Orient Express: a quick visit to China

A quick visit to the fabled land of China, the modernised ‘West of the East’

A quick visit to the fabled land of China, the modernised ‘West of the East’. DESIGN : ESSA MALIK

As the plane touched down at Beijing Capital International Airport, I had to pinch myself. I had made it; I was in a land steeped in three millennia of history. Even as I was in a neighbouring country, not too far from Pakistan, it felt as though I had travelled light years to a fast-paced modernised nation. Despite the sub-zero temperature that greeted us in China, the memory of stepping out of the airport is one that will not fade anytime soon. Everything was pristine, as developed and maintained as you could expect to find in any American or European city.

A glittering cityscape at night. PHOTOS : BILAL ABBAS

China is infamous for much. However, human rights issues or stringent government control has not kept the tourists at bay. Hong Kong alone drew an estimated 60.8 million visitors in 2014, a 12% increase since 2013, according to the official tourism commission. Having heard so much about the notoriously polluted city of Beijing — the World Health Organisation said earlier this year that pollution here has soared to 20 times the recommended limit — I was surprised to find the smog was conspicuous by its absence. My first challenge here was to decipher signs. While Beijing closely resembled many Western cities I had travelled to, the language barrier here was a constant reminder of my location. It was this similarity and dissonance that led me to label China ‘the West of the East’.

A statue of Chairman Mao at the National  Museum. PHOTOS : BILAL ABBAS

Tiananmen Square

Located in the centre of Beijing, the square — the fourth largest city square in the world — is named after the gate, Tiananmen, to the north side, which separates the square from the Forbidden City. On June 4, 1989, the square was the site of a brutal crackdown against thousands of protestors. Today, the square reminds one of locations such as London’s Trafalgar Square, were it not for the smartly dressed contingents of People’s Army soldiers parading in groups of six to 10. Their faces expressionless and their movements robot-like, these soldiers make you think twice about getting on their wrong side.

Breakfast in Beijing. PHOTOS : BILAL ABBAS

At the Western edge of the square is the Great Hall of the People, the political hub of Beijing and the venue for state affairs and diplomatic activities. When the space was created in 1958, it is reported that then-president Mao Zedong noted the enthusiasm displayed by the builders working on the project and thus named the structure ‘the Great Hall of the People’. Here, each hall represents a province or administrative region of China. There are 34 halls in total, including the Tibet Hall and the Hong Kong Hall.

National Museum of China

While some controversial episodes in the national historical narrative have been whitewashed in this museum, there’s still plenty — in fact, more than can be seen in just one visit — to explore here. The visual history of the republic from over a millennium till the 1949 revolution and beyond is breathtaking. Going through those displays, based over multiple floors, took me three to four hours and ultimately, there was not enough time to explore several collections exhibiting bronze artifacts and ceramics several centuries old.

A government building near Tiananmen Square. PHOTOS : BILAL ABBAS

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was built in the early 15th Century and was the palace for the Ming and Qing dynasties. It served as the home of emperors and also housed their wives and concubines, among other staff. ‘Forbidden City’ is a translation of the Chinese word Zijin Cheng. It was ‘forbidden’ for anyone to enter the premises, spaced out over more than 150 acres, without the emperor’s permission. Most of the palace, I was told, was also out of bounds for the emperor’s wife.

A historic building at Tiananmen Square, spotted while walking to the museum. PHOTOS : BILAL ABBAS

The Great Wall of China

A man is not a man until he climbs the Great Wall, proclaimed Chairman Mao. And I did! Although at moments it felt as though my legs would give up, my throat was dry and I was sweating through the seven or so layers that I was wearing due to the cold weather, I managed to complete the challenge. The Wall was not how I had imagined it to be — it unfolded into the distance, as far as I could see, and was not one steep climb, but a series of peaks and falls over undulating hilltops. At the peak of one such hilltop, I tried to imagine hordes from the North trying to climb over the Wall as the Chinese guards fought to defend it. It really is a sight to see and I’m glad I got the chance to. After all, the Great Wall is the only thing visible from the moon.

A taxi in Shenzen, where the population is largely comprised of the youth and where Cantonese is the main spoken language. PHOTOS : BILAL ABBAS

Bilal Abbas is a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune’s Islamabad bureau.

He tweets @abbasbilal

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 14th, 2015.


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