How does one travel China, the entire size of Europe, in 5 days? With a hell of a lot of planning, and not a lot of sleep.
I started my journey in Beijing, and what I thought was cloud shrouding the lamp lights with a cotton wool-like blur was actually smog. As we drove through the city, I was astounded at the amount of traffic; dual carriageways, six lanes wide on each side, with an average of 10 minutes waiting time at each red light.
Our first stop was the Temple of Heaven, a piece of Ancient China surrounded by urban cityscape. Situated opposite Tiananmen Square, it was forbidden to mention what had happened there due to the Government’s strict policies, yet it was close to impossible to move with the number of tourists who had come to see it. The temple wasn’t a temple; I felt rather white when I realised it was actually a city within a city, a metropolis sprawling more than 2.73 km.
As I perspired my body weight in sweat, I realised I was being watched. Not just being watched, but downright stared at. It took no less than 5 minutes of standing in the Square for the first group of Chinese to ask for photos, pushing their bashful children towards me. One tourist guide came to me and bowing to me, asked permission for her group to take photos, calling me ‘měilì’- meaning ‘beautiful lady’. Others weren’t so polite. As I stood admiring the sights, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the arm of a selfie stick with a phone attached. The holder reached around me until the phone was in front of my face, and took a photo.
I soon realised why; with strict policies on immigration, very few Chinese see ‘gweilos’ meaning ‘white ghosts’ i.e. white people. Many only see them in Western movies, leading them to believe I was a celebrity. On top of that, white skin is believed to be attractive, and throw blonde hair into the mix and you have what is considered the height of beauty.
That evening I was lucky enough to eat at The Temple Restaurant, the kind of fine dining I will never see again. With over 8 courses and 4 little aperitifs in between, I was blown away by the level of service; it wasn’t too dissimilar to the kind you would see at the Ritz. I watched as the pristine waiters nodded at each other and on cue, walked in a train and placed each course down not a second out of time. In between each, someone would come to rid the table of crumbs and the sommelier specially assigned to find the perfect wine would ask how our drinks were.
After a fleeting glance at how the other half lives, I was back on the tourist bandwagon as I made my way up to the Great Wall of China. Our tour guide was quick to inform us that the wall was built on top of the bodies of the workers who had died building it. Once I made my legs regret ever being created walking a pathetically small portion of the wall, I hopped on a slide and literally tobogganed my way back down to the bottom.
I made my goodbyes to Beijing and took the bullet train down to Xi’an, home to the Terracotta Army. Discovered by local farmers, an entire army constructed to defend the first Emperor of China in his afterlife was unearthed, covering the size of a football pitch. The tomb that was also discovered was left untouched, as the paint on the figurines peeled in less than 15 seconds of being exposed to the air.
Finally, I made my way down to Guilin in Southern China. My lungs nearly cried with relief at the cleanliness of the air after being suffocated by the pollution of the two cities beforehand. I tried my hand at river rafting, where I used a pole to push my bamboo raft down a river, surrounded by little hills (they reminded me weirdly of tastebuds) that peppered the countryside.
I took my weary feet and finally made it down to Hong Kong, and that is how, one train, two flights and several minibus journeys later, I managed to travel China in a snapshot.
Have you ever been to any of these places? Where else have you been in China and what did you think? Let me know in the comments!