You know only half of the story
Visit China and fall inlove
A view of the external moat of the palace museum in Beijing. Picture: Amanda Watson
It’s 36°C at 11am and I’m being chased across one of the forecourts of the Forbidden City in Beijing, in the People’s Republic of China, by hordes of people.
Ok, maybe not hordes and with knee joints lubricated by gravel, it’s more of a waddle than a chase to find shade inside the imposing walls of the city.
Our guide, Xiaoting Guo, is looking at the gasping for air, sweating, herd of South African journalists fresh from winter in the country at the invite of the state-owned Xinhua News Agency and the China Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
One can almost feel the thought, you’re from Africa, isn’t it hot there? No, ma’am, it hasn’t been hot there for a while and we’re dying here. Given the size of the palace, and the thousands of visitors already flooding the city, it is easy to get lost, especially where this particular visitor is concerned.
Wandering slack jawed and wide eyed at the massive scale of the place and history of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) site, the sense of history coupled with a vivid imagination combine to transport one back to when it was a living palace.
Exploring the forbidden city in Beijing
In my mind’s eye, royalty wan der through the palace, the women cool under their parasols as warriors swelter in their armour, scents of delicious food wafting over while people stand in quiet contemplation next to the inner and outer moats.
According to the Unesco: The Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing known as the Forbidden City was constructed between 1406 and 1420 by the Ming emperor Zhu Di and witnessed the enthronement of 14 Ming and 10 Qing emperors over the following 505 years.
The Imperial Palaces of Beijing and Shenyang were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987 and 2004 respectively.
There is more on the Palace Museum (its “new” name) than can ever be put on these pages here: en.dpm.org.cn. A spellbinding mix of tradition from more than 5 000 years of recorded history with a drive to maximise the best of a modern lifestyle, China only as recently as March opened its borders – and arms – to tourists following ongoing flare-ups of Covid.
The Saturday Citizen spent a week in the country, visiting Beijing and Yunnan, and if you’ve never been, it is an eye-opener.
With her 2005 hit song, Nine Million Bicycles, Katie Melua warbled her way into the annals of history – and forever ruined journalists’ intro’s – with the line: There are nine million bicycles in Beijing. It’s no secret in a city of more than 21 million residents, Beijing had a lot of problems with pollution.
Exploring Beijing and Yunnan
Fortunately, electric bicycles, scooters and hybrid vehicles have taken care of much of the problems, with blue skies and views for days from hi-rise hotel windows. Be careful though.
Traffic in China travels on the right side of the road (we drive on the left) and, surprise, electric scooters are quiet.
Having nearly bulldozed a scooterist off his wheels by looking the wrong way when stepping into the road, the bruise on one’s leg is only now starting to fade. How the hire of the bicycles and scooters works is explained here: thechinaguide.com.
Traffic noise in general is muted, with toots of the horn being more of a gentle “oi” than Joburg’s incessant blare informing you of how incorrect you are because of your family history.
The JW Marriott Hotel Beijing Central took good care of us with a great range of local and western food. Go local though, it’s perfect for sweltering summer days.
Moving to the south west of China, a two-hour flight from Beijing brings you to the Yunnan province and to its capital, Kunming. There, we styled in the Wyndham Grand, where visitors driving Ferraris, Porsche’s and other high-end shiny flat cars had the enviable pleasure of rubbing shoulders with us.
Exploring the Shilin Stone Forest and Yunnan’s treasures
In Yunnan was my personal star of the show: The Shilin Stone Forest, officially called in China the Shilin National Scenic Area. As with most national parks, visitors will only see a small part of an attraction, and when a park has 350km2 available to visit, it’s going to take you a while.
To quote wondersofyunnan. com, the whole lime stone area covers around 1 777km2 and the history of the formation of the Shi lin Stone Forest goes back about 270 million years. It is hugely popular with local tourists but the park is big enough for you to find a quiet spot. A guide is highly advised, the park is massive, and the probability of being lost, again, is high.
There is so much more. The Nandou Flowers Market of Cheng gong County in Yunnan, one of the biggest markets in Asia, the gardens of the Luo Hong Art Museum in Shunyi, Beijing. The museum was built by Luo Hong as a tribute to – and to house – his own incredible photography and the gardens are a joy on their own.
The Yunnan Ethnic Village is home to 26 minority ethnic cultures which showcase their traditions, way of life, architecture, and how they keep them alive. Fittingly, our last night was spent in the Pullman Hotel in Yuxi, Yunnan, its infinity edge water feature allowing visitors to see what feels like the arrival of tomorrow. Melua’s first verse of her hit single in full goes.