Buried beneath skyscrapers: Visiting the cradle of Chinese civilization

Luoyang, Henan Province, 15-17 October

After Xi’An we’re making a sidestep back east to the city of Luoyang situated along the Luo River, where we witness both the effects of China’s rapid development and the hospitality and kindness of the people of Luoyang. And visit the Longmen Grottoes and eat all the food!

As mentioned in my previous post, Luoyang is another one of the Four Ancient Capitals. Founded in the 11th century BCE, no less than 105 emperors across 13(!) dynasties have ruled from this city and it was a centre of politics, economy and culture for a total of over 1,500 years.

After learning a thing or two about Luoyang’s rich history on the train we arrive with great expectations. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, under the rule of emperor Ming, the city became the first eastern starting point of the Silk Road to Europe, which reached all the way to the Roman Empire. When the emperor’s ambassadors returned on the Silk Road bringing back sutras and monks, Luoyang became the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism. White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, was constructed here in 68 CE.

In the 5th century BCE the Northern Wei emperor ordered the creation of the cave temples at Longmen, and thus cemented Luoyang as one of the greatest centres of Chinese Buddhism. Around the same time Taoism was also founded in Luoyang, and, last but not least, a Shaolin Temple was constructed on nearby Mount Song, which marked the beginnings of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Not convinced of Luoyang’s historical significance just yet? Three out of four great Chinese inventions were created in this city: Gunpowder, printing and paper making!

At this point one might be led to believe Luoyang has all the hallmarks of an unforgettable visit, but sadly its glory days didn’t last: In the 8th century the city fell into economic decline and by 1949 its population had dwindled to only 75.000. In the 1950’s, helped by the Soviet Union, Luoyang became one of China’s major industrial cities and the city experienced even more rapid development since the 1980’s. Today it has flourishing chemical, textile and food-processing industries and a population of 6.5 million, but rapid growth and development have come at a price.

Future site of a skyscraper.

I’m beginning to discover a pattern in China. The Great Wall, though hugely impressive, in some places has been repaired with little concern for the original. In Beijing the hutongs are fast disappearing. In Xi’An antiques markets have been replaced by tourist stalls selling knockoffs, but Luoyang takes the cake: Its ancient town has been turned into a friggin’ amusement park, with its only remains a tiny bit of wall and a pretty sad looking drum tower..

Skyscrapers and apartment blocks stand in place of what is considered to have been the cradle of Chinese civilization. Though the museum holds a vast collection of pottery and stone carvings from Luoyang’s glory days, lots of it recently discovered on building sites across town, I can’t shake the feeling much of its history has been paved over carelessly. Not to worry though, as the main reason we travelled here is to see the Longmen Grottoes.

Our first mission after getting off the train is to find our hotel and have a bite to eat. While we travelled by metro in Beijing and Xi’An, Luoyang’s metro system is still under construction so we need a bus to take us downtown. Problem is there are four different bus stations and half of the buses have no numbers. Armed with our smartphones we enlist the locals’ help, but even they seem entirely confused by their own transport system.

A very friendly man walks us to one of the bus stations, then can’t find the right bus and gets other people involved. Soon a whole group of people discuss which bus we need to take and finally a woman walks us to another bus station to find bus 81 (we have a number now) but it still remains at large.

After about an hour we gamble on bus 33, which might possibly head downtown we’re told. Luckily it does. The moment we cross the river the skyscrapers end and when we reach our stop we’re in an area which feels more like a small town than a big city, with loads of little eateries and shops. The locals are both surprised and amused to see us.

It’s beginning to get dark and rainy, so we’re keen on finding our hotel, having only a general area on the map to work with. Again we’re in luck; Eagle-eyed Lauren spots the hotel immediately in one of the back alleys. We made it!

The door is open, but the lobby is deserted except for two fluffy cats napping in a cage. We try the phone number found on the desk. When someone answers and I explain that we’re at the hotel I’m not quite sure they understand, but ten minutes later the owner of the property arrives. For some reason she seems surprised we don’t speak Chinese, but her English, sounding very much inspired by Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Borat, is very nice!

We’re staying in the family room, which, for a family room, is perhaps a bit heavy on the semi-erotic wall-art.. But hey, it’s clean and it’s comfortable (except for the beds, Chinese like their mattresses hard as rock), so we’re happy. We’re recommended a good restaurant nearby (sign in Chinese, picture of a big red chicken), and end another successful day.

The next morning we wake up early to visit the Longmen Grottoes, and we’re well-excited! Longmen is located on the city’s Southside, where the limestone rock formations of East Hill (Xiangshan) and West Hill (Longmenshan) stand facing eachother. With the River Yi flowing in the middle, together they form a natural gateway named Yique (gate of Yi), or Dragon’s Gate.

View of Longmenshan and Yi River.

Started in 493 CE during the Northern Wei Dynasty and continued for the next 400 years across several dynasties, the limestone cliffs of the two hills house tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples, which have been carved into the rock relief and inside over 2,300 excavated niches and caves. The Grottoes are considered to contain some of the finest pieces of Chinese Buddhist art.

8 meters tall Buddha Amitabha at the Qianxisi Cave (Tang Dynasty)
Smaller carved reliefs.
Most of the carvings are missing a few parts.
Maitreya Buddha (female Buddha) at Moya Three Buddha Cave (Zhou Dynasty, Wu Zetian regime)

Xiangshan Temple, whose rooftops are described as ‘flying the clouds’ was built in 516 CE to house the monks overseeing the stone carvings. It is situated in the middle mountainside of the East Hill and offers wide views of the river and the caves of Longmenshan. Wu Zetian, China’s only ever female monarch, used to spend a lot of time at this temple, and against the backdrop of the Longmen Grottoes, she declared herself empress here!

Before we leave the Longmen Grottoes, there is one last big finale to see, which is the shrine of Fenxian Si. This monumental temple was carved out over the three-year period between 672 and 675 CE and features a colossal Buddha figure more than 17 metres high, flanked by its attendants. It truly is a sight to behold and the crown jewel of the Longmen Grottoes.

Stairs leading up to Fenxian Si.
As seen from across the river.

The Longmen Grottoes are a tough act to follow and the next day we attempt to visit the Shaolin Temple, but a late start to our morning plus the chaotic bus system in Luoyang gets the better of us. By the time we have finally found our bus at 11am, it’s not leaving until 2pm and will take over two hours to get there, so we end up strolling around the town for the afternoon instead.

Now no story about Luoyang would be complete without describing our experience with the restaurants. So far when we needed help finding buses the locals have been very friendly and helpful, but at the restaurants friendliness is taken to another level, and the food never stops coming.

Generally in restaurants we use our phones to translate a picture of the menu, but usually it just gets you gibberish. At that point we tend to try and order something simple and hope for the best, and most of the time that works. On our first night here, at our local Big Red Chicken restaurant we ask for chicken noodles, and end up getting something amazing: A humongous plate of chicken, potatoes and vegetables in a chilli broth with lip-numbing but delicious spices. When the staff sits down to eat their own dinner they give us some of their soup and bread to taste. And if that weren’t enough, fresh noodles are brought out twice and it actually cost next to nothing. The staff thinks it’s hilarious when we leave a tip!

This afternoon we randomly walk into a busy restaurant and ask for beef noodles (you can tell our vocabulary is pretty limited). The woman at the counter nods in understanding, but then her colleague starts pointing frantically at the menu. We point at what we think are the beef noodles and pay for the order. When we collect the food it turns out to be a light broth with beef and noodles, perfect.

We take a seat and dig in, it’s delicious. Minutes later one of the chefs comes running out of the kitchen, shouts at us in Chinese and leaves a basket of freshly baked bread and bread strips on the table, probably comes with the noodles we’re guessing. Then suddenly the same woman from the counter shows up and puts an even bigger and tastier bowl of beef noodles down in front of us. We can’t understand what she’s saying, but she seems upset and we’re beginning to think we may have messed up our order here. The app produces a curious translation: I told you lie down for enjoy hot noodles to warm on a cold floor. We try to pay for the extra dish, but she is having none of it and keeps smiling at us while I’m trying to finish what is a pretty unreal amount of food.

After this big lunch, in the evening we visit our local food street to get a light snack. We find a place that does dumplings and ask for a portion each. Usually a portion consists of about 8 dumplings, but in this restaurant it turns out a portion is about 40 dumplings, holy shit! And it comes with a bowl of soup, all at a cost of under £3 for the entire meal! All the tables are taken but the other diners immediately clear some space for us and fill saucers up with dipping sauces for the dumplings, amazing! I think everyone finds it super funny we cluelessly walk into the local eateries, but either way we feel incredibly welcome here in Luoyang, the city that won’t stop feeding you!

Luoyang has been a great experience and now we’re off to find even more food and visit the Giant Pandas, when we go to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province!

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Tracing the origins of the Silk Road

Xi’An, 11-14 October

An easy 3 hour train ride takes us from the Shanxi Province to the Shaanxi Province. We’re now roughly 1,100 km southwest of Beijing at our second major stop Xi’An, capital of Shaanxi, and a city world-renowned for the Terracotta Army.

At first glance Xi’An is not exactly winning any beauty contests. As expected of a city with a growing population of 8.7 million people, it has plenty of skyscrapers and ongoing building development. Most of the landscape passing us by on the train today was hidden from sight by a thick blanket of grey fog and Xi’An is much the same. While the air pollution may be why so many (usually older) Chinese love, and I mean really love, to hock a loogie (loudly clear their throats and spit out the contents), it does not however explain why they also burp and fart in public with impunity (men AND women), or smack their lips when they eat, or devour whole pieces of raw garlic, but let’s not digress.

Our hotel, So Young, is situated on the 12th floor of an apartment complex inside the old town square with views over the city. It has a rooftop bar with two resident cats, and our comfortable room even has a television with pretty terrible but funny shows airing on the state channel CCTV.

Our view from the room.
Some interesting wiring next to our hotel.

It’s still quite early in the afternoon once we’ve made some plans for the next few days, so it’s time to head out and get a bit more feel for Xi’An. Similar to our previous stops of Beijing and Pingyao, Xi’An is a city which has a long and rich history. Though under various different names it was the capital city of some of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang, and is therefore named one of four Great Ancient Capitals of China. It is also the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and, as mentioned, home of the Terracotta Warriors, made during the Qin dynasty.

With over 3,100 years of history in Xi’An we assume that here might be a good place to browse around a few antiques markets but are left wanting. In place of shops and stalls we find a building site for what no doubt will be another skyscraper or apartment building. Sad, but perhaps no surprise as in recent years Xi’An, as part of the economic revival of interior China, has re-emerged as an important center for research and development, national security and space exploration.

Change is made rapidly in Xi’An and that which used to be is easily forgotten, as even the locals seem confused to find there ever was an antiques market in the place we’re standing. Lauren uses an app, which translates written English to Chinese characters and spoken Chinese back to English, which has been very handy. While one guy is helping us, a bystander joins in and soon they’re arguing over where the market may have gone. After ten minutes we’re none the wiser, so we thank them both for their efforts and decide to give up on this one, but the two men, perfect strangers before they met today, walk away as friends, chatting happily to eachother! Not such a bad result for an afternoon.

On our way back we find the pub street with Old Henry’s Bar, where we’re hoping to watch the Rugby on Sunday, and we end our day with street food from the Muslim Quarter. This network of streets offers all kinds of delicious foods which are prepared on the spot and is popular with both tourists and locals. You can find anything here, from fresh juices to spicy tofu to whole crab kebabs. We try out the Rou Jia Mo, or meat-in-a-bun, which tastes an awful lot like stovies, before some candied apple on a stick and frozen rice candy. Though satisfied for today we’re sure to return here later to try a few other things.

We’re saving the Terracotta for after the weekend to avoid some of the crowd, so on Saturday we go out to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

As part of the Da Ci’en Temple of Great Kindness and Grace, this Buddhist pagoda was originally built during the Tang Dynasty for the study of Buddhist scriptures, then following an earthquake in 1556 it was renovated during the Ming dynasty. Today the temple complex is still in use by monks.

Interesting about the Pagoda’s architecture is that its 7 storeys are built with layers of bricks without cement, in bracket style.

The Pagoda is closely connected to China’s Silk Road, as in 652 AD, the temple’s first abbott Master Xuanzang brought the precious sutra and other relics from India along the Silk Road to China and translated the valuable Buddhist text here, to be kept safe inside the Pagoda.

Monks carrying treasure up to the Pagoda.
Temple wall depicting Silk Road.
Throwing coins into the big teapot for good luck.

In the afternoon we explore the town centre. In Chinese history from Ming Dynasty each city had a Drum Tower and a Bell Tower. In old times the bell was sounded at dusk and the drum at dawn.

Xi’An Drum Tower

The Da Ci’en temple has their own smaller version of these towers, which were used to give the monks instructions throughout the day, and we find out what they look like on the inside.

Big drum and walls covered in resonating plates. The sound is supposed to resemble a lion’s roar.

On Sunday we’re taking it easy with a nice leisurely stroll along the city wall. Known as the Fortifications of Xi’An, the wall encloses an area of about 14 square km and is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved city walls in China. Built in the 14th century as a military defense system, it still exhibits the complete features of the rampart architecture of feudal society.

Typical Xi’An day with low levels of visibility.

There are four gates in total of which the south gate is the largest and most decorated. Each gate has three gate towers, called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outermost gate is Zhalou, used to raise and lower the suspension bridge. Jianlou is the middle gate with small windows on its front and sides, and was used as defensive lookout. Zhenglou, the inner gate, is the main entrance to the city. The Jianlou and Zhenglou are connected by the wall. Soldiers were stationed in the area between these towers, called Wong Cheng.

Eastern Zhenglou with sloped horse passages leading up from Wong Cheng.
Eastern Jianlou.
View from one of the front windows at eastern Jianlou.

The vantage point of the city wall provides an interesting contrast between the old and the new city.

We finish our walk at the main gate on the south side of the wall.

Traditional neighbourhood viewed from the south wall.
Southern Zhenglou and Jianlou.
South gate entrance

The Terracotta Army

We’re saving the best for last with our visit to the Terracotta Army, a massive collection of clay statues from the late 3rd century BCE, which has captivated audiences all over. Here in Lintong County, just outside Xi’An, they were discovered by local farmers back in 1977, and have since been displayed throughout the entire world.

The Terracotta Army depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, and were buried alongside him to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is estimated that the three pits containing the Army hold more than 9,000 figures.

The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. They include warriors, chariots and horses. Other, non-military figures, such as acrobats and musicians, were also found.

The wooden chariots have all disintegrated.

Each figure is uniquely different and some even bear the artist’s signature.

Excavation work is still being carried out, even during our visit. Every complete figure has been painstakenly re-assembled usually from hundreds of broken pieces. Esspecially the faces require a lot of restoration, which is why a lot of figures are currently headless.

I can definitely recommend visiting Xi’An, we’ve had a great time here and the Terracotta Warriors have been a big highlight for us on our China trip! Tomorrow we’re taking the slow train eastward to Luoyang in the Henan province, another one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China.

Visit to Turtle City

Pingyao, 9-10 October

Our first stop after Beijing is one of China’s four best preserved old cities, the Ancient City of Pinyao, famed for its Ming and Qing urban planning and architecture, temples, and a grand City Wall.

Located roughly 600 km southwest of the capital in the central Shanxi Province, Pingyao was first recorded around 800 BC and considered an important financial centre of the Qing Empire in the late 19th century, controlling most of China’s silver trade. In 1997, together with the nearby temples of Shuanglin and Zhenguo, it was inscribed a world cultural heritage.

Pingyao is called Turtle City because of its city wall. Along the wall are six gates, four of which are symmetrically placed on the east and west sides to resemble the turtle’s legs. The Southern and Northern Gate are its head and tail respectively, while the crisscrossing lanes of the city form the patterns on the turtle’s shell.

It’s cold and dreary when we step off the train at Pingyaogucheng train station, but a bus is stood waiting to take us to our hotel without delay. Though Pingyao is a quiet city of only 50.000 people there’s four lanes leading to and away from town. There’s no such thing as small in China. In 30 minutes we arrive at Jiaxin Guesthouse, which is full of character and settle in quickly.

The next morning we set out to visit a few sights. The driver of bus 108 is a total badass playing loud drum ‘n’ bass and smoking cigarettes from behind the wheel. Without much trouble we make it to Shuanglin Temple, a large Buddhist temple founded in the 6th century and notable for its collection of over 2,000 decorated clay statues from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. We’re about the only people here and have a great time checking out all the incredibly detailed and lifelike sculptures. This would have to be one of my favourite stops so far.

After the polished, restored ancient buildings in Beijing it is welcome to see a temple both well-preserved and well-worn over time, rather than done up. And one that isn’t overrun with other tourists either!

After such a great morning it shouldn’t be a surprise that the other sights in the Ancient Town are a little underwhelming. Pingyao is pretty touristic and there’s more shops than actual sights. In fact, every building that’s in a good nick is either a shop or restaurant, and everything that’s not a shop or restaurant is a total wreck. It makes for a nice afternoon stroll nonetheless before we head back to the hotel to plan our next trip to Xi’An, home of the Terracotta Army.

Greetings from the Imperial Capital

Beijing, 5-8 October

After visiting the Great Wall we continue to explore the lives and times of China’s emperors in the capital city. Located in the northeast of China, Beijing is the third most populated city in the world and one of the world’s leading centres for culture, politics, business and technology, but also one of the oldest cities in the world, with a rich history dating back three millennia. Welcome to Beijing, where the old meets with the new!

The first walled city in Beijing was called Jicheng, built in 1045 BC. After the First Emperor unified China, Jicheng became a prefectural capital for the region, but it wasn’t until much later that Jicheng (Beijing) would become the powerhouse it is today.

In 1213 the city was besieged by Genghis Khan and razed to the ground, to be rebuilt two generations later by Kublai Khan. Centered on the Drum Tower, the city now became more important than ever before.

Drum Tower and Bell Tower

Finally on 28 October 1420, Beijing was officially designated the primary capital of the Ming Dynasty after completion of the new imperial residence, the Forbidden City. By the end of the 15th century Beijing had taken it’s current shape. Once the Qing Dynasty had taken over in the 17th century only slight modifications to the city were made, and to the northwest of the city the Summer Palaces were established.

On the 1st October 1949, Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China from atop Tian’anmen, where in 1976 the cultural revolution was brought to an end. Today Beijing is a thriving metropolis we’re excited to get to know a little over the next few days.

Tu’Er Ye, or Old Man Rabbit, the unofficial Beijing mascotte

Day 1: Joining the Party

Retracing our steps back from the Great Wall to the city we meet an American guy on the subway who happens to work near our AirBnB and delivers us right to the door, where we’re greeted by the owner, a very sweet lady and her amicable brown poodle Cookie. Things are running smoothly so we have ample time to go out and explore a bit on our first day.

We’re hoping to dive right in and sample Beijing’s street food scene, but are faced with our first reality check. Recent urbanization has brought about the loss of historic neighbourhoods and Wanfujing Snack Street is sadly shut down, to be re-developed into a shopping mall.. After settling for fast food then, we set out to find a bar in one of the famous hutongs, narrow alleyways in the cities traditional housing style, only to be foiled again: the bar is permanently shut down. Not the best. It’s beginning to get dark too so we need a new plan. We sit down by the side of the road when a big crowd of people with national flags painted on their faces and holding red banners pass us by and we decide to go with the flow and find out what’s happening. Before we know it we’re in the middle of a queue steadily pushing for Tian’anmen Square.

Four days ago on the first of October China celebrated its 70 year anniversary of the People’s Republic, and because this week is a national holiday, folks are out in numbers to visit the birthplace of the Republic.

We see the Working People’s Cultural Palace and Altar of Earth & Harvests beautifully lit up in the midst of an excited crowd, before making our way back to Tian’anmen Square, where we realize an entire metro line is shut down for tonight’s occasion. A few hours later and with sore feet we arrive at a German bar for a much needed pint before heading back to the apartment.

Day 2: Lama Temple & craft beers

In the morning we visit the Yonghe Temple, or Lama Temple, a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism converted from a Ming residence for court eunuchs in 1722 during the Qing dynasty by the Yongzhen Emperor, who’s body was buried in the temple following his death. His successor gave the temple imperial status by replacing its turquoise tiles with yellow tiles, which were reserved for the emperor. The monastery became the national centre of Lama administration and residence for Tibetan Buddhist monks, which it still is today.

After the temple we go in search of a tea shop which presents us with another new reality. Beijing’s authentic tea shops are more and more becoming a thing of the past. In its place, craft beer is getting very popular however. Sure it’s only twelve but when a cafe appears out of nowhere we seize the opportunity. (When in Beijing and all..)

Given the time of day it’s no surprise we are the only customers when we walk into Beer Girl 77. It’s very much a hipster place and serves loads of different craft ales, lagers, stouts and ciders from their own micro brewery. The bar staff lets us taste a few and we end up staying for most of the afternoon. Between the beers, a translation app, their growing confidence speaking English and our trying but failing to learn Mandarin, plus some good will, we manage to connect on many levels with these nice guys and have a great time!

Day 3: Shopping & Temple of Heaven

Today I find a few of my preconceptions about China do not quite hold up. First of all, once again today it’s a beautiful, sunny, smog free day in Beijing while we’re headed out to do some shopping, and the roads are quiet. We’re looking for a French supermarket in another hutong, but can’t seem to find it. When we ask an older lady sitting on a plastic chair in front of her house for directions, within minutes no less than ten people are banded around us, all trying their best to help us out. Who ever said the Chinese are standoffish?

Yesterday we were told that a few years back a lot of businesses were moved from the city centre to the outer rings to create more breathing space for everyone. I suppose this explains why we haven’t been able to find certain shops and bars, and why there’s no real overcrowding and subsequent bad pollution, which may in turn shed some light on the fact that Beijingers are not exactly short, quite a few of them are taller than I am! That’s my prejudices out the window, consider me schooled.

After shopping for souvenirs, we find a shop that sells baguettes, and actual Gouda cheese and sliced ham! We have been fantasizing about this for a few weeks now, it’s the little things right? We relax for a bit by a lake in the city’s biggest green space, Chaoyang Park, where you can ride a giant rubber duck.

With a few more hours of daylight left in the day we decide to visit the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple complex which was constructed around the same time as the Forbidden City, between 1406 and 1420.

First built by the Yongle emperor, the complex was extended and renamed Temple of Heaven in the 16th century, and renovated in the 18th century. With the downfall of Qing, the temple was left in disrepair, but since 1918 has been open to the public. It’s symbolic layout and design have had a big influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.

In ancient China, the emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven. To be seen to be showing respect to the source of his authority, in the form of sacrifices to heaven, was extremely important. The Temple of Heaven was built for these ceremonies, mostly comprising prayers for good harvests.

Hall of Prayers
Harvest receptacles
Altar of animal sacrifices

Twice a year the Emperor and all his retinue would move from the Forbidden City to stay in the temple complex and perform a procession and ceremonies no ordinary Chinese was allowed to witness.

Mahjong players in the Long Corridor

At the end of a successful day we feast on noodles and dumplings at a proper family-run hole-in-the-wall type restaurant where our translation app once again proves its worth.

Day 4: Ending Beijing in style

We wake up to big plans for our final day in Beijing, as we still have the Forbidden City and Summer Palace to visit. The area we stay in is quite lively with a few convenience stores as well as a few nice bakeries by the metro station. The portuguese style egg custard pastries are delicious and make for a good breakfast today. Afterwards we start off with exploring the coveted Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is the former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty (1420-1912). It served as the home of emperors and their households and was the political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years. The emperors clearly liked their real estate as the complex consists of a whopping 980 buildings spread out over 72 hectares of ground, and today most of it is sprawling with tourists.

Ancient tree in the emperors garden

We spend our afternoon on the Summer Palace, a short journey out of town to the so-called Fragrant Hills. Between this and the Forbidden City we’re transitioning from Ming to Qing and from extremely busy to pleasantly quiet. Much like the emperor himself back in the day we escape the hustle and bustle of town and find a place to relax.

Having said that, I’m pretty sure we’re being shadowed by guys wearing earpieces throughout the afternoon.. I guess by the end of it they realized we’re really not that interesting. Much unlike the Summer Palace, where you could spend an entire day from start to finish and still not see it all!

The Palace was built around 1749 by the Qianlong Emperor to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday (nope, it’s definitely not the thought that counts), and is centered around the Great Temple of Gratitude and Longevity (I’m sure she lived long to express her son a lot of gratitude). Best to let the pictures speak for itself here.

So we’ve stood on the emperor’s wall, we’ve trudged through his home, explored his most sacred temple and chilled out at his summer palace, what better way to end our Beijing trip than by eating the emperor’s own food: Peking Duck! We find this succulent Chinese meal at Li Qun Restaurant, a favourite among famous Chinese actors!

Beijing was a great experience and hopefully a sign of good things to come for the rest of our journey through China. Next we’re travelling to the Ancient City of Pingyao!

Goodness gracious, great wall of China!

Xishuiyu, 3-4 October

In the early morning on the 3rd of October our plane lands without a hitch, we’re in The People’s Republic of China!

It took about 24 hours to get here from New Delhi, but we’re feeling kind of fresh because it’s 7am and we managed to get a few hours sleep on the plane. China was always the country I worried about visiting the most just because of the language barrier, but we’re off to a great start. Immigration is cleared in seconds, we get a local SIM card, then an IC card for public transport and just like that we’re on the metro to Dongzhimen, Beijing.

When we applied for our Tourist Visa back in Edinburgh, it was mentioned that a government official may visit us at our hotel within 48 hours of arrival, however we are on our way to the middle of nowhere, also known as the little town of Xishuiyu. I’d be very surprised if anyone comes knocking!

First we take the bus from Dongzhimen to Huairou, then get a local bus all the way to the end of the line to reach our destination around noon. As expected, our English is useless here, but with a little help from technology we manage to find our hotel.

Xishuiyu consists of only two streets as well as a big car park the size of the town. We’re here to visit another of the 7 New Wonders of the World, China’s Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China is the collective of fortification systems built across the historical northern borders of China to protect its territories against nomadic groups from Central Asia, Mongolia and what is now Russia. Building dates back to as early as the 7th century BC, however the most well-known sections of the wall were constructed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The entire wall measures out to be 21,196 km and stretches from Liaodong in the east to Lop Lake in the west. Rightly it is recognized one of the most impressive architectural feats in history.

The part of the Great Wall we’re visiting is called Huanghuacheng, which is the only lakeside section of wall in the Beijing area. Huanghua means yellow flower and in the summer the village is covered in a sea of yellow. The local mountainous terrain strategically places it as the northern gateway to Beijing and nearby Ming Tombs.

When we make our way to the ticket office the weather has shifted from a sunny 30 degrees Celcius the day before to a rainy, miserable 14 degrees today. At least most of the tourist have stayed away so it’s not very crowded.

We get talking to one of the guards at the first viewpoint, who explains that most of the wall at Huanghuacheng has fully been restored, but you can still see parts of the crumbling, unrestored wall in the background. Friendly guy, and not a bad photographer to boot.

A lake was formed because of a nearby dam and water has found a way through the wall. Better hope the Mongolians don’t swim, am I right?

After an arduous morning of climbing steps we’re rewarded with amazing views from the watchtowers.

Finally we reach the top and overlook the land we hope to explore and conquer in the next 40 days. Here we come China!

Stopover in Singapore

Singapore, 2 October

Today is one of the biggest travel days for us as we’re flying from New Delhi to Beijing to kick off our China adventure! Since we’re travelling on a budget, we end up booking our flight with an 8 hour layover at Singapore’s Changi Airport, which is near south Malaysia, so a pretty big detour.

Changi Airport has to be a serious contender for the title of ‘best airport in history’. It recently opened the world’s biggest indoor waterfall, or rain vortex, made from collected rainwater, which has a daily light show!

The airport offers free daily sightseeing tours of Singapore for travellers stuck in transit (sadly fully booked by the time we arrived), but there’s plenty other facilities on offer, such as a free movie, showers, beds, and loads of lounges, restaurants, bars and shops. It even has a butterfly garden!

We leave Delhi at 9AM local time and arrive in Singapore at 5PM local. The time zone here is GMT+8, same as in China. Since our flight to Beijing is not until 1AM, we decide to visit the famous rain vortex and enjoy our first soup dumplings. Look it up if you’ve never had them, they’re amazing! As Sri Lanka and India have no real supermarkets of mention, simply being in one at Changi Airport feels great. It’s always fun to check out some weird items sold abroad, such as melon flavoured crisps and chocolate covered gummi bears, which are actually pretty tasty!

Time flies at Changi Airport and in the blink of an eye we’re on our way to China!

India: The verdict

New Delhi, 1 October

Time spent: one month. Distance travelled (land): 1775 km. Distance travelled (air): 2500 km. Places visited: 13.

So the time has come to look back and reflect on our month spent in India. As is our custom, let’s start with the price of a pint.

This explains a lot..

The beer we drank in India is called Kingfisher. It comes in either a 500ml can, a big, or a small bottle, and offers a choice of lager at 4.8% and ‘strong’ at ‘less than 8%’. The most we’ve paid is 350 rupees (£4) for a can of lager, the least 170 rupees (£2) for a big bottle of strong. Is it something we would ever drink back home? Probably not, but on a warm day an ice cold Kingfisher goes down a treat nonetheless.

Then for the final scores as awarded by our lovely judge Lauren:

The people score 7/10. Even though we’ve met some amazing and wonderful people, it’s hard not to also remember India for the annoying selfies, the aggressive tuktuk drivers, and the scam artists at temples. Pushkar is infamous for its so-called Pushkar Passport. Someone puts a bracelet on you or shoves a flower in your hand and then orders you to make an outrageous donation to the temple i.e. their own pockets. We are waiting in a queue at an ATM when we spot some guys handing out these ‘passports’. One of them approaches us. As usual he starts off by asking where we’re from, but Lauren, wise to the scheme, sighs and just says: “What do you want?” You can tell the guy is taken aback a bit and he mutters: “flower for you madam.” To which Lauren replies: “Absolutely not.” And that’s the end of that. Legend.

The food scores 9/10. Even though we finally did end up with Delhi-belly, the Indian food is pretty amazing. There’s a ton of choice and the cooking is not too spicy and very flavourful. Coming from two diehard carnivores, we both actually fell in love with the vegetarian food options. Best dish: Paneer Masala and everything we ate in Bundi. Worst dish: The dodgy goat that made us sick.

The travelling scores 7/10. Though travelling through Kerala was as convenient as Sri Lanka, busses and trains in Rajasthan are not exactly comfortable. Even when reserving the expensive AC seats, the travel isn’t relaxing because Indians love putting their phones on loudspeaker. Love it. Seriously I don’t think anyone up north has heard of headphones. On one train journey I remember a guy entering our carriage a few times around 6am just to make a loud phone call.. We used an app for tuktuk rides which is necessary in Rajasthan if you don’t want to be overcharged, but on the other hand the taxi hire for long distances was great and we managed to some great deals for that.

Best animal: This would have to be the black-faced langur, hands down. Though known to push napping, elderly people off of ledges on occasion, this langur is not generally dangerous and extremely cute with its wee humanlike face, plus some of them are trained to protect people from the more aggressive red-faced macaques, pretty awesome right?

Though I can’t see us return anytime soon to the places we’ve visited this time around, India has been an amazing experience and one that pushed our boundaries a bit too, which is not a bad thing. A trip to the far north and north east of India might someday be on the cards for us and at any rate we would love to come back one day to see tigers in the wild.

Overall, India passes the mark and receives Lauren’s certificate of excellence! Good times!