China Calling: 11 unmissable things to do in Beijing and Shanghai
A tale of two cities
Mark Evans picks his essential stops for a flying visit to the Chinese cities of Bejing and Shanghai.
Beijing is a city of beautiful temples and ancient monuments. Shanghai is the modern powerhouse straight out of Blade Runner.
Together, these epic Chinese cities have a similar population to Spain, and they're two of the most dynamic metropolises on the planet.
Here are Mark Evans' higlights in each.
Six of the best: Unmissable Beijing
1. Go dancing with a local
Don't try this at home, folks. Approaching a senior citizen in St Anne's Park and grabbing them up for a bit of Strictly Comes Dancing will most likely land you in court. Here, it's a different matter. Apartments are small, so the nation's parks are everyone's living room. Beijing's older citizens get up to all sorts in the park - knitting, playing cards and dancing. One lady in Tiantan Park in the city showed me some of her early-morning moves, and it's a great way to meet the locals.
2. Visit the Temple of Heaven
Once you're done dancing, the nearby Temple of Heaven is one of your must-sees in the Chinese capital. Beijing's filled with historic buildings, but none as spectacular as this 15th religious monument for the local emperors. So pretty, in fact, that's it's a must-stop for local brides and grooms for a selfie or two.
3. Stop at the Summer Palace
The palace itself is Unesco-listed as a World Heritage Site, and it's breathtaking. But it's not just one building - there's a massive lake and ornate buildings at every turn. Its origins date back to the 12th Century, but it's best known as the playground of the ruthless Empress Dowager Cixi, not so fondly known as the 'Dragon Lady' in these parts.
4. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
The famous square is the one place where you feel the might of a great power - the square is big enough to hold the entire population of Dublin - and is home to the communist party's massive Great Hall of the People. Before the party, power was held by generations of China's emperors.
Go past the giant portrait of Mao Tse-tung to enter another world. Even The Last Emperor movie doesn't do this place justice - it's a sprawl of temples, squares, more temples and photo opportunities at every turn. Power-mad emperors, scheming eunuchs and lots of quarrelling concubines (Emperor Taizong, who lived from 599-649, is reckoned to have an exhausting 3,000 girlfriends). Off-limits to non-royals for over 500 years, it'd be a crime not to visit if you're in the city.
5. Walk the Great Wall
Okay, not all of it. If you add up all the bits, the wall is about 13,000 miles long (Dublin to New Zealand is 2,000 miles shorter!) The section nearest Beijing has been repaired, so it's in good nick, but bear in mind that it's quite steep. It's not true that you can see it from space, and on the day I was there, it was blanketed in fog and snow, so seeing a few yards ahead was a challenge. But walking it - even a few hundred yards - should be on everyone's bucket list.
6. Go on a rickshaw
Touristy - but good fun. Take a trip down to the city's hutongs, the old streets that survived revolution and modern planning.
Taking tea with a local family reminded me of stopping off in the Liberties - with the exception that these small old houses are trendy again, and worth a whopping $6m or so each! And after a day or two of exhausting touring, don't miss the Peking duck.
You might have tried it in your local Chinese, but here, the serving in a restaurant is an art form of chopping, shredding and presentation.
Five to try: Unmissable Shanghai
1. Walk along the Bund
Shanghai isn't blessed with Beijing's extensive history, but a stroll along by the Huangpu River gives you one of the greatest skylines in the world.
Look over at the skyscrapers of Pudong (Tom Cruise abseiled down one in Mission Impossible 3), the latest sign of a city that's always been China's gateway to the world. Look back at the old buildings of the Bund (from the era when the European powers and the US were running the show).
Part Liverpool, part San Francisco, it's a stunning mix of East and West.
2. Have a drink with a view
The big hotels love to show off the view - and I popped up to the 92nd floor of the Park Hyatt in Pudong to look down on the city. With an American jazz band on the dance floor, and sky-high drinks prices (€15 a drink) to match the altitude, it's like walking back into Shanghai in the decadent old pre-war days.
3. See where the westerners lived
If you like bland and clean, look no further than the French Concession, the area of town where (no prizes) the French used to live. It's full of western restaurants, and nice for people watching China's fashion-conscious yuppies.
4. Go shopping
Imagine Dundrum Town Centre, except with tropical fish in the lakes, street vendors and shops designed like temples. That's Yuyuan Old Street for you, a place where you'll take as many photos as spend money, but it's a gorgeous spot where the locals flock to as well.
5. Go for tea
Need a hangover cure? Got a sore tummy? Suffering radiation poisoning? Well, the Chinese have the tea just for you. Oddly, tea is pricey in these parts - about a tenner - but it's not just one cup, it's loads of them, and the ceremony is up there with a royal wedding. Worth a splurge.
5 Culture shocks in China
◊ You'll be snapped: The Chinese are really curious about us, so expect to have your picture taken by locals at least once a day. It'll make you feel like a cross between Brad Pitt and Kim Kardashian.
◊ You can't check in: Facebook and Twitter are blocked - so you'll have to set up a virtual private network on your phone or tablet. It's quite simple - just ask a teenager how.
◊ It's dirt cheap: Beijing is especially cheap for beer and food, while Shanghai has good shopping bargains, with silk or cashmere scarves for a tenner upwards.
◊ Do wander: The back streets and food markets are bustling with people and life. But do bring a card showing your hotel address (especially in Chinese).
◊ Everyone's friendly: Prepare to be asked a lot about Ireland - but no one will know where it is. Download a language app as few speak English in Beijing, with Shanghai much easier as it's far more westernised.
◊ Tours: Mark went on an escorted trip with Wendy Wu Tours, who normally feature a stopover in Beijing before heading inland, and then flying out of Shanghai, combining the best of cities and countryside. Tours, including meals, international flights and internal trips, cost from €1990pps. wendywutours.ie/Tel: 0818 776 380.
◊ Hotels: Mark stayed at the Jiangxi Grand Hotel in Beijing, in a bustling area with great neighbourhood bars and street food markets, and in Shanghai's Regal International East Asia Hotel. The latter is on the city's cool metro line, and is beside the stadium where the likes of Manchester United play in pre-season friendlies.
◊ Flights: From Dublin via Dubai with Emirates. It's just over seven hours to the UAE, a short stopover, and then roughly the same again to Beijing. I was lucky to get an upgrade on the flight home from Shanghai to Dubai - especially given that it was on the double-decker A380. If you've seen the Jennifer Aniston ad (the one where she has a shower on board) you'll know what to expect.
The highlight was having a full stand-up bar on the gigantic plane. Having a G&T thousands of feet above Mumbai is something that will last in the memory. The bar was packed with the gang from the European golf tour in Shanghai, including the mega-bucks winning team, and it's a different world to what I'm normally accustomed to.
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