The perfect trip: China
A cormorant fisherman sits on the Yulong River at dusk. (Mark Read)
With its unrivalled antiquity, out-of-this-world cuisine and stupendous scenery, china has infinite potential for adventure. Find out how to make the most of your time in this mighty nation.
Beijing: Best for history
Dusk is falling over the Forbidden City, the former imperial residence, and the last crowds of the day are filtering out through the gateways. The palace, spotlit by the evening sun, is painted in earthy tones: deep pinks, stone greys, cinnamon browns. Workers sweep the squares with willow brooms, and flocks of pigeons swoop across the courtyards or roost on temple rooftops, their fluttering wings blending with the distant hum of traffic and car horns.
Sprawling across 180 acres of downtown Beijing, this vast palace served as the symbolic and political centre of the Chinese world for more than five centuries. Built under the reign of Chengzu, it was designed to project the might and majesty of the Chinese emperor. Between 1420 and 1924, 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties lived here in near-total seclusion, rarely venturing out beyond the 10-metre-thick walls, and commanding an almost divine power over their subjects. One legend goes that the Forbidden City has 9,999½ bays, or rooms – only half a room less than could be found in heaven (though the official room count of the palace is actually 8,704).
In previous centuries, anyone entering the Forbidden City without permission would have faced instant death. These days it is China’s most popular sight and attracts enormous crowds – but even among the throngs, it is still possible to find secluded corners: tumbledown temples, secret galleries, forgotten chambers, quiet squares.
It is a place of ancient codes and secret symbols. The palace is laid out according to feng shui and its architecture is packed with hidden meaning – from the mythical creatures which adorn the buildings’ eaves to the recurrent motifs of the dragon and phoenix, emblems of emperor and empress.
The Forbidden City is also a reminder of a much older Beijing which long predates the city’s skyscrapers, ring roads and office blocks. Spiralling out like a spider’s web from the old city are the hutongs: a tangled warren of alleyways and dungeons built after Genghis Khan’s Mongol army razed Beijing – known then as Zhongdu – to rubble in 1215.
‘The hutongs are the arteries of ancient Beijing,’ explains Gao Hongzhong, an artist, calligrapher and expert on Beijing’s architecture, who lives and works on a busy hutong just east of the Forbidden City. ‘Most people prefer to live in apartment blocks these days, but for me, this is where you’ll find the real Beijing.’
Lined with family-owned shops and siheyuan (traditional courtyard homes), each hutong illustrates a way of life that has endured in Beijing for eight centuries.
Rickshaws and scooters rattle past while women gossip in the gateways, men play games of mahjong, and kids chase each other through the dusty backstreets, dodging boxes and washing lines.
In the 1950s, there were as many as 6,000 hutongs in Beijing, but it is thought that around 40% of these have been bulldozed since 1990. Some, such as Nanluogu Xiang, have reinvented themselves with trendy bars, shops and cafés; others face a precarious future, eyed up by rich bankers and property tycoons keen to snap up a slice of Beijing’s dwindling architectural heritage.
‘Of course China must keep looking forward,’ notes Mr Gao, as he traces delicate Chinese characters on a sheet of parchment. ‘But we must preserve our past, too. Once we have lost it, we cannot get it back. And without it, we are in danger of losing sight of who we are.’
Where to eat
Dadong Roast Duck is one of Beijing’s top addresses for crispy duck. Chefs use roasting spits to keep the meat moist and ensure that the skin goes perfectly crispy (00 86 10 8522 1234; mains from £11).
Where to stay
The Orchid Hotel combines boutique style with a gorgeous setting in the hutongs of the Dongcheng district. Courtyard rooms feature rustic roof beams and underfloor heating, while the Three Gardens rooms have rain showers and zen patios. There’s a sweet garden bar, as well as a roof deck for evening drinks (Courtyard rooms from £70).