Sunday, December 17, 2017

China in a nutshell

Developing at a rate unmatched by the rest of the world, the ever-expanding country’s dense population is almost unfathomable. Yet the modern skyscrapers sit alongside 10th Century architecture and it’s this contrast between tradition and transformation that makes modern China so intriguing.

Remnants of the Great Wall, water towns that time forgot, lush greenery a stone’s throw away from sweeping skyscrapers and Buddhist temples hidden amongst the mountains… it’ll be like exploring another galaxy, just be sure to pack a phrasebook.

Moving around the country has never been easier, but you’d be wrong to assume it’s plain sailing. Few people speak English, the writing system is unlike anything I have ever seen (so road signs are almost impossible) and foreigners are sometimes seen as exotic objects of deep curiosity - leading to often amusing scenarios where a line begins to form of locals wanting a photo with you (peace signs are optional).

In a world where people fill every inch of space, patience gets you nowhere. If you want to get from one side of the road to the other, you have no option but to push and I found myself unhesitatingly joining in. But despite holding a reputation for curtness, the locals are friendly and welcoming.

Here’s my take on the region.


East and west collide on the streets of Shanghai. Lined with modern skyscrapers and 10th century temples, it’s hard not to admire the city of contrast. Visit the peaceful Yu Gardens and old town before checking out the colonial architecture with a stroll along the bund.

I’m a self-labelled philistine but the Shanghai Museum left much to be desired, with some artwork and lots of pottery, the best part was stopping for a green tea.

Matchmaker’s Corner in People’s Square (where parents search for worthy suitors for their children) was an experience not to be missed. If breathtaking skylines are up your street, the view of the city from the Huangpu River on a panoramic cruise was a beautiful sight.


Often called ‘the Venice of the Orient’, it’s not hard to see why.

Like most of China’s cities, chunks of modern architecture have replaced the old town, yet the city has managed to retain a sense of quaint charm. I had the pleasure of exploring the Humble Administrator’s Garden, typical of the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony - and learnt that a dragon isn’t real unless it has five fingers.

A visit to a silk mill saw me stroke a silkworm, I wanted to keep the little guy and take him home but that probably wouldn’t have been ethical either.


Cruising on the thousand-year-old Grand Canal felt like floating through the local neighbourhood. Finding periods of quiet within the chaos of China were far and few between, so moments like these were held dear.

We stopped off at the water town of Wuzhen, which reminded me of the old western films I used to watch with my Grandpa. A charming town, filled with cobbled streets, timber buildings and narrow waterways.


Dreamy West Lake views and blissfully peaceful temples.

I saw the Six Harmonies Pagoda before cruising on Hangzhou’s West Lake and admiring the gardens and old bridges on its shores.

The Buddhist Temple of Inspired Seclusion was one of my favourite spots in the country.  I was introduced to Buddhist culture with the temple playing host to the most peaceful hour I spent in China.

There I was, feet firm on the ground, the overwhelming smell of incense all around me, bowing my head to the gods in every direction.


Home to the Reed Flute Cave, a beautiful water-eroded cave of stone pillars and rock formations. Illuminated by what I can only describe as tacky christmas lights (the only thing missing was tinsel) it was definitely an example of tourism ruining a majestic natural wonder. An ice skating show lit up the main part of the cave, via a projector onto one of the walls - yet the visit was worth it for the views on the climb to the top.

While in the city, we hopped on a boat to see traditional cormorant fishing. I imagine it usually takes the fishermen much longer to catch their dinner, considering on my boat the sneaky staff were throwing pre-caught fish off the back. Clearly they didn't want the tourists like myself waiting all night to see the birds at work but it was amusing nonetheless.


Photographer’s paradise and possibly the most rural land I stumbled across. The not-so-relaxed cruise along the Li River offered views of mountains, grazing buffalo and local fishermen (sadly no longer dolphins). I was given a map of the key sights to head to the top deck for, but heavy crowds mixed with my lack of imagination meant I missed the Painted Hill of Nine Horses. With or without the horses, the scenery is breathtaking, and even when seated, I spent most of the afternoon with my head stuck out the window.


Sat in a rural location, surrounded by landscapes of paddy fields and limestone karsts, I spent the morning exploring the ‘countryside’. And by that I mean some fields with a housing estate being built behind, but it’s the thought that counts.

The location was beautiful, with rafts taking people out on the river and locals fetching water for their cattle. I got to say hello to a cow, who looked like he was planning to escape and I thoroughly enjoyed the brief break from the city.


One of the biggest tea producing regions in China, the Himalayan foothills have been attracting travellers for years. Their exquisite green tea had me whipping out my credit card at an alarming rate, before contemplating how I was going to fit three tins into my suitcase.

Yet there is so much more to experience in Chengdu than sampling the teahouses. The city is slower, locals walk with more ease and there’s a sense of calm in comparison to the chaos of places like Beijing and Shanghai.

Then there are the black and white mascots that Chengdu is home to. Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is one of the city’s highlights. Seeing pandas up close was incredible and witnessing their distinctive appearance camouflaged between the trees of their enclosures was something I would only believe with my own two eyes.

The spices far extend the hotness of home, but if you like heat then delve into a hearty hot pot. Being a vegetarian in China can be challenging, especially considering most restaurants show you your dinner on the way in, but Chengdu brought variation and flavour to the table. Chaoshou stuffed with Chinese cabbage, aubergines drizzled in roasted chilli oil and spicy tofu that will blow your head off.


We stopped in Leshan for one reason and one reason only… The Leshan Giant Buddha.

In December 1996, the Buddha’s location was included by UNESCO on the list of the World Heritage Sites. At 71 metres tall, it’s the world’s largest stone-carved Buddhist monument (and yet a woman on my boat missed it as we sailed past!).

After capturing its size from the water, it was time to hike to the top.


Capital of Shaanxi Province, Xi’an marks the Silk Road’s eastern end and was once home to the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties' ruling houses.

So it was only fitting that it was here I sat down to a feast of traditional Shui Jiao dumplings and a performance of Tang Dynasty dancing.

Also home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which have marvelled visitors since their discovery in the 1970s, I spent the morning admiring their enigmatic ranks and trying my best to get a photo without dropping my camera over the side. It’s often the case, but pictures really don’t do justice to the sheer scale of the warriors.

While in Xi’an, it’s also worth a trip to the Little Wild Goose Pagoda (something I had no understanding of before I arrived).


A super quick trip on the bullet train, which made my usual commute seem even drearier, and we arrived in Beijing.

Soaking up the harmonious ambience of the Temple of Heaven, an orderly oasis in a bustling urban landscape, I very nearly managed to get a photo of myself without anybody else in the shot (a rarity for Chinese tourism). A complex of religious buildings, with local men outside playing a game that looked very confusing, the whole site was breathtakingly beautiful.

Tiananmen Square was my next stop in the city, where despite having freedom of speech, you’re only allowed to ask questions on the bus. We arrived quite late in the day, meaning the queue was far too long to visit the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, but we got the chance to walk around the square and see where the protests of 1989 had taken place.

The Forbidden City, apparently China’s single most popular attraction, was surprisingly huge - twice that of the Vatican. It’s worth visiting early in the morning, to avoid the crowds, and the same goes for the Great Wall of China. Taking a walk on the incredible structure is the best way to appreciate its magnificence. Pack some comfy shoes, it’s a solid workout, and despite my usual ease with heights, the drop even had my knees shaking.

There really is nothing quite like it.



  1. Heeeeeey :) I'm so happy you finally got to see Pandas in real life!!!


  2. Great read and wonderful pictures. China looks such an amazing place to visit. Didn't know there was so much more to see in China, other than just the main cities.


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