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Past meets future in the vast sprawl of Beijing

As China's new year approaches, Roslyn Dee recalls its Great Wall and Forbidden City. Just don't ask about tai chi

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The colourful Forbidden City opened to  the public in 1949

The colourful Forbidden City opened to the public in 1949

Roslyn Dee at the Great Wall of China

Roslyn Dee at the Great Wall of China

One of the remaining hutongs offers a glimpse into the past

One of the remaining hutongs offers a glimpse into the past

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The colourful Forbidden City opened to the public in 1949

It's a warm September morning, I'm in a lovely part of the grassy-green public parkland that surrounds the beautiful Temple of Heaven, and I'm attempting to grasp the ancient art of tai chi. "Attempting" being the most appropriate word.

With me are a few journalist colleagues, all of whom - from my vantage point at the rear of the group - appear to be making a much better fist of things than I am. For despite the serenity of the surroundings, the expertise of the teacher, and the fact that local people do this all the time in various corners of this lovely park, I am simply far too self-conscious and, well, just not very good at it. Nonetheless, it's a great hour's fun and a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of Beijing.

It's 2018, it's Year of the Dog, and it's my first time in China.

This year, from next Friday, the ox will be the animal rising to prominence when the Chinese New Year dawns. What is normally a huge family occasion in China, with people travelling from all over the vast country to reunite for the celebrations, will be a lower key affair in 2021 due to Covid-19. Like our own Christmas, this Chinese New Year will indeed be like no other. But the date has made me dwell again on my one and only trip there.

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Roslyn Dee at the Great Wall of China

Roslyn Dee at the Great Wall of China

Roslyn Dee at the Great Wall of China

Was Beijing what I was expecting? Yes and no is the most honest answer. Yes, it's vast and I'm prepared for that. But there's vast, and then there's vast, and a city that encompasses some 17,000sq km is really, really vast. Bigger, for example, than Northern Ireland. Maybe that's why, even though more than 22 million people live in the Chinese capital, I never feel overwhelmed by the volume of people on the streets. Yes, it's busy (and the road traffic is a nightmare) but the sheer sprawl of Beijing obviously dilutes the in-your-face impact of the population.

The other pleasant surprises are that the city is very green (trees everywhere, and lovely city parks) and very clean; spotless, in fact. Laura, our extremely stylish young Chinese guide, is a godsend in helping us navigate this huge city in what is a relatively short visit. You could do it yourself, of course; Laura wasn't with us 24/7 and whenever I wandered freely for a few hours around the shopping area, or in arts district, there was no sense of being monitored or restricted in any way.

We have a hectic, exciting, go-go-go roller coaster of a trip - all the main sights, local restaurants, silk market, opera, art district, Chinese Medicine Hospital… the list goes on.

On the day of our arrival, we hit the ground running with a visit to one of the must-sees. For where better to start than the Forbidden City? It's a Sunday afternoon and it also happens to be the anniversary of the death of Mai Zedong. Walking across the vast expanse that is Tiananmen Square to reach the Forbidden City entrance, we pass endless queues of locals waiting to pay their respects to their former leader. His body is embalmed and encased for eternity in a crystal coffin in a mausoleum here on the famous square that will be forever remembered as the place where thousands of pro-democracy protesters lost their lives in April 1989.

The Forbidden City, the place that served as the exclusive domain of the imperial court for nearly 500 years, is a maze of a place, with various palaces and collections of all manner of precious items from ceramics to clocks to jewels to see, but what strikes me most is the vibrancy of colour everywhere - the strong reds, yellows and greens that distinguish the buildings. This may well have been "forbidden" territory for the "great unwashed" from its completion in the early 15th century until it opened to the public in 1949, but in terms of architecture and impact, it obviously never hid its light under any Chinese bushels.

One downside (if you can call it that) of my trip is that after I return home, it takes me months before I order anything from my local Chinese takeaway again. Why? Because it bears little resemblance to the real thing. We eat like emperors in Beijing, but not in swanky, upmarket restaurants. Rather we feast in what are effectively a number of different "chain" establishments, all formica tables and no frills, but the places where the locals eat and where the quality and the choice is quite mind-boggling. And inexpensive.

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One of the remaining hutongs offers a glimpse into the past

One of the remaining hutongs offers a glimpse into the past

One of the remaining hutongs offers a glimpse into the past

Beijing is an impressive, modern city. Everywhere you look buildings are going up and futuristic architecture is to the fore. What I am dying to see, however, are the hutongs, the small, cramped alleyways that criss-cross each other in parts of the city where everyone once lived and worked, what were the lifeblood districts of Beijing before modernity reared its head. For despite that rush to modernity, some hutongs still exist, and while some of the former artisan shops that lined the hutong alleyways are more geared for tourists these days, some still offer more than just a nod to their past.

The Hou Hai district, with its maze of laneways that spread, like a spider's web, all around the three lakes there, still clings to its hutong past. We visit here one afternoon, wandering from one narrow street to the next, buying a few trinkets to carry home, and taking tea in a little café.

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Then, on the night before we fly home, four of us decide to venture back, without our guide, to get a feel for the place once darkness has fallen. Beijing being Beijing, it's quite a distance from our hotel to Hou Hai.

Still, after a seamless (and incredibly cheap) subway journey, including one train change, we emerge without a bother into a buzzing Hou Hai where we eat our fill in one of the Jude Huatian chain restaurants, repair to a lake-side bar for more drinks, and then, finding the subway closing at 11pm just as we enter the station, catch a taxi back to our hotel, delighted with ourselves.

So many other memories of Beijing still linger in my mind. There's the afternoon in the Chinese Medicine Hospital where I find that my "back massage" is somewhat more rigorous than I'm expecting; the time spent wandering around the industrial compound that is the city's 798 art district, bursting with galleries and workshops, boutiques and bars; our evening at a Beijing opera performance, not opera as you'd know it, but more like Laurel and Hardy meets Marcel Marceau.

And then there's the Great Wall. Just standing there on that old-as-time pathway on the morning that we visit, observing it snaking its way, punctuated by watchtower after watchtower, into the out-of-sight distance, is an extraordinary experience.

Badaling is the most popular gateway to the Wall from Beijing but we travel a little further to where it is also quieter, at Mutianyu. In this rugged terrain and with a slight mist in the morning air, we catch a cable car from lower down the hillside. Within a few minutes we're out of the car and making our way up on to the Great Wall itself. It's one of the most "wow" moments of my travel-writer life, and also one of the most humbling.

For to stand on that ancient, 21,000km-long pathway, a man-made structure that stretches back to Old Testament times, is to reach back through history, down through the imperial dynasties, right back to the China of the ancient past. Yet still it stands - casting its long shadow over years both past and present. And, hopefully, over all the years still to come.


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