It’s been that time of year again when my rucksack came down off the top of the wardrobe and I bought 2 packets of shortbread fingers (they travel whatever the climate) as emergency rations and headed off to experience somewhere new. This year I went to Hong Kong and China for a whistle-stop tour of the ‘highlights’. Every year I teach about the one (then two) child policy and how China is the manufacturing centre of global trade as that’s what the textbooks tell us so was looking forward to seeing what China, as a tourist destination, is really like. I was under no illusions that I’d get a real flavour of the ‘authentic China’ but I was hoping for a little more insight into this great country other than its large population and Peking duck!
We arrived in Beijing early on Friday morning after a better night’s sleep on the train – in fact I’d go as far as to say one if the best night’s sleep of the trip so far as it was marginally softer than the beds in some of the hotels (sleeping on top of the duvet in some of the hotels made it feel a little less like you were sleeping on a board!) – and headed to our hotel for breakfast and a quick shower before sightseeing.
The first stop was Tiananmen Square and its wide expanse watched continuously by the array of CCTV cameras. Seeing a gap in the people at the fence meant moving fast to be able to take a clear photo of the buildings and monuments. For here we went under the underpass to the Forbidden City and once again were thrown into Chinese mass tourism – 80,000 tickets are issued per day and it really is jam packed although wandering round the buildings to the sides of the main courtyards offered some reprieve and I did spend a fascinating half hour sat watching two men reconstructing and painting the ornate window frames of one of the old administration building. For all we here about China and it’s strive for technology, they are clearly trying to maintain and restore key parts of their history too.
For a late lunch there was only one realistic option – it was time to sample the real Peking duck. As a great fan of aromatic crispy duck and pancakes in the UK I was looking forward to this and I wasn’t really disappointed – in so much as Peking duck in Beijing is exactly the same as crispy duck and pancakes in the UK! Afterwards we wandered down to the gardens round the Temple of Heaven which were calm and tranquil after the hustle and bustle of the Forbidden City – unfortunately too late to be able to go inside the buildings so we had to be content with wandering round the outside.
In the evening we headed out of the hotel in search of more ‘local life’ and discovered what was clearly the backpackers area and found the obligatory backpackers bar for a bowl of chips.
Saturday was our final day full day in China before a morning flight back to Heathrow via Helsinki on the Sunday, and it was an early start for our final excursion in an attempt to beat the crowds on the Great Wall. We drove out to a renovated part of the Great Wall at Mutianyu, situated 90km north of the city and took the cable car up to the wall itself. At 8am in the morning there were a few people up there but it was fairly quiet to walk along the wall, although still incredibly hot and a little misty. By 10am the queues onto the wall were huge and it was getting quite crowded up there! Having seen so many photos, it was a definite highlight to see it first hand but after a couple of hours of climbing up and down steps I’m really glad I hadn’t opted for the 10 days extension to walk further sections of it – it’s hard going on your feet and knees on all those steps!
On our return to Beijing for our last night we headed back out towards the same streets we had found the night before following a rumour that if we walked a little further we would find a market of indoor stalls and street food – and we did! Cue second Peking duck dinner but this time it was in a wrap eaten in the street for the pricey sum of #1:40.
And so my adventures in China and Hong Kong came to a close. I am still under no illusions that I have seen the ‘real China’ and the shiny, well kept and highly organised China we experienced were very much how they would like the tourist experience of their country to be. However, I do feel that we too get our portrayal of China wrong and give a very singular story of this vast country through our teaching and textbook representations. It’s made me want to experience and travel even more of this fascinating, rapidly changing and vast country as I feel I’ve only just started to scrape the surface – and I’ll be telling my students about their mass tourist industry alongside lessons mentioning the one (now two) child policy and manufacturing industry.
Note: with thanks to Explore and their Highlights of China tour (see http://www.explore.co.uk for a wide range of different itineraries and tours throughout the region).