A traditional culture is fast becoming accommodative of change. Sohaila Kapur understands why after her first visit.
The first introduction to Shanghai, on China’s East Coast, is the maze of complicated flyovers. It is the Paris of the East and a shopper’s paradise. Visits to the pearl and jade factories had the saleswomen chasing my friend with solitaire earrings. They didn’t believe us when we told them that precious jewellery had little to do with the financial status of an Indian woman. A word of advice: in China, always keep your guide’s phone number. In case you get lost, they are the only ones who speak English.
Shanghai’s public areas are large and spacious and incredibly well maintained. We visited People’s Square, Yu Yuan (a Ming style Chinese garden of the 16 century), the Jade Buddha, a functioning temple (so much for communist atheism!) and a silk factory. We took a speed ride in the Meglev (the “bullet train” flew at 430 km per hour) and a lazy boat cruise on the Huang Pu.
The city is also a foodie’s paradise. But watch if you are a veggie, you might just get served fish!
From Shanghai, we flew to Xian, on the Guanzhong Plain in central China. Xian is known for its historical monuments and the famed Terracotta Army, which has been exhibited in some cities of the world to enthusiastic crowds. We paid obeisance to the vast and magnificent Terracotta Army, a UNESCO heritage site. Sitting outside, grinning and shaking hands with visitors, is one of the farmers who originally discovered the pits in 1974.
We visited the ancient city wall with its 18 gates, several watch towers and a walkway that took one around the entire structure which is roughly 13 km long. Next on the list was the Muslim quarter, also called Islamic Street, where many descendants of Muslim immigrants from Central Asia, with a resemblance to their Arabic ancestors, still live. The area is very much like Chandni Chowk, with similar sights and smells (specially those of barbequed kebabs!) and tight little streets, branching off from the main one. It is dotted with exotic souvenir shops and dhabas, but expect to be chased away if you bargain here, because of the flood of tourists.
Our next visit was to the beautiful Wild Goose Pagoda, with sutras and figurines of the Buddha from India. It was prayer time and my over eager photographer friend was shooed away by an irate priest.
Our final port of call was Beijing. We visited the famed Olympic Park, with its Aqua Park and Birds Nest Dome, where fireworks blazed in 2008. The huge open space is a very pleasant walk, particularly in the evening, with hawkers, kite sellers — with truly artistic pieces, kite flying being a national past time — and street singers dotting the place. Today, it is used as an exhibition and fair ground.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the historic sites symbolic of Beijing were subsequently visited. The Forbidden City justifies its name with its separation from the Square by hundreds of steps and several doors and courtyards, covering 8,00,000 sq.ft, which would have made it inaccessible to the common man in the ancient days.
The Forbidden City has some of the largest preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, which are now deteriorating. Better preserved with their beautiful carvings, lacquer work and paintings are the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, a royal sacrificial altar. The Summer Palace was an imperial residence and is built on a forested slope called Longevity Hill, looking down on the man-made Kumming Lake. The environment was said to be salubrious for ageing royalty. We spotted elderly women selling home-made handicrafts while their men played mah jong on its sunny parapets at the entrance, which boasts of one of the most picturesque and longest open corridors in the world. All these buildings are listed on UNESCO’s world heritage sites.
At the end of the tour, we visited the Great Wall of China. My cousin and I promptly found a hawker, who engraved two key chains with the words: “I climbed the Wall of China.”
Shopping, eating and walking tours took us to Wangfujing, a walkway, which is home to several famous Beijing brands and the hutongs (old city) haunts, where again, street food vied with upscale restaurants and night clubs, specially near the willow dotted Hou Hai Lake area. The hutongs are areas with narrow alleys and preserved traditional Chinese courtyard homes called Siheyuan. This is where joint families once lived, not unlike our kothis or havelis. Most hutongs have been demolished to make way for apartment complexes. You could also take a pedicab (a motorised cycle rikshaw) through the area, which we did. The drivers can fleece you, so beware.
The next visit was to the 798 Art Zone or Dashanzi Art District, with sweeping arcs and soaring chimneys in a kind of post industrial chic. The area is a 50-year-old decommissioned military factory, which is today replete with galleries, lofts, publishing firms, design companies, performance spaces, cafes, night clubs and fancy restaurants.
Slogans from old times add “Mao kitsch” to the place. In fact, mildly subversive posters were being sold openly. One of them had a picture of Mao with a mug of beer and a quote that read: “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beerholder.” I wondered if we could be as cheeky with our icons?
We also saw a stunning performance, popularly known as the Water Show. It was a fable about a Golden Mask dynasty; with special effects that included a perpendicularly revolving stage and one that spouted a waterfall. The Chinese expertise in acrobatics and technological gizmos were amply on display. We managed to squeeze in a typical Chinese opera too, that had more tourists than locals watching and which did not elicit the same sighs of appreciation because of a pitch and style that were completely foreign to our ears.
Our trip blew many stereotypes about China. The country flaunts a market economy which is more aggressive than that of the US. Gone are the days of dull, unisex clothes and Marxist slogans. Chinese cities are fast losing their ethnic flavour and look like any other world-class city, with their glitzy neon signs and chrome and glass skyscrapers. The next generation of Indian tourists is bound to move eastwards, as opposed to the older chiffon-pearl Swiss Alps generation that thrived on Yash Chopra films.