ancient walls that originally fortified it’s buildings from 900AD and has inherited many of the similar congestion and air pollution issues that we saw in Beijing. However, it soon became evident to us that this was a very different place, with much stronger cultural ties and what appeared to be a more determined effort to make it much more livable.

As we traveled around the streets of Xian, we could see many of the familiar images that westerners tend to associate with China … pagodas, lanterns, dragons and the ever present use of red paint. This shouldn’t be totally surprising as we were told that the city had become the model for just about every Chinatown in the world and in the centre of the city its citizens appeared to be making every effort to uphold its global reputation. What we particularly liked in their planning were the many dedicated areas for numerous forms of recreation. While land was clearly at a premium, it was good to see some spaces were being set aside for parks, market areas and outdoor cafes. We particularly enjoyed the grounds that surrounded The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda where families could be seen flying kites that often trailed high into the sky. Around the ancient and beautiful seven tiered pagoda (originally built in 652 AD), much had been done to develop the area surrounding the original monetary into a popular place to meet and relax. Much like the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, the pagoda itself has over the centuries subsided to also create a slight lean, so as you can imagine, there were many photos being taken of people attempting to push it back into position. Another popular pastime for the locals was dressing themselves in traditional Chinese outfits from centuries ago and having a photograph taken near the Pagoda. It seems that here, as in the west, there still remains a very romantic notion of days gone by and this remains the perfect place to recreate the scene.

For one of the best views of the old city we headed to Xian’s ancient wall. It is amazing that despite its age the structure remains totally in tact and open to the public. Standing around 12 metres tall (40ft.) and with a perimeter of almost 14 kilometers (8.5 miles), the wall remains quite an imposing structure despite being dwarfed by the many surrounding high-rise buildings. Years ago the cities governing powers had sensibly decided to restrict building heights inside the walled city in order to preserve its cultural integrity, so today it is quite easy to differentiate the old from the new. From a top of the wall ramparts it is also possible to see many important cultural buildings such as the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, which were both used for ceremonial purposes as well as sounding the alarm in case of attack. Jules and I just couldn’t resist hiring a bike and riding along the top of the wall to take it all in! While the cobblestone surface was a bit rugged in parts, riding the ancient boundary wall of the old town on a tandem was a great experience and certainly a highlight of our time in Xian. The trek also helped to burn off some of the extra calories that we had accumulated from the banquet lunches we had been having each day since first arriving in China.

The city of Xian had been a pleasant surprise. Although totally different than we had imagined, we had found it to be a far more amenable city than Beijing, even though the smog might still take a bit of getting used to. Rather than blindly charging ahead in the name of progress, it had appeared that Xian had thought a little more about the cultural heritage that the city had inherited from its many great dynasties and had balanced it well against its modern vision for the future. For a city whose history began over 7000 years ago, it has certainly come a long way! Much like the days when Xian was an integral part of the Silk Road trade route, we certainly sensed that it would continue to be a much sought after destination for both traders and tourists alike.  

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Selling the Warriors to the World

Back in 1974 when I was a teenager  in high school, I heard on the nightly news about an amazing archeological discovery of life-size terracotta statues found in a field in the depths of China. At the time I had a bit of an interest in archeology, having read many books about the amazing discoveries of Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt, but this was something very different. What had been discovered outside of Xian were not just a few decorative figures, but literally thousands of terracotta warriors prepared as if for battle. It was not until the new millennium that the wider world began to see these figures first hand, with selected pieces traveling the world in a touring exhibition. Eventually the ‘Great Warrior Show’ made its way to Australia and I was one of the thousands who squeezed into a packed gallery to catch a glimpse of the figures set behind perspex barriers. While I remember the extraordinary craftsmanship of each figure, what appeared to be lost in such a setting was the sheer scale of the initial discovery and the collective nature of these figures in context with their cultural location. Therefore, it remained somewhat of a lifetime ambition to actually see them in situ, although I never really thought it would actually happen … until now!

With our small tour group, Jules and I headed away from the city of Xian to what we imagined would be a hanger-like building positioned somewhere in the middle of a field in a remote country location. Clearly the famed Terracotta Warriors had over the years captured the imagination of the world and now a multi-laned highway had been built to fast-track tourists to the location and within 90 minutes we were there. This streamlined approach to the site should have alerted us to the fact that the picture we had formed in our minds would not quite match the scene we were about to encounter. Indeed, over the past 40 years the area had been transformed into a small city, with all manner of industries and commercial enterprises springing up to cash in on the overwhelming global interest in the warriors. We were taken to one of the industries that mass-produce reproductions of the clay figures to sell locally and throughout the world. You would be amazed by the amount of people who are seeking a couple of life size warriors for their back garden or to guard their front door! Here in this local workshop, ladies meticulously provide the finishing touches to clay statues of varying sizes following their removal from plaster moulds. They are then placed into huge wood burning kilns to be fired, which also provides them with the aged look that give the pieces a certain degree of authenticity. In many ways the scene looked much like it may have done centuries before when local craftsmen were commissioned for the enormous task of building a full size army complete with horses and chariots.  

Making our way through the gamut of souvenir stalls, restaurants and tearooms we arrived at the giant hangers that house the ‘real life’ warriors and although it was relatively early, the crowds were beginning to build. Over the years the original arched hanger has expanded into several outer building as the dig was extend. Even today archeologists are uncovering new pieces and their process of discovery and restoration remains ongoing. Upon entering the original building we are struck by the overwhelming scale of the dig, with row upon row of warriors in various states of repair. Most now stand just as they might have done centuries before, having been restored and returned to their original site. Others lay broken and dismembered providing a tantalizing glimpse of what might be below the surface yet to be discovered. In a strange sort of way these are the ones I liked the best, with archeological tools still lying alongside the artifacts as they wait to be released from the bounds of the earth. Our guide reliably informed us that some pits still remain undisturbed as a way of protecting the warriors from the air, which apparently has the unfortunate tendency of draining the painted colours from the figures within minutes of exposure. It seems that science and technology had still some way to go in fully preserving the thousands of warriors and horses that were placed here around 200BC to protect the tomb of emperor Qin Shi Huang.

Originally the site was discovered by a family of farming brothers who where digging a water well and it is still possible to see the location were they originally began to dig on that fateful day. It turned out to be a profitable discovery for the farmers who upon alerting the authorities, where amply rewarded and held up as national heroes, while the country began to prosper from the billions of dollars the discovery would continue to generate each year. While one of the farmers has since past away, the youngest brother continues to enjoy his celebrity status as we witnessed, with the now elderly gentleman happily signing books and having his photograph taken, for a small fee of course. Apparently this all began many years ago when then US president Bill Clinton on a visit to China especially asked to meet the farmer and have him sign his book. The quick thinking farmer realized if the president was interested others might be too and that his autograph might provide him with an ongoing income, as it has done.

Our visit to the Terracotta Warriors had been one of the motivating attractions that had lured us to China and our visit had certainly not disappointed. We had learnt much about this country’s fascinating ancient culture and the wonderful skills of the artisans of the time in creating such amazing ceramic forms. However, what we had not anticipated was what we would also learn here about modern China. Our visit had further reinforced to us the way in which commercialism and capitalism had been truly embraced within this country over the past few decades. In its efforts to sell the Terracotta Warriors to the world, a whole industry had been created that continues to generate a sizable income for an ever-growing local economy. Like many of the worlds great wonders, the warriors had now evolved into a slick iconic product; an image and brand that would continue to sell China as a must see travel destination for generations to come.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Refuge in the Temple of Heaven

Being on the streets of Beijing can be a very stressful experience. At any given moment there are millions of people rushing around the city trying to get somewhere to do something very important, or so it seems. They push, they shove, they cut in, they ignore signals and generally demonstrate a tunnel-visioned determination to get where they want to go as quick as possible. With the air choked from exhaust fumes, the continual sound of car horns beeping in your ears and an ‘every man for himself’ attitude, it seems that the probability of either being run over or crashed into at some stage would be extremely high. Thankfully there is a place in Beijing where you can find some respite from all of this chaos. There are no cars, trucks, bikes or any other form of life threatening transport. Indeed it’s a place where you can breath a little easier and experience the more sedate side of the Chinese people.

Tiantan Park is an oasis in a sea of humanity, covering some almost 280 hectares of the southern eastern side of Beijing. It is actually larger than the grounds of the Forbidden Palace and remains equally as important due to it being the location of the sacred ‘Temple of Heaven’. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has major historical and cultural significance as the place where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would come to worship the God of heaven and pray for good harvest. For Jules and I it would simply be a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Beijing.

It seems that we were not the only ones who felt this way, as Tiantan Park has over the years become a haven for the many senior citizens of the city. As we passed through the gates, it was like stepping into some kind of playground for the elderly. Being mid-week and with the privilege of a free admission pass due to their age, they had gathered in numbers to involve themselves in all manner of recreational activities. We immediately spotted a group of ballroom dancers enjoying an early morning waltz, people playing hacky sack and a gentleman standing with a large brush writing Chinese poems on the pavement with water … it all seemed like so such fun. Jules couldn’t resist joining in with a group of line dancers who were enthusiastically following the moves of an elderly, but fit looking gentleman who elegantly led the way. Of course there were plenty of card players, Chinese chess groups, knitters and musicians who aimed to also exercise their minds as well as the body. With the sun now beginning to shine above the smog haze and with greenery all around, the outlook was considerably different than in the streets beyond the walled park. Here there was a warm sense of community, with friendly interactions of strangers all seeking to improve the quality of their urban lives.

With time pressing, we left the seniors to continue to happily indulge themselves while we made our way toward the ‘Temple of Heaven’ itself. This was quite a walk as there were several significant areas to pass through before reaching the ‘Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest’, which was certainly the most impressive of the temples. We first approached the ‘Circular Mound Alter’; a three level circular platform from which the Emperor would offer sacrifices and prayers for rain and good harvest. The actual place where he would stand is a small circular mound not much larger than a manhole cover and is positioned not surprisingly in the centre of the structure. Its significance became obvious when just about every Chinese visitor wanted to have their photograph taken on that very spot. We opted not to wait our turn but to head over to the ‘Imperial Vault of Heaven’, a single storey circular temple surrounded by a smooth circular wall.  This wall is quite significant as it is also known as ‘The Echo Wall’ and our small group had a some fun sending messages from one side to the other. We also found the circular building quite impressive, but our feelings were quickly overwhelmed when we caught site of its larger scaled cousin in the main courtyard. ‘The Hall of Prayers’ is a beautiful example of early Chinese design and wooden construction. Built entirely without nails, this magnificent triple storey temple sits prominently atop of an equally impressive three leveled marble structure. Flanked by two traditional rectangular halls, it appeared as a picture of order and harmony, which was in stark contrast to much of the high-rise development that we could see just beyond its walls.

Our short visit to the ‘Temple of Heaven’ had provided us with yet another insight into the life and times of the great imperial dynasties. Jules and I had enjoyed the history and the cultural significance of this place, but much like the Emperors of the past, we had also welcomed the solitude it had offered. Tiantan Park had provided us with a temporary haven from the modern world outside and we could well understand why the senior citizens of Beijing had also found it such a pleasant refuge to frequent.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Changing Face of Beijing

When you visit Beijing you can’t help but notice that it is a city on the move. This cannot only be seen with its increasingly fast paced traffic and numerous multi-level ring roads, but also with its immense urban reconstruction. Building cranes seemed to be everywhere, with an urban overhaul that began in preparation for the 2008 Olympics simply continuing. With a booming economy and a newly discovered capitalist mentality, there appears to be no stopping the city’s headlong charge toward modernization. With many shiny new office towers beginning to dominate the skyline of the business district, it was clear to us that a major transformation had certainly begun. This has already resulted in some brave new architectural forms that seem to be in sharp contrast to the more traditional buildings of old Beijing and the austere party assembly halls of a post-revolutionary era.

Fortunately Jules and I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse at what the old Beijing cityscape must have been like when we visited one of the ‘Hutong districts’ that remained close to the Forbidden City. While many of these traditional low-rise residential areas were bulldozed during the initial rush toward high rise development, we were told by our guide that there were now much greater efforts being made to preserve many of the remaining traditional neighborhoods. Here the courtyard dwellings were extremely small, but there still seemed to be a real sense of local community, with tiny shops and eating places spilling into to the streets. Riding around in a rickshaw through the narrow laneways was certainly in stark contrast to most of the other city areas we had seen and we could not help but wonder whether without such places the identity of the city might be totally lost amidst all of the new development.

To see the latest architectural directions of modern Beijing you needn’t go much further than the CCTV building in the heart of the city. This highly identifiable structure was designed by Rem Koolaas and Ole Scheeren and consists of two slanting towers that are joined by two horizontal sections at the top to create a bold continuous form. It is certainly an adventurous architectural design that in many ways reflects much about the aspirations of the city as it sat on the verge of the 2008 Olympic Games. However, the modernity of this building isn’t quite projected by its nickname… ‘The Giant Underpants’! The name was applied to it by the Beijing people soon after its completion and while competitions have since been held to select a more noble tag, it seems that the mantle has stuck, much to the annoyance of many local officials.

A much more gracious title has been applied to Beijing’s most famous building of the modern era … ‘The Bird’s Nest’. This building, which is now known worldwide, is of course the stadium for the 2008 Olympic games. Designed by leading Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, it remains a wonderful example of post-modernist architecture and has quickly become an icon for the new face of China. While all of the ‘hoopla’ of the games is now over, the stadium and surrounding area remains very popular with locals and tourists alike. When Jules and I visited there was plenty of activity along the main promenade. There were many stall holders selling the usual range of souvenirs and plenty of annoying kite sellers, holding a string of tiny kites trailing into the sky in one hand, while trying to sell you a packaged one with the other. They are a persistent lot and keen to make a buck, although we were reliably informed that despite appearances, if we had bought one it would more than likely fail to fly when we tried it at home. These were of course just minor distractions from the stadium itself, which looked simply stunning as its ‘basket-like’ structure gleamed in the afternoon sun. Alongside the stadium is the National Aquatic Centre, which has also been given its own colloquial name … ‘The Water Cube’. This was of course the venue for all of the swimming and diving competitions during the Olympics and is also a very interesting building, although I suspect that it really comes into its own when it is lit up at night and its bubble like cladding takes on shades of electric blue.

As we looked around at the faces of Chinese tourists, we wondered what they might be thinking about the new Beijing. For many of the elderly visitors who had traveled from remote areas of the country, this was probably their first visit to the nation’s capital and it must have seemed quite an overwhelming experience, as it was for us. The sheer scale of the city, with its many new developments are certainly a  long way from the country’s recent rural past. Certainly the modern architectural changes that have occurred here are the most tangible evidence of its current economic growth and developing status within the global community. While there is still a long way to go and you sense that the city still has many problems to solve, there appears to be no stopping Beijing in writing yet another chapter to its long and colourful history.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Alone on the Great Wall of China

Every so often when you visit places in various parts of the world, you will have one of those ‘pinch me, I must be dreaming moments’. This is that special feeling that every traveler seeks … that moment of realisation when you can’t quite believe where you are and what you are actually doing. It doesn’t happen all of the time and to be honest if you’re a seasoned traveler, it is easy to become a little blasé over many of the amazing cultural or historical sights that you often come across. So it was certainly wonderful to experience that feeling once again when Jules and I were walking the Great Wall of China on a brisk morning in March.

We had been driven 90 minutes from Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the wall which we were told would be far less crowded than those parts closer to the city. The day before there had been quite a heavy downfall of snow that had cleared the air to a degree, while also providing a much more picturesque perspective to the otherwise colourless tones of the winter landscape. While the sun wasn’t quite shining, it was bright and vision was relatively clear as we entered the county of Huairou and as we looked upward, we could see the mountain ridges that connected Juyongguan Pass to the west and Gubeikou to the east.

As we pulled into a relatively empty carpark, it appeared that our early getaway from Beijing may have paid off and even the souvenir stallholders were slightly caught on the hop with the arrival of a small but keen group of early bird visitors. To get to the Great Wall itself we could either hike upward or take the cable car to the ridge. It didn’t take too much convincing for us to opt for the later; we were after all keen to conserve our energies for the wall itself. As we began to move upward in our small gondola, we caught our first sight of The Great Wall with its saw-tooth parapets threading its way across the countryside. It was amazing to think of it stretching almost 9000 kilometres across China from east to west and with a history of over 2000 years, it is not surprising that it is regarded as one of the great wonders of the world.

While millions of tourists visit the wall each year, we were amazed to find that when we stepped from the cable car we were quite alone. Possibly it was the time of the day, the unseasonal cold snap or the congested traffic out of Beijing, but what ever the reason, we just felt privileged to have this 2.5 kilometre section of the wall all to ourselves. With snow on the ground and with the silence of the deserted scene, we were provided with a truly unique outlook of this remarkable structure as it snaked its way off into the distance. While the snow certainly added to the panorama, we began our much-anticipated walk only to discover that it came with its own inherent dangers …ice! It seems that photographs don’t quite convey the rolling nature of the narrow walkways or the steepness of some of its sections. Quite often we found ourselves literally clinging to the wall turrets in fear of sliding down the hill, as we tentatively made our way between the various guardhouses. Nonetheless it was a truly fantastic experience and while the ice limited how far we could travel, we were just happy to be there and to enjoy the experience in relative isolation.

With the best possible views of the nearby countryside, it is not surprising that the wall provided a highly successful form of protection against the marauding nomads from the north. Even if they had survived the exhaustion of climbing the mountains, it would have been almost impossible to penetrate the solid granite blocks used to construct it, not to mention a possible shower of arrows from above. Although many parts of the wall’s structure have been rebuilt over the years, it is remarkable that it has survived war, weather, time and the millions of tourists who continue to tramp over these ancient fortifications each year. While the myth of being the only man made structure visible from space may have been debunked, there is no denying that it is a remarkable testament to human endeavor.

As Jules and I made our way back to the guardhouse where we had first begun, in the distance we could now see large groups of tourists beginning to arrive. We had timed our visit well and with the squeals of an excited group of school students shattering the silence, we knew that our time alone on the wall was over. On descending downward we could see gondolas full of camera clutching tourists heading upward … it seems that there would be no repelling of these invaders today!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Exploring Relics of an Imperial Past

Having traveled around Europe over the years, Jules and I have managed to visit quite a few royal palaces and have often been astounded by the opulence and indulgence of many of these residences. However, it would be fair to say that few would match the sheer scale (720,000 square meters) of the Chinese Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties located in the centre of Beijing. Better known to the wider world as ‘The Forbidden City’, this enormous walled enclosure was once the home to Emperors and their entourage between the 15th and 20th centuries. As the name suggests, this was once a ‘forbidden’ place, where you could not enter or leave without the Emperor’s permission. However, since the Cultural Revolution, the gates have been thrown open to reveal a glimpse of the ceremonial and domestic life of the countries past imperial leaders.

Walking under the giant portrait of Chairman Mao, through ‘The Gates of Heavenly Peace’, Jules and I joined the hoards of local and overseas tourists in stepping back into a world that had once remained a mystery to all but a few. With the sun shining and fresh snow on the ground following an over night downfall, we passed through the ‘Meridian Gate’ into the first of the outer courtyards to cross one of five beautiful bridges that span the ‘Inner Golden River’. Our guide informed us that the centre bridge was traditionally only ever used by the Emperor … so naturally we took that one!  Passing through the ‘Gate of Supreme Harmony’ we entered the second and largest of the courtyards (30,000 square metres) to see the unusual sight of groups playing in the snow. Such frivolous behavior would never have been tolerated in this most sacred and ceremonial arena during the reign of the great dynasties, but it was good to see it happening now. Avoiding the temptation to join in, we took the stairs leading upward to the ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’ where officials were met and affairs of state conducted. From here the Emperor would have looked out at his subjects standing in this vast courtyard; it would have certainly have been as magnificent a sight then as it still remains today, despite the ever present crowds of tourists.

As we passed through several other ‘celestial halls’, the crowds eventually began to thin as we entered what was some of the most interesting areas of the palace, the private domestic quarters. Here we learnt about the life of the Emperor, his wives and countless concubines. Indeed, looking around the smaller buildings and courtyards it revealed much about the reality of everyday life within the walled city, as depicted in the brilliant Bernardo Bertolucci movie ‘The Last Emperor’, which was filmed on location here during the 1980’s.  We also learnt much about the Empress Dowager Cixi, (who is infamously referred to as the ‘Dragon Lady’) and her abuse of powers and villainous ways over 47 years, eventually leading to the ultimate downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Communist propaganda perhaps, but we oddly found her reputation for once having eaten a 150 course meal at a banquet somehow quite impressive!

Having spent a pleasant few hours leisurely wandering around the Forbidden Palace, we eventually exited through the ‘Gate of Military Prowess’. This was a particularly fitting title, as it was exactly what was needed as we ran the gambit of street sellers thrusting souvenirs toward us as we walked along the path surrounding the palace moat. Within just a few paces we could have bought everything from miniature matchstick models to traditional Chinese headpieces, however we thought that a military style retreat might well be the best possible option.

Our next destination would be the Imperial Summer Palace, which turned out to be conveniently close to the Imperial Palace. This meant a very easy commute for both us and for past Emperors, who would have spent a considerable amount of time during the warmer months enjoying the cool breezes from Kunming Lake. Not surprisingly, this is an entirely man-made lake covering 2.2 square kilometres and was used not only for recreation, but also the cultivation of the much-cherished black pearl. The palace is certainly smaller than the Imperial Palace, but no less impressive, with the numerous temples, gardens, pavilions and bridges further highlighting the sophistication of their design skills. Here again stories of the infamous ‘Dragon Lady’ began to emerge, with claims that she embezzled funds to build a magnificent two story marble pavilion in the form of a river boat designed to sit in the shallow waters of the lake and to never leave its shores. Today, visitors flock to have their photograph taken near the famous ‘Marble Boat’. The structure remains testament to the self-indulgent lifestyle of the Dowager Empress and most of the Emperors who had preceded her.

Such Imperial relics are no doubt a constant reminder to the good citizens of China of why the revolution eventually occurred and that it was ultimately necessary. No doubt ‘The Party’ would be quite happy with that particular message. Yet such places also serve to highlight the cultural sophistication of those early times and provide evidence of how the Chinese monarchical system actually rivaled those of Europe. Either which way, we could not help but be impressed by efforts of the government to preserve these great Imperial Palaces and share them with the many visitors to Beijing.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Smog, Snow and Tiananmen Square

As the plane approached Beijing International Airport, Jules and I looked out of the window to view a colourless landscape, dormant from winter and greyed from years of city smog. For weeks beforehand we had been monitoring air quality readings, with Jules even purchasing a packet of Japanese style face-masks just in case! Stepping out of the airport we felt that our apprehension had been somewhat justified as a thick smoggy haze limited our vision to only several hundred metres. I had to smile when the lady who had picked us up from the airport referred to the air pollution as 'fog' rather than the 290+ 'smog' that is commonly believed to be 'extremely hazardous to your health' ... perhaps this was a way of disarming the fears of tourists to China.

During the 45 minute ride to the centre of the city, we began to appreciate the scale of this city of 20 million people, as well as the magnitude of its dramatic transition through socialist reforms to become the economic powerhouse that it is today. Construction was everywhere, with high-rise buildings and multi-lane freeways quickly changing the urban landscape. While the three wheeled pushbikes that deliver people and products throughout Beijing are still evident, you sense that their days are numbered and that they are destined to become relics of the past, overrun by the increasing pace of the city. The car was clearly now the most potent symbol of economic prosperity and damned the environmental consequences! With around 5,000 new cars hitting the streets every day, we could only begin to imagine what Beijing might look like in thirty years time.

That night we anticipated yet another smoggy day ahead; similar to the one that had welcomed us when we arrived. So we were particularly surprised when we opened our hotel curtains to view a most unexpected sight. Despite it being early spring, Beijing had been suddenly hit with an unseasonal blast of winter with around 20 centimetres of snow being dumped on the city overnight. Amazingly the sky was now blue, the air was clear and branches of the trees were laden with snow, giving the city the appearance of some kind of winter wonderland. Quite a transformation from 12 hours earlier! Outside it was a hive of activity with shovel carrying workers clearing paths and roads in preparation for the regular stream of daily commuters.

Our first stop for the day would be to Beijing’s most famous piece of vacant land, Tiananmen Square. This vast 40 hectare public square faces the gates of ‘The Forbidden City’, witnessing many of China’s most historical events and remaining the most significant focal point for the city. Not only overseas tourists visit here, but also millions of Chinese citizens from the outlying regions who at some stage in their lives will make their own pilgrimage. Each tour group is easily identified by their distinctively coloured peaked hats as they are led around the square by their flag carrying guides, whose job it is to remind them of their historical and cultural past. Groups of 50 or more stand in admiration of the ‘Great Hall of the People’ and the ‘Monument to the Peoples Heroes’, visit the National Museum of China and if they are prepared to queue for several hours, they can fleetingly glimpse the body of Chairman Mao in his impressive mausoleum. We were informed by our guide that Mao Zedong still holds a ‘God-like’ status for many older Chinese and certainly his portrait continues to loom large over the square itself, as it has done since the 1950’s.

In more recent years, Tiananmen Square has been the sight of numerous political protests, with both uniformed and undercover police vigilantly patrolling the area. Memories of the pro-democracy protests of 1989 and the ‘Falun Gong self-immolation incident’ still remain strong, with a significant military presence, road barriers and the scanning of bags for those entering the area. Yet once within the square there was clearly a tangible excitement amongst the crowd who were simply happy to be there. By now the snow was beginning to melt, creating large reflective pools of water that further enhanced the impact of the site. The sun, the snow and the blue sky had created a unique set of circumstances that was surely a postcard photographers delight. However, our feelings remained somewhat mixed; impressed by the scale and formality of this historical site, but mindful of the tragedies it had witnessed.

A visit to Tiananmen Square was certainly a fitting way to begin our visit to Beijing, with the fine weather playing its part in providing the best possible outlook to the city. Like most of the tourists visiting from near and far, we posed for the usual tourists shots and took the time to remember its more recent historical events, much of which we had watched on our TV sets in the comfort of our lounge rooms far far away. With the huge portrait of Chairman Mao mounted above ‘The Gates of Heavenly Peace’, it was difficult to forget the events of the Communist Revolution and how it had changed the world! While the quotations from Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ appear to be increasingly less relevant in todays consumer orientated society, the significance of his role in changing the face of China continues to be celebrated in this, one of the worlds most famous public squares.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Teeing Off in Japan

The Japanese fascination for golf has long been recognized worldwide. I well remember the push in Australia during the 80’s and 90’s to build top class golf courses with the aim of attracting well-heeled golfing tourists from Japan, who at the time were riding high on the wave of a ‘bubble’ economy. While the bubble has now well and truly burst, the country’s passion for golf certainly has not and has continued to develop into a healthy 17 billion dollar a year industry.

Once considered to be a pastime of older businessmen, in more recent years its growth has been largely due to surging interest from the young and in particular women. Inspired by the international success of professionals Ai Miyazato and Ryo Ishikawa, golf is now considered to be somewhat ‘cool’, which has over time forced the golf industry to re-think its economic strategy with the aim of making it more accessible to the youth market. This week I had the opportunity to experience Japans golfing resurgence first hand when I was invited to accompany a group of students to a local golf club to experience, what would be for most, their first taste of the game.

Of course, such a visit to the traditionally exclusive domain of the golf club would require a day of preparation. This would encompass the essentials of golf etiquette as well as basics of the golf swing. Fortunately, developing the perfect stroke is something that can be practiced at one of the many local driving ranges to be found throughout the suburbs. Such places are easily identified by their tall steel pylons that suspend heavy-duty nets aimed at preventing golf balls from pummeling local residents. They are actually pretty ugly structures, but like many other visually jarring features of Japan, they are happily accepted as part of the big city environment. During the day and at night under floodlights, golf balls are continuously fired from these multi-leveled platforms in an attempt to develop the perfect swing.

I can quite understand the appeal of such places, as each ‘station’ is provided with a nice comfortable chair and a fresh piece of evergreen ‘astro-turf’ from which a new golf ball automatically pops up for you to hit into oblivion. With an endless supply of balls and being able to avoid continuously bending down, it is all very agreeable. In fact, with most people deep in silent concentration and just the continuous ‘pinging’ sound of golf balls hitting titanium drivers, it can be downright meditative! Each station is provided with a numbering system to check how many balls you have hit, so after hitting around 250 balls each we all felt suitably prepared to tackle the real thing.

With just a little soreness in our shoulders from the previous day, we set out of Osaka for the two-hour drive to the Lake Forest Resort north east of Nara. Upon our arrival and with the formal welcome over, our clubs were whisked away on a motorised conveyer belt to be loaded onto golf carts ready for our round. As we waited for our tee-off time, there was an opportunity to admire the course layout and to be honest, I was initially surprised with what I saw! While the putting greens and fairways were immaculate, the rough appeared be tinderbox dry (much like you would see during an Australian summer) despite being the middle of winter. However as I learnt, this is quite common throughout the country, as here they prefer to use a strain of grass that goes dormant in winter and remains lush and green in summer. Despite its apparent dryness, it was still a picturesque sight, set against a rugged mountain range, featuring water features and the type of selectively positioned boulders that you might see in a traditional Japanese garden. The course appeared to be very large and this was confirmed when I picked up my scorecard. Instead of the usual 18 holes, there were actually 27, consisting of three 9-hole courses. This was a very sensible idea, as regular players could easily mix and match whatever combination they preferred to make up their 18 holes.

Although the sun was shining, icy winds had begun to drift across from the nearby mountains by the time we were called over to begin. With all players being required to drive golf carts around the course, the scene around the tee itself was reminiscent of a Formula-One pit stop, with a uniformed team of attendants loading and unloading clubs with the speed of a race day fuel and tyre change. As we headed along the neatly paved roadway to the first tee, it soon became obvious why carts were an absolute necessity. With the steep slopes, the course appeared physically demanding for both experienced and novice players. Indeed, despite the increasing numbers of younger people who appear to be taking up the game, it is clear that the vast majority of mid week players were still retirees and older businessmen for which driving around a course like this was clearly the only option.

As anticipated, the fairways and greens were beautifully maintained, yet there still remained plenty of bunkers, water hazards and deep mountain gullies to swallow up any wayward shots … there were plenty of those! By the end of the round, the cold conditions and demanding layout had certainly provided us all with a tough challenge and we were more than happy to eventually drive our carts back to the pits. Here our clubs were again quickly whisked away to be cleaned and secured in a locker in preparation for our departure. It was all very efficient, but no more than I have come to expect while living in this country. While I have played golf over many years, my first experience in this country was certainly quite unique. Hopefully the students that we introduced to the game had also thought the same, as I’m sure they will be more than welcomed into the sub-culture that is 'Japanese golf'!