One of our most interesting holidays. Though I'd been holding off for years because of the situation in Tibet, this didn't seem to be doing anybody any good and the lure of this fascinating country became too great.
In this first part, we explored Beijing and Xi'an, including two undoubted highlights of the whole holiday: the Great Wall (so impressed we saw it twice!) and the Terracotta Warriors.
The day of arrival was spent recovering, but we did manage a walk into Tian'anmen Square and a visit to Zhongshang Park which was very peaceful compared to the bustle and rush on the main thoroughfare.
On our return to the hotel (the Xidan - very good food!) we went into the Beijing Books Building - an enormous block of a building, 6 floors crammed with books! The building is very typical of the "blocky" type of architecture in Beijing.
Inside it was very busy and many people, including lots of children, were sitting around on the floors just reading.
Our first guided visit was next morning to Tian'anmen Square: truly vast but singularly uninspiring - too big, I think. At the south end is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall with wonderful heroic figures at all four corners.
It was smoggy here, and very hazy. The major road between the north end of the square and the Forbidden City was a sufficient width to make for a very hazy impression. We returned a few days later to take more photographs on a clearer day.
The Forbidden City is again vast - nothing is on a small scale here it seems! Reputed to have 9000 chambers its name derives from the Chinese people being forbidden to approach even the walls of the complex. Begun in the reign of Kublai Khan - descendant of Genghis Khan - in the thirteenth century, the buildings today date mainly from the fifteenth century Ming dynasty. It is a built to a rigid geometric plan at the centre of a city considered to be the centre of the universe.
One or two of the buildings were under wraps being renovated/decorated for the Olympics in 2008 but most are finished. The colours are fabulous - mostly blues, greens and gold set off by the dull red painted walls.
The buildings are set on a high red-walled base to give an impression of power. Visitors are not actually allowed into any of the buildings but several interiors can be seen from the outside, including the throne room. The Imperial yellow silk shines out in the dimmest interiors.
The layout is a symmetrical succession of courtyards with red-walled, yellow-roofed buildings on all sides. The Golden Water canal winds through the complex, crossed by pristine white bridges. the whole complex being enclosed within a rectangular moat.
The corners of the roofs are occupied by a procession of figures - the more numerous they are, the more important the building.
Later, on our own, we took the subway to the south gate of Tian'anmen Square and wandered through the hutongs - apparently in danger of being completely wiped out in order not to present a poor impression come Olympics time.
This is a shame, because these are fascinating places, more really Chinese than anything we have yet seen. Here are the people, in their shops and stores - selling everything from slippers to silks (or maybe not!).
One evening we returned to Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City was lit up and the fountains were illuminated with coloured lights - very beautiful.
We were most looking forward to two things on this holiday: the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. So it was with a great sense of excitement that we set out early with our guide for the Mutianyu section of the Wall, and increasing worry that it was going to be too misty to get a good sense of the spectacle.
We needn't have worried, even though the mist cleared only slightly on the ascent in the cable car, it continued to clear through the morning and gave an incredibly atmospheric introduction to this immense structure. With the farther hills shrouded in mist you could get a real sense of the isolation of the soldiers posted here to guard the empire.
We were so impressed, and keen to see more of the wall if possible, that the following day we visited the Badaling section. We were lucky to be able to do this having a car, guide and driver to ourselves in all the places we visited - highly recommended!
At over 13,000 miles long it is by far the longest wall in the world. Essentially a defensive structure, sections were begun in the third century B.C., extending westward in later times. The wall we know today was mostly built during the Ming dynasty at the end of the fifteenth century.
The Olympics were due to be staged in China in 2008 so there was some publicity on the hillsides with the distinctive running man logo.
It is almost impossible to appreciate the immensity of the task of those ancient builders, the wall stretches literally as far as the eye can see.
We walked the western stretch as far as it was possible to go, gradually leaving behind most tourists - though some very game elderly Americans also made it to the end!
Colourful pages from the scrap book for the Forbidden City and the visits to the Great Wall
We had some really good food in Beijing - in our hotel, restaurants and in a family home, which we were a bit apprehensive about, but we needn't have worried. This was run by the family, a lunch time spot for Chinese as well as tourists, and the food was excellent. We variously had, throughout our stay in Beijing, dim sum, king prawns, duck (and other meats) freshly griddled to order at the hotel, pork ribs, squid, meat balls, fried aubergine. Not to our liking is tofu and one or two vegetable dishes.
We also visited the Drum Tower in Beijing - the drumming was fantastic, apparently an ancient method of letting the citizens know the time!
A kindergarten was on our schedule too, again a little apprehensively visited, but the children were all asleep.
The Ming Dynasty Temple of Heaven, freshly painted, is another beautifully colourful structure regarded by many as the supreme example of Ming design.
Heaven was considered to be round and the earth square, so the round temple sits on a square platform.
The Temple is amazingly built entirely of wood without the use of a single nail! Cows were ritually slaughtered here, hence the cow statues inside.
Huge Beihai Park is pleasant to wander through and is curious for the white dagoba, built in the seventeenth century to commemorate a visit of the Dalai Lama.
East of Beihai is Jingshan Park - created from the spoil from digging the palace moat. From the top of the hill here the views of the Forbidden City are fantastic - looking right down over all the buildings spread out south and giving a real idea of the huge scale of the place.
The Summer Palace is another beautiful spot to wander, very much the creation of the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi. She was infamous for creating a huge marble boat (which remains at the summer palace) with funds originally destined for the navy! Though the superstructure is wooden the hull is solid marble.
The 900m Long Gallery, decorated with paintings over its entire length, is said to be built so that Cixi could walk outside even in poor weather.
De rigueur to take a Dragon Boat across the lake which has a beautiful seventeen arch bridge.
A final recommendation for food in Beijing: the Beijing Qangjude Hepingmen Roast Duck Restaurant. Vast is, again, the only word to describe this place, 15000 square metres of dining including banquet halls and more than 40 separate dining rooms.
It's impossible not to have the Beijing (Peking) Duck. Wonderful pancakes with plum sauce and fabulous roast duck carved at the table.
An early flight from Beijing to Xi'an for a much anticipated visit to the Terracotta Warriors. We were met by our next guide and driver - throughout these were very friendly, though our Xi'an guide was less efficient than the others, though very knowledgeable in the museum in Xi'an.
We departed immediately for the Warriors, being told that the afternoon would be less crowded than tomorrow morning.
First a visit to a factory with an interesting description of how the warriors were made. Solid only up to their thighs, the hand and heads were made separately and attached to the mass produced bodies. Each face is different. At the back of the factory, and obligatory to walk through, was a large shop - I really wish they'd drop this kind of thing! We had an atrocious meal in what is supposed to be the best nearby restaurant - what on earth must the others be like!
Created to guard the tomb of the emperor Qin Shi Huang (who began the construction of the Great Wall) around 200BC, the underground vaults of the Terracotta Army were discovered in 1974 when peasants were sinking a well. We were indeed very lucky as the place was almost empty and we had unrestricted access to the edge of the viewing platforms. Entering the first large vault is unforgettable - a stunning experience. This is one of the greatest sights in the world.
There are two large vaults and one smaller one. Vault 1 is the largest with over a thousand figures facing as you enter. The rear of Vault 1 is a 'hospital' area where warriors are reconstructed ready for redeployment.
The soldiers are depicted wearing knee-length tunics, those in the vanguard have no armour or helmets - most seem to have a topknot of hair. We were told that if the vanguard soldiers survived warfare they were given armour and moved back in the lines. The warriors originally carried real weapons such as spears and bows and arrows and there were chariots, of which only the horses remain.
The second vault gives a better idea of how badly damaged most of the warriors are on excavation, lying smashed into many pieces. It also has four figures exhibited for visitors to see close up, the most beautiful of which is the archer. The only archers we saw in situ were broken ones in Vault 2 .
Vault 3 is smaller but interesting: this was the command post for the soldiers in the other vaults.
The colours in the photographs are a little tricky because of the artificial lighting colouring the scene in different shades.
The museum is absolutely essential for the two half-life-size bronze chariots it contains - absolutely stunning. The Imperial Fleet Leader's chariot, has four horses and a driver, the one in the rear was the Emperor's and is furnished with beds and seats. The detail is incredible - according to the Rough Guide even the fingerprints are delineated on the fingers!
Xi'an, at the start of the Silk Road, has very impressive Ming Dynasty walls. Inside the walls is a Muslim quarter, which bears very little evidence of traditional Islamic art or architecture. A fine Drum Tower stands imposingly at the south-east corner of the Muslim quarter.
It was so tremendously hot when we visited (indeed has been so far throughout the holiday) that we eventually retreated to an air-conditioned shop before meeting up with our guide.
It was another stiflingly hot day when we visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. It was built as a storehouse to protect precious Sanskrit sutras from fire and is not particularly attractive. There is a very beautiful jade carving, however, depicting the life of the Buddha.
The Shaanxi History museum is really rather good, illustrating the history of the dynasties. I particularly like some wonderful models of people.
On this day we had lunch at the Theatre restaurant, which was better than yesterday's (couldn't possibly be worse!) but not as good as the food in Beijing. However, on the evening of our stay we had the Sofitel buffet - highly recommended! And the Dragon Seal Cabernet is not so shabby either.
A flight from Xi'an took us effortlessly to Guilin.