Chinese whispers

Beautiful yuyuan garden at night,traditional shopping area in shanghai, China. SUS-170806-161017001
Beautiful yuyuan garden at night,traditional shopping area in shanghai, China. SUS-170806-161017001

Jeannine Williamson discovers culture and good fortune in China

No documentary, film or book could have adequately prepared me for the first glimpse of China’s Terracotta Army.

Shanghai skyline with historical Waibaidu bridge, China SUS-170806-161109001

Shanghai skyline with historical Waibaidu bridge, China SUS-170806-161109001

Walking into the vast mausoleum it’s a totally awe inspiring and unforgettable moment to come face to face with the serried ranks of stalwart warriors that had silently stood guard for more than 2,000 years.

Row upon row of lean, life-size foot soldiers, horses and portly well-fed generals stretch into the distance. The sight is even more incredible as our guide tells us to study their faces more closely as the features of the 6,000 plus warriors are all different. Crafted in 210BC to protect China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, and hidden from the outside world until being unearthed by a group of Xian farmers in 1974, the amazing army is just one of the many unique and unforgettable experiences in China.

An escorted tour takes you to the heart of this enthralling and mysterious country, which remains challenging for independent travellers as English is not widely spoken outside hotels and tourist attractions. Our itinerary is called ‘A China Experience’, and it certainly lives up to its name as we admire marvels of ancient and modern China, speed past misty mountains and paddy fields on a bullet train, haggle for silk souvenirs in a local market and try to get to grips with chopsticks.

Our 11-day journey begins in Shanghai. With a population of 24 million, China’s largest and most modern city is a dazzling spectacle of contrasts. Our first excursion is a guided walk along the mile-long Bund waterfront by the Huangpu River and we stroll past ornate Gothic and Art Deco buildings, including the Customs House modelled on the tower of Big Ben, before taking photos of skyscrapers that line the Pudong district on the opposite bank.

People at Yuyuan Market in Old City of Shanghai, China. The market grew up around Yuyuan Gardens and City God Temple in 19th century during the Qing Dynasty. SUS-170806-161159001

People at Yuyuan Market in Old City of Shanghai, China. The market grew up around Yuyuan Gardens and City God Temple in 19th century during the Qing Dynasty. SUS-170806-161159001

Afterwards we travel to the 16th century Old Town where the tranquil Yuyuan Garden is a world away from the fast-paced city centre and imposing dragon-shaped walls surround the ponds are filled with shimmering koi carp. In the surrounding streets we see locals queue at takeaway restaurants for dim sum, a lunchtime favourite, while older men unselfconsciously sit outside barber shops having their hair dyed jet black.

That evening we return to the Bund to enjoy it from a dazzling new perspective on a one-hour boat trip that glides past the neon-lit skyscrapers and landmark Oriental Pearl TV Tower.

China’s cities and sights are remarkable, and we became increasingly immersed in the culture of this huge country that for many years was isolated from the rest of the world. The following morning a two-hour internal flight takes us to Xian, encircled by intact 14th century city walls, and you can cycle or walk the entire distance if you’re feeling energetic. A colourful dinner theatre show at the Tang Dynasty Palace, with a dumpling feast, rounds of the day in more ways than one.

Each day brought another highlight, and from Xian we took a six-hour bullet train that hurtled past paddy fields and green mountains at up to 186mph. We arrived in the grand imperial capital Beijing, with more than its own fair share of impressive sights. Tiananmen Square, spread over 100 acres, is the world’s largest public square and leads to the UNESCO-listed Forbidden City, the 15th century palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties that was closed to the outside world for five centuries. In the afternoon we wander around the magnificent Summer Palace, where you can take a dragon boat ride on the tranquil lake.

The Beijing section of the itinerary heralded a trip to Mutianyu to see part of the 3,750 mile Great Wall of China. Accessed by a cable car, it’s breath-taking in more ways than one to walk along the wall that snakes into the hilly distance. It follows a winding path as according to Chinese mythology demons and evil spirits can only travel in straight lines.

Our continuing tour took in visits to jade and silk factories to watch craftsmen at work and buy quality souvenirs. At night the itinerary included more shows, such as dizzying Chinese acrobats and the chance to see Beijing’s thrilling Legend of Kung Fu show.

Everywhere we went our indefatigable guide George came too. Each day he shared his vast knowledge, encouraged us to touch dragons and other mythical creatures for good luck and assisted with practical matters such as the location of luxury five-star toilets - yes, they really are graded by the tourist board - and coping with traditional Chinese meals in local restaurants. These involve sharing a seemingly endless array of different dishes served on circular tables with a ‘Lazy Susan’ rotating glass top, and the tip is to pace yourself. There was also a Peking duck dinner where chefs carve each bird into an incredible 120 pieces that are all the same size.

During the visit to Xian, I bought a pint-sized Terracotta Army unit - a general, three soldiers and a horse - for the equivalent of a few pounds from a street trader. Unlike the original warriors, I had doubts about their longevity and whether they’d make it home in one piece. I’m pleased to report they survived intact, although I’m not so sure how fellow members of the group got on after buying inexpensive suitcases to bring back armfuls of cheap ‘designer’ clothes, handbags and sunglasses from Beijing’s vast Pearl Market shopping emporium where haggling is part of the deal. Whatever the outcome, the priceless memories of the trip will last a lifetime.

Cosmos offers a variety of escorted touring holidays from 11-15 days with the option to include a Yangtze River cruise. The 11-day ‘A China Experience’ itinerary, taking in the Great Wall of China, Terracotta Warriors, Beijing and Shanghai is priced from £1,599, including flights, full-board accommodation, guided sightseeing, transfers and private home pick-up service. Call 0800 668 1365 or visit www.cosmos.co.uk

Photographs courtesy of Cosmos

This first featured in the July edition of etc Magazine pick up your copy now.