In a Big Country
Travelling around a place as vast and populated as China, PAUL GALLANT looks for smaller moments balance out the monuments
Biking atop the wall that surrounds the downtown core of Xi’an can feel, in some moments, positively medieval. Construction on the fortification started in the 1370s, during the Ming dynasty, and cyclists and pedestrians doing the whole 14-kilometre circuit can stop periodically at parapets and watchtowers to peep through the embrasures through which soldiers shot arrows at attackers.
But then look out beyond the wall: a modern landscape of glass and concrete skyscrapers and apartment complexes is wrapping itself around the historic centre. It’s absolutely not the Middle Ages. At a pedestrian-only section over the south gate, cyclists must dismount, leave the bike they’re on, walk past the café, boutique and all the courting couples and, then, on the other side, present a card to pick up another bike to continue their circumnavigation. It’s all so well thought out, so sensible and so perfectly Chinese: the past and the future spliced together politely and efficiently. That’s the kind of planning and engineering that in the past 40 years have transformed China from one of the world’s poorer countries to the world’s second biggest economy.
Known to visitors as the base of operations for visiting the Terracotta Army, created between 246 and 206 BC to protect Emperor Qin in the afterlife and now one of the world’s best-known historical sites, Xi’an has held onto many charms it acquired over centuries as one of four Ancient Chinese capitals. Founded in the 11 th century during the Zhou dynasty, it was, for a time, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road trade route connecting the east and the west. To this day, the city has a colourful Muslim quarter that evokes the Middle East. (“Beer?” I ask in a restaurant that serves the local favourite, Biang Biang noodles. “No!” the waitress says sharply, the only English she speaks to me, “This is a Muslim restaurant!”) But considering the city’s population has grown to more than 12 million, up from five million about a decade ago, Xi’an is also extremely modern, extremely of-the-moment.
At this time in human history, it’s hard to claim to know the world without a visit to China. You can read all the articles you want about its growth and the control its central government has over people’s everyday lives, but until you see the skyscrapers, the highways, the shopping malls, the security checkpoints, the crowd-control strategies and how all this development is juxtaposed against ancient monuments and natural wonders, you just have no idea. In a country where bigger is better—a country where, with a population of 1.4 billion, bigger is a fact of daily life—the trick for a visitor is finding small, intimate moments where personal connections, history and the culture shine through the facts and statistics.
As a seasoned traveller who manages to buy my own bus tickets in places where I don’t speak the language, I had considered visiting China independently. But I decided instead to book a tour with G Adventures. That turned out to be the right decision. When I was on my own for a couple of days before the tour started, as a non-Mandarin speaker, I had difficulty ordering food I wanted to eat—and the food in China can be fantastic if you know what to order—or developing a useful sense of what was going on around me. Was that sign in Chinese characters welcoming the crowds or warning them away? Though everyone I encountered was extremely friendly and helpful—even in aloof Beijing, I never had to stare at a subway map for a more than few moments before someone offered to help me—English is not widely spoken and the way business is conducted can sometimes be oblique to a Canadian. Food vendors at one market in Xi’an accept payment only through a smartphone app that foreigners usually don’t have. Multiple layers of security (no sealed water bottles on the subway?) can being daunting. Having Paul Tien, my group’s super-kind chief experience officer (what G Adventures calls its tour guides), sort out the multi-zoned ticketing system at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven probably saved me from hours of wandering around in circles. The itinerary also provided opportunities to get away from the crowds. Sure, the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army were on my bucket list—and completely worth a trip halfway around the globe. But I didn’t want to spend 12 days navigating such intense experiences. Getting to see the “real” China amidst the selfie moments is tough, but not impossible
It’s so crazy here, and I’m from Singapore!
On a rainy-day walk along the Yulong River, outside the city of Guilin in southern China, a woman picking potatoes in a field waves her handful of tubers at me as her co-worker continues hoeing away. I smile and wave back. It’s not the most meaningful encounter, but it’s what surrounds us that makes it a special moment. All around are karst peaks, the jagged mountain formations that have won the area a reputation as, perhaps, the most beautiful place on earth. The fog makes them even more mysterious. Our local guide, who likes to get a reaction, wickedly points out the dogs that might be eaten and the ones too pretty for that. (This is one of the handful of regions in China where dogs are eaten—otherwise, it’s not common.) We pass through a rustic village that’s both functional as an agricultural hub and picture-postcard worthy; some buildings have been transformed into chic little hotels and restaurants, while others await gentrification. Ducks quack in rice paddies. Chickens roam where they like. It’s all supremely bucolic. Back at our cozy guesthouse, with rooms in traditional mud-brick farmhouses, our group gets a Tai Chi lesson, our awkwardness providing much amusement for passersby. When we (15 of us from Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, Peru, Greece and Wales) attend a Chinese cooking class, thankfully nobody is laughing. Nor should they; we all show our skill at deploying oyster sauce and create five edible—tasty even—dishes each.
The next day we relocate to Yangshuo, a resort town of about 300,000, that’s been scientifically engineered to be a delightful, photogenic place. The pedestrian shopping streets offer a mix of traditional handicraft and fashionable novelty items and even the most modest restaurants have multilingual menus. The sunset is spectacular. Wandering around on my own, I am repeatedly approached by school-aged kids, tourists from other regions of China, who want to practice their English. One group seems intrigued to see me browsing funky phone cases. “Are you going to buy that?” asks one young lady. “I think so.” “Oh,” she replies, perhaps having run out of English vocabulary. “Thank you!”
While the countryside is beautiful and a relatively laid-back experience, it’s the megacities that make China China. My G Adventures tour starts in Beijing, population 21.7 million, and ends in Shanghai, population 24.2 million. Both are “Tier 1” cities, with a level of development that matches North America and Europe—there’s no shortage of new-model cars on the freshly asphalted freeways. As the capital, Beijing has better attractions. It’s a short drive to the Great Wall, and within its ring roads contains the jaw-droppingly massive Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square, which, for someone like myself who came of age in the late 1980s, means more as a symbol of the struggle for democracy and freedom than as the final resting place of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party leader who created modern China. But with great shopping, a sense of style and an electric urban energy, Shanghai is a much more fun city to explore. We start at The Bund, Shanghai’s old financial district, with its architecture dating back to the 1840s when several European countries held concessions here—little patches of China that they controlled for their own benefit until the 1950s. Then we look across the Huangpu River at Pudong, the new financial district. Little more than fields until the early 1990s, Pudong is now home to Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building, and dozens of other skyscrapers that light up at night for a mesmerizing light show. Wandering westward away from the Bund, there is shopping district after shopping district. Nanjing Road has almost any major global brand you can think of, while Huaihai Road is probably a bit more stylish. Yuyuan Market has traditional Chinese gifts and food. Personally, I like Tianzifang, in the former French Concession, where a bewildering array of boutiques, restaurants and bars are tucked into labyrinthine alleyways. But then one fashionable neighbourhood leads to the next and I’m completely disoriented.
“It’s so crazy here, and I’m from Singapore!” So says a businessman in town to sell off his company’s Chinese subsidiary, who I ran into one night in a bar in Shanghai’s fashionable Fahuazhen Street area. “What do you mean?” I ask. “It’s just so intense!” Well, it is that.