China awakened my jaded senses.
Perhaps it was the bracing February air that got inside my head and cleared out the cobwebs. Maybe a bowl of spicy Szechwan noodles helped to burn away the fog. But I’m betting that the secret lay somewhere in the heat of China itself.
The simple truth is that in a thousand ways large and small, China is unlike any other place I’ve ever visited. Every meal, every meeting and every sight brought a new experience, exotic and wonderfully mysterious to this American traveler. A trip to China is an awakening experience in every sense of the word.
I spent 10 days touring the country this winter as a guest of China Plus USA and the Chinese National Tourist Office, along with a small group of bank travel directors. From learning to eat with chopsticks to marveling at Beijing’s imperial treasures and the feats of the Shanghai Acrobats, we found every element of this trip full of wonder.
Forbidden City in the mist
We were not long off the airplane in Beijing when we realized the wonders that awaited us, beginning with a visit to the Forbidden City, shrouded in February fog.
Officially known as the Palace Museum, the Forbidden City was constructed more than 600 years ago and occupied by members of the Ming Dynasty — China’s last emperors — until 1921. During that time, it was strictly off-limits to commoners. Only emperors and their entourages were allowed inside this massive and ornate complex.
After the dynasty fell in the early 1920s, the new government opened the complex to the public as a massive historic site.
We entered the city through the Gate of Heavenly Space, an iconic wall that separates the palace complex from Tiananmen Square. Inside, we found an almost indescribable world of luxurious buildings, meticulously handcrafted and painted with colors and imagery that reflect the great dynastic and mythic traditions that span Chinese history.
From the emperors’ throne room to the concubines’ quarters and military barracks, the palace complex has hundreds of buildings with a total of 9,999 rooms — one short of the 10,000 rooms in heaven, according to our local guide, Eddy.
As we toured the buildings, Eddy pointed out many of the traditional beliefs and superstitions that found their way into the Forbidden City’s architecture. A pair of large stone lions guard each important building, he said, to keep the evil spirits out. At the center of the complex, two larger-than-life lions guard the entrance to the emperor’s throne room, a brilliant red building set upon a three-tiered marble terrace.
“The throne doesn’t look very comfortable, but it’s a symbol of power,” Eddy said. “When you sit in that throne, you have all of China in your hand.”
Walking on the Great Wall
By our second day in China, I came to realize the tremendous impact that thousands of years of dynasties have had on this nation. The grandeur and authority of Chinese emperors have left their marks on the land, the people and even Chinese thought.
The scope of imperial heritage is perhaps best observed at the Great Wall of China, one of the world’s most recognized landmarks. This ancient wall stretches some 4,000 miles, from the seashore in the east to the deserts in the west; numerous sections in the mountains surrounding Beijing are easy to reach.
As our bus approached the wall, Eddy helped us put the site into perspective.
“It was first built, more than 2,700 years ago, to protect China from the Mongols invading from the north,” he said. “Over 1 million workers were involved. Many of them died during the work. Many of them were prisoners, so if they got sick or wounded while they worked, nobody cared.”
Today, the wall is still as spectacular as it must have been back then, snaking along the tops of ridges like a spine on the mountain range. In the sections near Beijing, the wall is wide, tall and easy to walk. On the late winter day of our visit, the place hummed with tourists, most of them Chinese nationals visiting from other parts of the large country.
We had two hours to spend exploring the Great Wall. I chose to take the challenging hike from our starting place to the Eighth Tower of the North, the wall’s highest point in the Beijing area. The journey included a lot of steps and no small amount of heavy breathing, but the views from the top and the accompanying sense of accomplishment were more than worthwhile.
Fit for an empress
Though emperors loom large in Chinese history, not all dynastic figures were men. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a woman known as Empress Dowager Cixi wielded considerable power in China, at times from a throne and at other times from behind the scenes. Beijing’s Summer Palace is an enduring testament to her power, wealth and extravagant taste.
When it was constructed in the late 1800s, the Summer Palace was about a half-day’s trip from the Forbidden City. Today, it takes about an hour to reach the site, fighting through Beijing’s considerable traffic. The empress had the complex designed as a summer retreat, with a hand-dug lake to help cool the hot summer air.
“I prefer to refer to it as a beautiful royal garden,” Eddy said. “It has a huge man-made lake in the middle. During the empress’ time, the whole lake was covered with lotus blossoms.”
Like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace is now open for visitors as a museum of imperial splendor. During warmer months, visitors can take paddleboats out on the lake. When our group visited, we admired the lake from shore, then strolled through the garden area and saw the living quarters and other official buildings at the complex.
The beauty of these buildings, along with our guide’s comments, helped us to understand the opulence this empress enjoyed.
“She lived a long life and was very happy,” Eddy said. “For lunch and dinners, she would have 100 dishes made and then only taste 30 to 40 dishes. She had 20 tailors working full time to make formal dresses for her, and there used to be freshwater oysters farmed in the lake to make pearls for her.”