A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
We had come to China to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, and it didn't disappoint.
A visit to China had been a long held wish of mine and now we were finally here, it was every bit as fascinating as I had imagined. As part of our trip we had visited Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing and Xian and experienced an amazing 4-day cruise along the Yangtze River.
Now we were spending a couple of days in Beijing and, the previous day, we had visited the Great Wall of China, which Colin decided to have a go at climbing, along with several others of our party. Don't know if his legs have ever recovered.
It was now day two of our stay in Beijing and earlier that morning we'd visited another of Beijing's delights; we walked part of a four-mile avenue known as the Sacred Way.
The Sacred Way forms part of the mausoleum to the Ming dynasty and is the entrance to the imperial necropolis, which is spread over several hectares of land on the outskirts of Beijing and is adorned with exquisite statues of lions, dragons and other mythical creatures as well as huge stone carvings bearing reference to religious figures and epitaphs to the emperor. We only walked a relatively short distance in the hour or so that we spent there but the grandeur of the entrance and the avenues truly signifies the emperor's connection with heaven and therefore befits a great ruler as he re-enter heaven after his time on Earth.
As an observer, I was aware that this was just the tip of the iceberg but I was glad of the insight into this deeply spiritual aspects of Chinese history.
Our trip to Tiananmen Square, however, proved to be the cherry on the cake.
Although the purpose of the trip was to see the natural beauty of China and discover some of her ancient and mystical treasures, so far we'd spent very little time among ordinary Chinese people just going about their business. Being in Tiananmen Square, mingling with crowd and seeing ordinary people smiling back at us, just enjoying their holiday, meeting up with friends and reveling the sunshine, which seemed to have appeared right on cue as small children waved their paper flags, it was the experience of a lifetime.
Tiananmen Square had become famous almost twenty years earlier for all the wrong reasons. Who can forget the images of government tanks rolling into the square as protestors gathered in 1989? Far from the internal incident it appeared to be, the events became symbolic of governmental oppression and cast a shadow over east-west relations for many years that followed, banishing many westerner's thoughts of visiting the Chinese capital in its wake.
But now, with the Beijing Olympics 2008 looming, the ancient empire was opening its doors to occidental travellers, and we were among the many.
Tiananmen Square is surrounded by government buildings and can accommodate up to one million people. At one end is the huge Pagoda building – the Tianamen or Gate of Heavenly Peace, which marks the entrance to the Forbidden City and hosts a huge image of Mao Zedong, the first communist leader of China.
As our coach party happily posed for a group photo the atmospheric significance of this exciting visit was palpable as the events of the day reached a pinnacle. All that was left for us to do was to 'soak it up'.
Mao came to power in 1948 after a period of civil war following the collapse of the last Chinese dynastic rule in the early part of the 20th century. War ravaged the nation until a Communist victory exiled the Opposition movement led by Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in the late 1940s.
As the Maoist ideology expanded, China became increasingly isolated from international relations with the west. Mao ruled until his death in 1976, but this did little to thaw the frosty relationship, however, since the fall of communisim in the USSR in 1991, China has increasing opened up to visitors and trade.
The sun was still shining in Tiananmen Square and we were in short sleeves as we were gather together with the rest of our coach party before passing through the arch of the pagoda into the 'Forbidden City', where the hustle and bustle of thousands of visitors generated an electrifying atmosphere while military guards looked on.
Originally built to house the Ming Dynasty, work began on the palace in 1406 and, as the name suggests, entry was forbidden except to the very few. The palace complex has almost 10,000 rooms – 9,999 to be precise as odd numbers are very significan in Chinese culture (so we learned) and is now a museum housing centuries of Chinese antiquity. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
We visited an area that was originally the emperors' private quarters, where he held court and where his harem was housed. Covered walkways allowed visitors to peer into once private rooms where upholstered daybeds were once part of the sumptuous court scene, which would have consisted of wives, concubines and eunuchs while the hierarchy of men ruled the country from the impressive buildings opposite.
Eventually we came to the end of our tour and I was quite relieved to discover that there was another exit close by and our coach, organised by our tour operator Archer's Direct, was waiting for us just a few minutes walk away.
We may have reached the end of the physical part of the visit, but the memories last a lifetime.
And finally – Can I recommend reading 'Wild Swans' by Jung Chang which describes 20th Century China through the eyes of three of its daughters – the author, her mother and grandmother? The story takes you from the time of warlords and concubines to the rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. I first read it in the 1990s and have since listened to it on audio CD. This beautifully crafted, spell-binding book is deeply immersed in human interest stories as it traces the events of 20th century China and, I believe, is a 'must have' on every bookshelf and is still widely available at all good bookstores and online retailers.
Thanks hunting down 'Wild Swans' by Jung Chang as you recommend. I also recommend Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress which is both a film and book. Couldn't wait to get my hand on the book once I saw film. Its about people's lives during the revolution.
I agree that Wild Swans is an excellent book to read about modern day China. I also found "The Good Women of China" by Xinran Xue to be a must read for anyone interested in China. Talk about an eye opener!