From China, with love

Heart of asia

From China, with love

They say all major cities are divided into two parts, the bit that’s in the guidebook, and the bit that isn’t.

If you don’t take a guide book, you’ll see a different place. For me, China is a place that comes closest to proving this statement. I had found innumerable reasons to avoid visiting China, the more common ones being language and cuisine, but despite the million voices in my head asking me to reconsider the destination, one word was enough to silence everything. Experience. 

On the itinerary were stops in Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. When I first started writing about this trip, I realised I couldn’t possibly write about each place separately, I was at the end of the second page and I realised I was still stuck among the imperial palaces in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Nothing I explain about the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, or the Terracotta Warriors of Xian, or even the Bund of Shanghai will be enough to do these places justice. So, here I am, instead writing about experiences rather than the places in themselves. 

Local cuisine

As someone who is usually the last person to join the dinner party if the food looks even a little suspicious, I was pleasantly surprised by the taste of authentic Chinese cuisine. However, when you walk into local eateries you have little choice other than pointing at the picture of the dish you want, which makes you feel like a toddler looking at picture books. From roadside delicacies like scorpions and crabs fried and served on sticks, to the fine-dining varieties of ducks, frogs and quails, you can be rest assured that your ‘hunger’ for adventure will be thoroughly satisfied.

One fact that made each of these places even more pleasurable and unique were the people we met here. Travelling in China, without a guide is difficult, but not impossible. However, we were saved from spending hours on trying to make locals understand what we wanted, being helped by some of the locals themselves. The warmth and friendly nature of the Chinese is evident from their ever ready smile and helpful nature. Even while passionately rebuking the attempts of bargaining at the Underground Market in Shanghai, the woman selling scarves called my mother ‘crazy lady’ with a smile on her face.

One thing, though, that doesn’t need any sort of translation is the landscape, art and architecture. We got the first glimpse of it early on in Beijing and Shanghai. The Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven showcase Chinese imperial architecture to perfection. Almost all structures of importance ever built in China follow ancient traditional Confucian beliefs and the five elements are given utmost importance in any structure.

 It is difficult to miss the dominant use of wood, the inclined roof and the bilateral symmetrical designs that signify balance. Walking around the traditional parts of Chinese cities, it is easy to forget that the modern world is as much a part of these cities as are these palaces and temples. Once we take leave of the Emperor’s quarters, we take a quick tour of the financial hub of Beijing. Tall, modern glass structures provide a stark contrast to the welcoming and homey structures from before. The best thing about these parts, though, is that they are incomplete without each other. Shanghai is more ‘modern’ so to speak. With the Maglev, the Bund, and the World Financial Tower it is more of a global financial centre. 

Sights & sounds

Travelling to the smaller towns of Xian and Hangzhou gives us the much needed break from the busy city life. Relaxing near the West Lake of Hangzhou, it was easy to get lost in the tranquillity of the scenery. Lake-side eateries and quaint cafés add the quiet charm to this otherwise bustling city. We spent the day walking around and visiting temples and pagodas, as well as the local flea markets. The city of Xian is known best as the home of the Terracotta Warriors of 210 BC. Looking at the excavation pits, it is easy to guess how much patience archaeologists must have to put together each sculpture piece by piece. Although I have had the privilege of travelling to different parts of the world, this has, by far, been the most thrilling and satisfying experiences. 

Some say that the worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognise you as a tourist. Walking through each of these places with wide eyes and probably even my mouth hanging open, I was probably the most obvious tourist out there, and I would not hesitate to do it again.

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