Going to China is like stepping into a dream. In a world where everything is so same-same, China serves up surprise after surprise on a platter of gorgeous colour and exotic images. Even in the now-ultra-modern cities of Beijing and Shanghai, there is no escape from the reality of this ancient culture where traditions are sunk deep into the bones of every structure, new or not.
Take Shanghai, this once British-dominated city on the central coast of China is concentrated on both sides of the Huangpu River. It features futuristic buildings such as the 632-metre-tall Shanghai Tower and the Oriental Pearl TV tower which dominate the skyline, but live in harmony with Twenties-era European buildings on the Bund, the famous riverfront street, and with the beautiful Yu Garden nearby that dates back to 1515. This traditional garden is attached to the Yuyan Market where you can shop in an aura of peace and dignity. Graceful pagoda rooflines rise above intensely green tropical plants with pretty bridges crossing soothing water – this setting should be a model for shopping districts world-wide.
These contrasts are just part of the charm of this ancient land. Shanghai, the most westernized and largest city in China, pop. 24 million, is a blend of the one-time isolated Orient and the gradually increasing influence of the West. Shanghai grew with the support of the British after the Opium War of 1841, which created the opportunity for trade, opening the doors to the West in an unprecedented way and continuing up to the time of the Cultural Revolution and now again, post revolution.
Since the 13th century, Beijing has been the capital of China, containing the seat of government and about 21 million people. Just across from the ancient buildings of the Forbidden City, home to Chinese emperors from 1420 to 1912 and now a public museum, is Tiananmen Square, where the vision of a tank bearing down on a lone protester in 1989 etched itself in many minds. In contrast to the ancient lines of the palace and the forbidding buildings of Tiananmen is the futuristic CCTV (China Central Television) tower that dominates East Third Ring Road, just one of many architectural wonders that make the CN tower look old-fashioned.
Consider the oval towers of the Galaxy Soho complex by designer Zaha Hadid, or the doughnut-shaped Phoenix International Media Center dreamed up by Chinese architect Shang Wu. The astonishing shape and construction of these towers provide a clue to the creativity and vision of the Chinese.
Beautiful architecture extends to hotels. You may want to book a stay at the amazing 200,000-square-foot, 360-room Sunrise Kempinski Hotel, shaped and shining like the rising sun and part of a 3,460-acre complex on a lake.
Of course, everyone takes a side trip to visit the Great Wall of China, a two-hour ride from the airport.
People-watching at the Forbidden City is about viewing a world of diversity walk by as persons from all over this vast country come here as tourists. Their many faces and body types bear witness to the time when China was a loose collection of different countries and states.
Chengdu, Winnipeg’s sister city
You could spend a lifetime in China and still only touch the surface of possibilities, all wonderful. But if you are from Winnipeg, you really owe it to yourself to visit Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Greater Chengdu, with a population around 14 million, is Winnipeg’s sister city, and the fifth largest city in China. It is also home of the giant pandas, two of which were loaned to us almost 30 years ago in 1989, the only city in Canada at the time to be so honoured. Thanks go to a dedicated group of volunteers who raised more than $3 million in support of our zoo as a result of the visit.
As the gateway to China’s west, Chengdu is famous for its teahouses and wonderful food. The atmosphere is less frantic than in the eastern cities. People relax more, taking advantage of the teahouse culture, spending neighbourly hours in outdoor cafes sipping the marvellous green tea of the region from covered china tea cups. The first time I ever saw someone practicing tai chi was in a public park in Chengdu where an elderly man charmed a bird perched on the branch of a small tree before him.
Like Winnipeg, its sister city, Chengdu is criss-crossed by rivers, the major one being Jinjiang River (Jinjiang means brocade, for which the city was once famous). The river is also traversed by a beautiful bridge housing a restaurant. This bridge is a recently-built replica of an ancient edifice that was destroyed by a flood in 1997. The Anshung Bridge was first constructed in 1271, impressing Marco Polo when he arrived. Although the city is filled with today’s usual assortment of stunning skyscrapers, the elegant pagoda roofline of Anshung Bridge is a camera magnet.
Not the largest or the most beautiful, but the very first and certainly the liveliest park in Chengdu is the Renmin or People’s Park. Built in 1911 in the centre of the city, it is humming with activity, but it offers quiet corners for contemplation and being at-one with nature. Creating spaces such as these in a sea of humanity is a particular talent of the Chinese. This park is the vision I had in mind back when we created the park at The Forks. Chengdu Renmin Park houses plenty of green spaces combined with commerce and activities and is the centre of community life in Chengdu.
So many places in the world today have become almost cookie-cutter, with the same stores, the same cars, the same hotels, but not China. Yes, you can find all the most famous shops and boutiques from around the world in the major centres, but you can also become easily steeped in an entirely different view of life – even in the large cities such as the three mentioned here.
There are 102 cities of over one million people in China, the world’s largest country by area, which also houses almost 1.4 billion people, so the choices for travel experiences are endless. The weather ranges from tropical to moderate to subarctic in Mongolia.
If you are looking for something new and exciting, China will not disappoint you.
By Dorothy Dobbie