Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven, Tiantan, is a classic Ming-dynasty building, a picture in stone of ancient Chinese cosmogony,is a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design. Well, that’s what my guidebook says anyway. I was very taken by the huge numbers of locals out doing a variety of exercises in the grounds: retirement age is quite low in BJ, and so the residents relish the socialising aspect of these communal activities.

Back in its heyday, the temple was used once a year, to pray for the harvest at the Winter Solstice, requiring 3 days of fasting in advance by the Emperor. It’s an incredible circular building, made entirely of wood without any nails, painted in dazzling colours. We particularly loved the tale of the sacreligious caterpillar, who was struck by lightning as it reached for a golden ball in the roof of the building in 1889, when it was struck by lightning, causing a fire which destroyed the building. 32 unfortunate court officials were executed for allowing this to happen!

Forbidden City, Beijing

We’d lost a bit of time in getting here, not least due to Beijing’s notorious traffic congestion, and so our meander through the succession of colourful rooms and marvellous treasures was speedier than such riches really warranted. But my what a glorious building.

We’d started at the back entrance, and worked our way forward until we reached the vast square familiar from The Last Emperor, emerging finally under Mao’s portrait at Tian’anmen – Heavenly Peace Gate.

The Great Wall

It’s 4,000 miles long, but no, you can’t see it from space. But you can see the moon from here, if the conditions are right! Conditions were…well, rather misty on our visit. But it was the last site we visited in China, so the weather had to be endured, and actually, the mistiness probably adds to the atmosphere.

I think every one of us on the tour was visibly moved by actually being here. The wall is well over 2,000 years old, and is yet another reminder of China’s turbulent past: an astounding feat of engineering to construct this massive wall on top of a mountain, to keep out invaders.  Nowadays it is possibly the main tourist attraction – I know when we were looking at different itineraries we felt we really couldn’t go all the way to China and NOT see the wall.

The dancing bit came about cos I’d asked another tour member to video me walking on the wall, but a few of our happy band had gathered at that point, and were shouting out to me to dance down. So I never like to disappoint an audience!

It’s tough work walking on the wall – there are some very steep sections, and the steps are uneven, so you have to be very careful where you tread.

The hard sell from the gauntlet of souvenir shop owners, lined up one behind the other on a narrow path as you exited the cable car, was the most intense I’d come across in China. They waved their Tshirts and chopsticks and called out “One dolla, one dolla”. Of course nothing cost one dollar, this was just to make you stop and look, although that didn’t prevent one particularly pedantic Englishman in front of me trying to explain the intricacies of the foreign exchange market to a wizened old woman intent on making a sale…

Terracotta Warriors

This has got to be the world’s most impressive archaeology project!  Situated just outside the city of Xi’an (home to a mere 5 m people), this huge tomb was only discovered in the mid 1970s.  The sheer volume of work that was involved in cataloguing and recording all the pieces, and then putting them back together again and putting on display, is staggering, and what is even more amazing is that this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Each figure is individually carved, so they each have unique features.  The soldiers have their hair in a bun on the right, whilst the kneeling archers have their hair to the left, to make it easier to extract arrows.

My video starts in the factory where they make souvenir copy figures.

Sadly, both Roger and I were feeling a bit under the weather for this visit, and spent a lot of time sheltering from the harshly bright sunshine and elbowing crowds in the delightfully cool tea house, where some ginseng oolong eased my upset tum.

Making silk

Little silk cocoons are either small (one worm) or large (2 or more). In the one-worm cocoons, the single strand of silk can be obtained and spun onto spools. For the cocoons made of more than one thread, they use a different method of stretching and layering to make a bed sized comforter.

We visited this silk place in Shanghai, only a few days into our trip. But I was delighted, as another friend of mine who’s spent a lot of time in Beijing recently had been telling me about these silk comforters or quilts, and it was at the top of my shopping list! And despite it adding a precious 2kg to my luggage for the rest of the trip, it was quite unobtrusive tucked away at the bottom of my case. And it’s now on our bed, and very comfortable it is too.

The hard sell from the staff at the rest of the visit was a bit intense, but I’m quite happy with my green silk jacket, as I have number of theatre evenings and family do’s coming up where I’ll be able to show it off.

Oh, and I have to watch my language now that my Mum’s reading this. Hi mum!

Shanghai: Bright Lights, Big City

We started our trip to China in Shanghai, a bright-lights, big-city metropolis of 25m people. (And that’s still not the biggest city in the country.) It’s long been a trading centre and bustling port, but was infamous as the base of European imperialism in the country a century or more back. When China started opening its doors to the West about 20 years ago, Shanghai rapidly cemented its role as a commercial hub, and today almost 25% of China’s GDP passes through its portals. Like many ports, it has a brash and hedonistic outlook on life, with a vibrant nightlife scene and an abundance of shopping, from designer to tacky.

We visited the beautiful and tranquil Yu Yuan garden, where the cicadas were drowning out the traffic, even early in the morning. My rookie attempt at haggling – for a fan, the essential first purchase – was laughable. I thought I’d done well to get the vendor down from 180 for 1, to 140 for 2. Until I worked out that that was about £7 per fan…

We took a lovely trip on the Huangpu river to admire the burgeouning forest of skyscrapers, including the 101 storey Shanghai World Financial Centre, which at 492 metres high dwarfs its more elaborate neighbour, the Jinmao Tower, and is currently the second highest building in the world. We viewed the city from the Oriental Pearl TV tower, including walking on a glass floor way up in the sky. Now I’m as brave as a lion – you’ll find me at the head of the queue for the white-knuckliest of rides at a theme park – but even I found walking on the platform very daunting.

I enjoyed the museum’s extensive collections of bronzes and jades, and the visit to a silk emporium (I’ll put that on a separate video as it wasn’t uniquely Shanghai). We just about made it through the congested traffic to an acrobatics show, where we gasped and were amazed at the seemly impossible feats the various contortionists were performing. And we ended our visit by taking the Maglev train out to the new Pudong international airport, just as the sun was turning the sky an impressive red.

China Eclipse

OK,  I’m back from China with about 3 hours of video footage, 600 photos, and 10 A4 pages of journal.  But I thought I’d do a quick and dirty edit of this part of the trip first, since it’s the most topical.

Wow, what an eclipse!  Those of us for whom it was the first time were suitably impressed – Tony the bluff Yorkshireman declared himself to have been rendered speechless.  And even those who’ve seen one before gave it a 9 1/2 out of 10.  The 22 degree aurora and diamond ring are particularly good, as are the amazing colours in the dark sky, and we even got to see some stars.

Rumour was our plastic chairs on a reserved site, in a protected zone, cost about £100 apiece.  Hell they were worth it.  China Daily reported that about 7,000 were at this site, and one vendor had sold out of his 100 boiled eggs by 6.30 am, and regretted not having learned more English at school!  Even if the eclipse itself had been cloudy, as it appeared it might be en route, the journey there, zig-zagging through the bamboo forest used in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, was worth it.