“They extended their empire even as far as the Seres (China) and the Phryni”
Strabo in the Hellenistic era
From East to West and from West to East, the books of history are now transformed into digital storytelling. From the ancient networκ of trade routes to the modern paths of travel experiences around China.
Traveling to China goes way beyond traveling to any ordinary destination. China can be defined as a country, a culture, a philosophy and a way of life that travels into the origins of Beijing deep into the East.
The streets and historical monuments located in the capital elegantly narrate China’s evolution over the centuries. This is where the Chinese architecture with its natural beauty creates a unique spectacle reflecting images from the Summer Palace in the impressive lake.
(the full Chinese version of the article will soon be available)
Only a few English characters can be depicted amongst the countless ideograms drawing attention as one passes through the metro station surrounded by the sound of high speed trains and many more lines under construction.
The “Yonghegong Lama Temple” station is where thousands of spectators have the opportunity to visit the Palace of Peace and Harmony (雍和宫). Within the most significant (apart from Tibet) Buddhist Tibetan monastery of the city, the tallest Buddha statue situated in an enclosed space welcomes its visitors. Courtesy, culture and respect is found in this colourful grandeur setting.
Positioned at an elevated section of the city center, one is captivated when standing in the clearing of the tranquil oasis “Temple of Heaven” (天壇).
As you walk through the park, you smile with the elderly couples happily strolling through the religious buildings and with Shaolin who are concentrated practicing all types of traditional martial arts and advanced training methods in the surrounding garden area. According to the residents, it is said that this city’s masterpiece is the entrance to the skies, symbolising the relationship between heaven and earth.
Lying in the city center is the “Forbidden City” (紫禁城) – an ancient palatial structure which unquestionably brings on a feeling of a previous era. This building complex was originally built to honor the imperial family by serving the emperors of China.
China’s magnificence and power continues to travel from the past to the present as the architectural style reflects a sense of hierarchy as every building was originally constructed for a specific purpose. For security reasons, extraordinary high defensive wall complexes were built surrounding the emperor ruler’s private sanctuary. The layout is composed of nine office spaces so that no one knows the whereabouts of the emperor. There are no signs of plants and trees as to prevent assassins from using them as hiding places.
The Tiananmen Square (天安门广场) – the gate of “Heavenly Peace” is awaiting our arrival. The largest square in the world is a symbol of the Maoist regime, home to the Mao Zedong mausoleum and a monument dedicated to the fallen ones.
The Beijing Opera is a form of traditional Chinese theater combining music, dance acrobatics and martial arts. One of the top attractions is featured at the famous Red Theater where modern dance is blended together with the skilled Kung Fu fighting styles.
One can relish the experience of Chinese cuisine through the variety of delicacies available in the streets of the city. An assortment of Chinese specialties satisfies every taste bud.
This path brings us to the foothills of the mountain as we reach a pleasant traditional market, from where the cable car will depart for a spectacular journey over the lush forests. One of the most appealing attractions is the endless “Great Wall” (万里长城) which is well-known for its extensive length, stretching from the east across to the west of China. As the local myth says, “until you reach the Great Wall, you’re no hero”.
Patiently waiting at the railway station, we will board the train heading for the city of Xi’an (西安市). Travelling with us we carry a suitcase of memories which will multiply over the 11 hours of our rail travel.
The next day will bring us to one of the oldest and ancient cities, where Muslim is the predominant religion which has been uniquely combined with the Chinese culture. City of pomegranates, Xi’an has its own unique character as one can discover it through a pleasant bike ride and does compare to the fast paced lifestyle of Beijing.
The “Terracotta Warriors” is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century and a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. Together with the Great Wall, they complete the list of the Greatest Wonders of the World. The 10.000 life-size sculptures of soldiers all differ in detail from one another and are the result of meticulous and unique craftsmanship. The purpose of the Terracotta Warriors was to protect the Emperor’s tomb and demonstrate the strength of the army. And today, you stand in front of the warriors assembled in battled formation as if they are staring ahead with unblinking eyes.
The “Big Goose Pagoda” (大雁塔), one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks, stands out due to its slight inclination (like the Tower of Pisa). It allows one to become acquainted with the rich Buddist culture and the mystical experience which is embedded in the lives of the locals. In order to attain this serene spirituality and connection, one must also attempt to master the art of prayer and meditation.
As the sun set and the evening approached, the lights brighten the city. The glorious towers of the city are visibly prominent and it is a matter of time that one can climb the steep inner staircase to embrace the eye-catching performances in the Bell and Drum Towers.
Ready for the next take off! Departing from Xi’an airport and reaching Guilin (桂林市), one is greeted by a naturally calming effect and feeling of inner peace as it is renowned by its scenery and summer temperatures. In the evening hours, the Sun and Moon Pagodas impressively illuminate as they stand in the middle of the central lake of Guilin. The magic of the day together with colorful images absorbed, slowly come to a close upon tasting the authentic variety of Guilin noodles which is the most exquisite treat for the palate.
The first rays of the morning sun only enhance the intense yellow color shining on the mountain slopes. Hiking along the stone paths amongst the rice terraces of Longsheng village (龙胜梯田), one becomes captivated with the divine beauty surrounding the area. According to the locals, Longji -龙脊梯田(Dragon’s Backbone) received its name because the layered rice paddies resemble the dragon’s scales.
As one hikes along the stone paths and cross through the panoramic landscapes, the scenery is so stunning and is almost impossible to absorb every tiny detail. After reaching the nearby village, we were warmly welcomed by a family where we were introduced to the traditional Chinese dining rituals and etiquette.
Upon entering the home, the warmth is immediately felt with the offering of a glass of rice wine. Together we experience the preparation of the Sticky Rice, a local specialty where rice is cooked on the charcoal with vegetables and bamboo. We begin to relish the authentic assortment of flavors with the use of the traditional chopsticks.
The sensation felt as one stands amid the natural bamboo grove does not compare to any other typical forest we know. Incredibly tall green bamboo stalks seem to continue endlessly up towards the sky. Following the eccentric adventure, we purchased dried mushrooms from a local farmer. It was only natural that our thoughts ran ahead when thinking about the next destination.
A feeling of magic is felt when entering the Reed Flute Cave, an underground natural limestone cave comprising gorgeous geological formations and lit by multi-colored neon lights. On the River Li, the eye catches a natural karst rock formation shaped like an elephant. As a sign of worship to Buddha, visitors leave goldfish and turtles.
We had the opportunity to sample a variety of fine Chinese tea blends and learn how the tea is grown and harvested. During our guided tour in the plantation, we learned about the organic tea cultivation, delicate flavors and tea processing techniques.
Far from the city center, we reached the next village of our route, Daxu Old Town (大圩古市镇). As we enter the ancient city, one is not captivated immediately, but upon interacting with its people, one instantly falls in love with the rural atmosphere, culture and lifestyle. This occurs in all of the neighboring destinations of China.
Despite the difficult living conditions, the Daxu residents warm your soul with their immense smiles and welcome you to the comfort of their warm and relaxing surroundings. We were fascinated by the ancient architecture and were left in awe with the unusual temple in one of the homes we visited. We were served with delicious Chinese roasted delicacy crabs and other traditional cuisine.
Our camera captures the magical landscape of the morning sun situated between the clouds as we cross the holy waters of River Li on a cruise boat. The water symbolises abundance.
Our next arrival is at one of the top tourist city resorts in China – Yangshuo (阳朔县). This river-side thriving city is full of shops and restaurants which fit in perfectly with the environment. We hire bicycles to visit the outskirts of the city where we once again come into contact with natural attractions, temples and monuments. We follow the route along the Yulong River where we become engrossed with the picturesque scenes of simple rural life and come into direct contact with large flocks of water buffalo wandering about.
As we peddle along and we get off our bicycles, we catch our breath, take a few steps and instinctively dive in the river. As the bamboo rafting creates small tides, the river transforms as the water flows gently and tells its own stories. Bamboo boats in the wilderness and endless green hills give a sense of infinite peace. As we proceed along, we watch the local fishermen who skillfully collect today’s catch, make a small stop at a mini waterfall along the river while admiring the spectacular sunset.
The majority of Chinese fish dishes served in restaurants include every type of variation one can imagine. There is always so much more to learn about the Chinese cuisine. Yangshuo’s local market offers a diverse quantity of authentic Chinese ingredients needed for every recipe. Allow your fantasy to soar by using your own creative spirit for by intertwining gastronomy of the east to make new recipes.
As we check in to the Shanghai airport, our luggage can be seen from the terminal belt as they look about to burst with the aromas, colors and sounds of the country’s travels.
Shanghai (上海) goes beyond being just a cosmopolitan city. It is the center of international economy and technology innovation developments with a population of 36 million residents, which comes in 2nd place in the world’s largest cities. The energy is felt everywhere in Shanghai as the fast-paced life overwhelms visitors through its bright lights, tall buildings, trains traveling in various directions and people coming and going.
Major trademarks of the Shanghai are the French and British districts. And from there built in the heart of the city are the “three giants” – three massive skyscrapers that as you bend your head and look upwards, it seems as if you are looking at the horizon of the city. China’s second largest building is named “Shanghai Eye” as it looks as if it closes its eye at the entire city (the first one is not open yet to the public).
If you observe Shanghai’s old town from above, everything looks extremely small and miniature in size as it is built on a small river. As you sit in the Emperor’s well-preserved ancient residence, you sense that you are about to relive the glory of the great China.
All of the colors found the Rubik’s cube accompany you in the late-evening boat ride as you relish the magical scenery along the river. One can enjoy the city landmarks and view the dazzling “Symphony of Lights” which you only want to pause and play again!
Outside of Shanghai, Nanxun Ancient Water Town (南浔区) differs drastically from all of the other typical Chinese villages. Everything looks so perfect here. Is it the final day of our journey that makes everything look so dreamlike or the art of writing in which we reflect upon our memories? Perhaps it is the tranquil sensation felt during the small boat tour in the village canals which brought us close enough to witness a traditional Chinese wedding.
Before we know it, we have boarded a high-speed train which reaches the speed of 310 km as we travel towards Beijing (北京市), covering a distance of about 5 hours and 30 minutes which we would have arrived in less than 3 hours if we travelled by plane. We have fastened our seatbelts as our dreams are “taxiing” along the largest airport in Asia.
There is so much more to tell about the epic journey to beautiful China which cannot possibly be captured and documented in these last few lines. We look forward to meeting once again at the New Silk Route where worldly-wise travelers will step out to the next destination and create new travel stories.
*Around China, through the eyes and lens of our fellow-traveller Kiriakos Sarikas
**Special thanks to Marina Pavlidou for leading the introduction to the Chinese linguistic pathways
*** Credits to Faye Skenteris for the co-creation in the English translation and proofreading of the original article