Entrance to the forbidden city.

Why China? we were asked.

Well… We’ve been to New York, Boston, Alaska, Australia, Singapore, Canada, the Baltic, the Canaries, the Algarve, and Jura. But we wanted to do something a bit more exotic, a bit more adventurous, a bit more outside our comfort zone. China fitted the bill.

Not that we headed off with backpacks and a compass. Oh no. This was an organised, escorted tour, and we knew people who had done it, with the same company. We were briefed. We were prepared.

We knew Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp wouldn’t work in China (in fact, WhatsApp did send text only) so we downloaded WeChat and got the family to do the same, setting up a group so we could communicate and share pictures. As it turned out, any service involving Google didn’t work either, so we used Bing and Apple Maps when we were on WiFi.

But we were still a bit on edge. The visa process didn’t help, though the people at the Chinese Visa Application Centre in Edinburgh were actually friendlier than the average US border guard. We managed to miss the whole business about getting vaccinations till the last minute, but our local practice sorted us out in time. Hep C, typhoid and tetanus, if you’re curious.

We were picked up and driven to Edinburgh airport. Then we flew to Heathrow, boarded the BA flight to Beijing, and we relaxed. The emergency exit seats in Economy Plus were comfy, the gin and tonic was tasty. And we were off on our ten hour flight, flicking through the videos avaiable on the tiny screen. Stan and Ollie, Modern Family, and something else I can’t remember because I slept through it.

And we landed in Beijing.

All the signs were in English as well as Chinese, which removed the last of our fears. Some of them were blunt, though: we queued with our passports at the aisles signposted ‘Foreigners’. I’m sure the UK Border guys will pick up on this soon, the way things are going.

We got through security, and found Alex from our tour company holding up a sign with our names. Thirty minutes wait and another couple appeared out of the crowds and joined us. We piled into a minibus, were given a bottle of water each, and were driven to our hotel, staring out of the window the whole time, chatting nervously.

The roads were wide – effectively motorway the whole way in – with separated cycle lanes. The traffic was unbelievable: cars and vans everywhere, with no observable lane discipline, but it all kept moving and nobody seemed to collide with anyone else. The bike lanes were jammed with bikes, scooters, motorbikes, and three-wheelers. Often someone would come the other way. At junctions, perhaps waiting on an advisory red light, there were dozens of vehicles.

And there were people, and high-rise buildings, just everywhere. Twenty-four million people live here, Alex said.

We met our tour guide Amy – a young, smiling 30-year-old – at the hotel, and she took our passports and gave us our keys and a time to meet for dinner. Till then we were left to our own devices.

Our hotel was in the CBD, it seemed, across from a branch of Tiffany. The hotel was open and grand. Our room was fine. We showered – noting warnings not to drink the water, or even brush our teeth in it – and stood looking out of the window at the buildings all around ours for a few minutes. Assured that we were really here, we headed out.

I had been worried about pollution, but the air here seemed no worse than London would be. It was very warm, but not insufferably humid. Conscious that we had to get back to the hotel at some point – their business card tucked safely in our wallet – we carefully walked up a few streets through the mass of people, checking the way back at every junction.

We realised quickly that the Chinese just shove through if you’re in their way, but not aggressively. They seem to have no word for ‘excuse me’. And they didn’t seem to know their own phrase for ‘thank you’ that we had learned – along with ‘hello’ – from the translator app. The traffic doesn’t say excuse me either: they use their horns, though it looked like they were mainly using them to warn of their presence rather than telling other bikes/scooters/cars to get out of the way.

After a while we turned back, found the hotel again – my wife has a fantastic sense of direction, luckily – and explored the shopping mall beside it. We were hungry, but unsure of where to go and what to eat. So we made our way back to the hotel and its cafe, with a picture book of dishes that we could point to. It was a wrap of some kind, with a juice of some kind (like milk with black beans at the bottom of the cup; we assumed they were edible).

An afternoon snooze, and down to meet tour guide Amy and most of the rest of the group. They’d all come on different flights from different places, some having to transfer at Hong Kong. In the end we were half-Australian (including three younger women who brought the average age down) and half UK (English apart from us).

We were led through the streets to a nearby restaurant and the first of our dining experiences, which all turned out to be very similar. We were split across two tables, each one round with a lazy-Susan. Drinks were ordered: water, Sprite, or beer – 10, 15, and 20 Yuan respectively. The beer was tasty and lagerish, and low alcohol. Already in place was a silver jug of green tea.

Then the food started arriving. Dishes were placed on the lazy-Susan and a description given. We helped ourselves to a suitably small amount onto each of our small plates, and spun the wheel. It was almost without exception delicious.

And we quickly became chopstick ninjas, even though they helpfully gave us a fork – just in case. The only problem was with rice, I found: it generally arrived late on in the meal anyway, so I tended to avoid it. Any soup also tended to arrive late on, and the occasional banana fritters that we were served could arrive at any time.

After dinner we went back to the hotel – the city was dark and very busy, but we felt extremely safe – wondering whether to get an early night in preparation for what was going to be a succession of early starts and active days, or go to the bar. It turned out the hotel didn’t have a bar, so that was that.

Breakfast was a choice of Western or Chinese. In fact, the Chinese breakfast buffet looked awfully like a Chinese lunch or dinner buffet, so we were cautious and went Western.

The whole group was now here. Our tour guide Amy gave us a briefing: stay together, do what you’re told!

We were picked up in our minibus and driven through those fantastically busy streets to the first big tourist sight. We noted that there were actually many open areas – and flowers and shrubs down the middle of the motorways – for the population. 

Tiananmen Square looked like it was still being cleared after the riots: it was mobbed, with some Western groups but mostly hundreds – maybe thousands – of Chinese tourists. We followed Alex and Amy, with our group’s little yellow flag held high, and looked in awe at our surroundings.

As we approached, we had our first casualty: one of the older Aussie ladies tripped just as Alex called ‘watch your step’ and went down like a felled tree, hitting her head. Luckily one of the younger Aussie ladies was a doctor, and another was a pharmacist, so temporary repairs were made.

Then we were in Tiananmen Square itself, with all those people.

Needless to say, the square was vast, with the entry to the Forbidden City along one edge, and that huge picture of Chairman Mao, and the Great Hall of the People along another side – all sights that we were used to seeing, but we were actually here. Soldiers stood rigidly under umbrellas in the sunshine and the heat. No one caused any hassle, apart from the shoving that we were already getting used to. 

Later on in the trip we asked Amy what she knew of the student riots in the square, which had occured at around the time of her birth (in Xian). She said she’d heard some things at University, and more when she travelled abroad with tour groups. She didn’t make any comment about the riots, but she often referred to China’s ‘strong government’.

We assembled for the traditional group photo, with the Forbidden City behind us and Chairman Mao looking over ours shoulders.

At round about this point we had a necessary first encounter with Chinese public toilets. We had been warned about this.

Chinese toilets are squat-style. Usually there is one Western cubicle out of half a dozen, recognisable by the queue outside it. The gents urinals were fine, so we were OK. The women… not so much. There was always a muttered discussion after a visit, and much grimacing. We carried wet wipes, little bottles of anti-bacterial hand wash, and toilet paper – this last being another omission from the cubicles. (The hotel bathrooms were invariably fine, though only one of the two toilet-roll holders was ever loaded. I do like a spare, I have to say. Don’t ask.)

There was then a visit through the Forbidden City, and a blast of Chinese history. I’d been aware for a long time that the West likes to start with the Rennaissance and pretty much pretend that nothing at all happened before then. But Chinese civilisation goes back way beyond that. I was aware of the maths, and inventions like rockets, but was unaware that they had their industrial revolution in the 13th Century when they mass-produced iron.

However, as in all cultures, the rulers had very much the best of it (and still do). The space and the opulence was remarkable, especially in comparison to the Hutongs, which we visited next.

Alex told us he was brought up in one: a 15 square foot room for the whole family, with cooking and toilets and washing shared in the central courtyard with all the other people who lived round it. We squeezed into a tiny room for lunch, and walked the narrow alleys between the squares, and wondered at it all.

However, Alex was at pains to point out that the changes in China were bringing millions out of poverty. Alex himself was part of the new middle classes: he owned two apartments. This contrasted rather with the past nine years in the UK, where the government seems to have been driving people into poverty.

We saw beggars from time to time. Some quietly asked for empty plastic bottles that they could presumably sell on to recycling centres, others were more in your face – often people with serious physical disabilities.

There was a compulsory rickshaw ride round the Hutongs and by the river, and then we were whisked to the Temple of Heaven, a large circular building set in a huge park.

That evening we had the first of our entertainments: a show giving the history of ninja. Entertaining stuff!

An early start and quite a long drive, to the Great Wall to join hundreds of other tourists.

Like many of these ‘greatest sites’, there is the feeling of awe that you’re actually standing there beside it. It’s there, in front of you. You’ve seen all the photographs, but it’s actually right there. Just there! 

And it’s awesome.

We had time to climb up a little way: the steps are all different heights, which makes coming down as hard as going up. But there’s a handrail, possibly retro-fitted.

And there’s the history. I’d assumed that China built the wall to cut itself off, but that’s not true. The Wall was to protect against the tribes from the north. Elsewhere, China had the ‘silk roads’, on land and sea, to trade with the west.

After our amazing climb, and photographic documentation, we had a coffee and then on to the first of several high-pressure shopping experiences: the Jade factory.

We got the history of jade, and then were let loose in the shop. One or two of our tour were genuinely interested, and had planned to buy something. I hadn’t. Even when told how rare and valuable it is, I’m somehow not impressed. And the huge boats carved out of jade just looked hideous. But goodness, if you show interest then you’re followed around and shown everything. Luckily my wife was not interested in jade.

The afternoon was the Summer Palace, where the emperors went to escape the heat of the city. It’s basically a huge park, with a lake and an enormous covered walkway leading alongside it. There was a big marble boat at the end, and thousands of people all around. It was a favourite place for the Empress Dowager Cixi, aka the Dragon Lady. She got mentioned a lot while we were in Beijing. She sounded fearsome and seemed to get her own way all the time.

While waiting at the end of our visit to get picked up, our injured Aussie – white hair and a pale complexion – attracted the attention of some elderly Chinese men. They asked her age, and touched her arms. We looked so different to them! This happened again in other cities, particularly with young children who just stared at us. Parents encouraged them to say ‘hello’, and they smiled when we said ’ni hao’.

Unfortunately our Aussie lady fell over again, and this time there was a more serious hospital visit to get checked out.

At some point in the minibus, Amy told us that all Westerners tend to look alike to Chinese people. They refer to us as ‘big noses’, for obvious reasons. Personally, I seem to be amongst the biggest of the big noses, so here and there throughout the tour I got some attention.

On the way back into the city, we had a detour to look at the Bird’s Nest Stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics, which was one of the events that gave a major kickstart to China opening up to the West. We asked what it was used for now. Alex shrugged: nothing really. Ah well.

That evening we had a demonstration of how to eat Peking Duck: thin slices on thin pancakes with various sauces. Fajitas, more or less.

The show afterwards consisted of acrobats doing impossible things, including a double-jointed lady, who was just weird.

The Great Wall