When most people think of China, we imagine billions of people in a small space, post communism, fast cars, big industry and lots of money, not forgetting The Great Wall.
Having spent 11 days there, visiting Xi’an, Chengdu and Beijing, I was more than excited about writing and photographing this amazing country.
First stop………Xi’an, The home of the Terracotta Army. We met up with our Page & Moy guide, Gary, and when I say we, I mean the 12 people in our party.
Xi’an is a beautiful city with many parks to relax in, dance, do Tai Chi, paint, drink tea and play cards, to name but a few. As much as there are many people in this city, millions in fact, they are really environmentally friendly. All street bins have waste and recyclable waste compartments, trees and plants on every corner.
I learned a very environmental issue regarding their cars. Every car has to be off the road one day a week (Monday to Friday that is) The policy is that all cars reg number starts or finishes with a number and each day of the week, depending on your number , you must not drive your car, reducing the gas emissions.
This is all over China and it amazed me that they are this aware and have implemented it. Shame we could not do this in the UK, if not all over the world. Some people do flout this law by removing their number-plate but should they be caught, they face a fine eight times bigger than if they were caught with the number-plate on. We saw plenty of cars without plates on! Still, the law is a great one!
On to the Terracotta Army, found at the edge of farmland by four farmers digging a water well.
In the middle of the countryside with mountains all around, they were an awesome sight and yet not all of it has been unearthed, yet they know it is there. Many of the Army had weapons but rebels stole them and destroyed most of the corridors with fire.
After visiting three sites, we were taken to a tea house to meet one of the two remaining farmers who found this amazing Army, to chat with him and enjoy his company and story.
Next we were taken to the countryside on the outskirts of Xi’an, to see the way of life of the farmers, the schools, meet the children and see how they used to live in underground homes.
We learned how they use everything they have to hand, wasting nothing. It was hard to grasp how so little meant so much to them and how happy they were and to hear the dreams of the children humbled me.
The evening was spent being entertained with a folklore performance at the Tang Dynasty Theatre. The Chinese love to heckle, whatever the performance!
Our next destination was, for me, the highlight of this trip, Chengdu and the Giant Pandas, but first we were treated to afternoon tea in the famous Pavilion Park.
Chengdu is the greenest city I have ever seen. Surrounded by mountains, there are many parks, tree and shrub lined roads, highways and also the motorways, six million people (14.5 million including surrounding areas) millions of trees and shrubs. Most buildings have rooftop gardens (this was noticed from the flight in) and most balconies had numerous plants.
Lots of cars but so many electric motorcycles and electric bicycles, you just don’t hear them creep up on you!! Green in colour and environmentally, an amazing city with so much to offer.
Chengdu has its own giant panda sanctuary although not a natural area for pandas. It was built in 1985 and opened to the public in 1987. Starting with 35 hectares, it now boasts over 200 hectares and houses numerous pandas of varying ages.
They can keep the young together until they reach an age of five years, when they become sexually active and aggressive towards other pandas. There was also an opportunity to have contact with a baby panda and have photographs taken.
We headed back to Chengdu and went to another theatre to enjoy a Face Changing performance. Along with other acts from opera to comedy, and more heckling, we all had a very enjoyable evening.
The following day we headed off to another area near Chengdu, called Shangli, where we stayed in the best hotel of our journey. We then enrolled to volunteer our services to the upkeep of the giant panda.
This was at Bifengxia Panda Sanctuary, deep in the forests of the Sichuan Province. We were given overalls, ill fitting ones (well for me anyway!) gloves and shown where we were going to work. Free time was then given to us to enjoy this amazing place and photograph these wonderful rare animals.
We arrived early, changed into our kit and cut up some panda cake and fresh bamboo tips (like asparagus tips but bigger) and went off to feed the pandas. That was a great experience and they are such gentle bears, but still bears!
We then picked up brushes made of twigs and followed our panda guide into the enclosure. Clearing the discarded and half eaten bamboo stems to start, the panda poo came next!
What did I expect? Not yellow torpedo shaped recycled bamboo, but there it was, 50kg of the stuff, scattered all over this large, steep and very slippy playground. But the job had to be done and do it we did, after all, this is why we came!
After we had done this and replaced the fresh bamboo, we were led off to clean the indoor pens. They were a little easier but still backbreaking in the heat and humidity
We then got to hand feed them again before heading off for ice cream. Purple Yam cornetto please, mmmmmmmm who would have thought a potato ice cream could taste so good and yet it did, I will take two!
Last but by no means least was our final part of the journey, Beijing.
Our afternoon was time to do as we please and we all decided to visit the Night Market where we were offered many exotic foods, snake, sheep testicles, spider, crickets and scorpions of varying sizes. The latter two I did eat. Very tasty if you like fried bacon!
The Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City and Tianamen Square were next on our tour, lots of walking and viewing the amazing architecture of this interestingly historic country, followed by a performance of Kung Fu which I can only describe as (almost) physically impossible in parts and utterly mesmerising.
Our final day was a journey to the Great Wall. We arrived at a much quieter part of this man made wonder, Mutianyu. We had an option of walking the 1500 steps to the top, or get a cable car. Guess which one we all took? Good job really as it was rather steep.
We had a choice to go left or right along the wall and given a couple of hours to take in this sight. I chose to right as it did not look as steep as going left. I was wrong, they were both as steep as each other.
Not including the slopes, we took nearly 2000 steps, some a foot high and at an incline of up to 70 degrees and it was really hard going for all who walked it. After a short respite, a cable car took us to the foot of the hills again and off we went for more tea, to learn the traditions of making and drinking different teas.
This was interesting and we were then allowed to purchase some of the teas. At a starting price of £56 for about 50 grams, I decided to stick to Typhoo!
My final views over this lovely city came from the ‘Bell Tower’ above the tea shop we had just visited. There were a further 84 steps, all approx 10 inches high and at an angle of about 75 degrees (you did not want to slip here) it was my final task. How did they get the bell up here? I had to ask, but never got the answer. Goodbye Beijing, goodbye China and thank you.
One final goodbye to all the others in our party and to our guide, Gary, a truly genuine and knowledgeable man who made our stay in his country and city the best it could have been.
Written by Karl Tullett
Pictures by Karl Tullett & Maria Wolens