china great wall

China’s landscapes and ancient history have been inspiring travellers since the days of Marco Polo. Follow an oriental adventure by taxi, plane and bullet train, from the historic streets of the capital Beijing to the riverside splendour of Yangshuo.

This 14-page feature was originally commissioned by Lonely Planet Traveller and has since been syndicated worldwide to media outlets including, and

Project description: 14pp travel feature
Client: Lonely Planet Traveller
Date: July 2012
Article photography by Mark Read

Beijing’s history: from hutongs to the Forbidden City

forbidden city beijing
An inner courtyard of the Forbidden City, Beijing / Image © Oliver Berry 2012

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 says that the Forbidden City has 9,999½ 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’s China’s most popular sight and attracts enormous crowds – but even among the throngs, it’s still possible to find secluded corners: tumbledown temples, secret galleries, forgotten chambers, quiet squares.

It’s 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 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’s thought that around 40 per cent 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.’

Forbidden City (; admission from £4)
Beijing Hutong Tour (; half-day hutong tours from £5)

Jiankou and the Great Wall

Jiankou is about a two-hour drive from Beijing. a private taxi or minivan from Beijing to Xizhazi should cost from £40.

great wall of china
Sunrise on the Great Wall and the karst mountains at Jiankou / Image © Oliver Berry 2012

It’s a few hours past midnight and the forest around Jiankou is pitch-dark, but Zhao Fuqing shows no sign of losing his way. He walks with a steady stride, occasionally stopping to hack away foliage with a battered axe that he keeps tucked into his belt. Around him, the forest echoes with sounds: buzzing insects, croaking bullfrogs and birds twittering among the treetops. Abruptly, he stops and points through a gap in the forest canopy, where the first rays of dawn are breaking. High above, a ribbon of watchtowers and battlements snakes out across the hills, its contours traced out against a fuchsia sky.

Stretching for around 5,500 miles along China’s wild frontiers, the Great Wall is a potent symbol of the colossal power and iron will once wielded by the Chinese empire. This vast manmade barrier might not be visible from space, as is often claimed, but it is truly one of the great wonders of the ancient world.

In fact, there isn’t really one Great Wall at all, but many. It consists of numerous sections, built and modified by successive military commanders over the course of more than 2,000 years. Some parts are little more than pounded earth, mud and timber. Others, such as the Jiankou section, bristle with ramparts, forts and guard towers, often given elaborate names such as The Eagle Flies Facing Upward, Heaven’s Ladder or the Nine-Eye Tower.

Built in the mid-14th century, during the Ming Dynasty, much of the Jiankou wall is now in a perilous state. Some areas are crumbling to dust, eroded by centuries of wind, rain and winter snows. Though heavily overgrown and riven with cracks, most of the watchtowers and battlements are still standing – although there’s no telling how long they’ll last.

‘I hope our wall will be here forever,’ muses Zhao Fuqing, who has been exploring this part of the wall since he was a boy and now works here as a walking guide. ‘But you never know what Mother Nature will bring.’

As if to illustrate his point, a rockslide suddenly thunders down the slopes, sending clouds of dust and rubble tumbling down the valley walls.

‘You see?’ Mr Zhao chuckles.


WildWall Weekends runs Great Wall tours in spring and autumn (from around £250;

Shanghai’s architecture: a vision of China’s future

Shanghai is about 820 miles south of Beijing. The bullet train covers the journey in four hours. A soft seat in standard class should cost around £95.

shanghai skyline
View from the Bund towards Pudong’s neon-lit cityscape, Shanghai / Image © Oliver Berry 2012

If anywhere symbolises China’s superpower future, it’s Shanghai. Wired by fibre-optics, intersected by neon-lit freeways and bathed in a permanent sodium glow, it’s the archetypal modern metropolis: faster, richer, brasher and busier than any other city in China. Twenty years ago, the city would barely have scraped into the top 50 in the world skyscraper league, but it’s now at number four – surpassed only by Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo – and rising fast.

On the east bank of the River Huangpu, in the high-rise district of Pudong, the pace of change in Shanghai really shifts into focus. In 1990, this was still farm land, carpeted with rice paddies, cornfields, warehouses and boat stores. Two decades later, it’s the city’s priciest patch of real estate, home to the main financial district, the stock exchange and Shanghai’s tallest cluster of skyscrapers, including the gaudy Oriental Pearl Tower, the Gothamesque Jinmao Tower, the soaring Shanghai World Financial Centre and the Shanghai Tower, which will be the world’s second-highest building, at 632m, when it’s due to be completed in 2014.

Wang Yi is a volunteer at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where a scale model of Shanghai’s cityscape circa 2020 takes up the entire first floor. Though only in her teens, Wang has already seen the city change beyond recognition.

‘Many places I remember from when I was little look completely different now,’ she says. ‘Mostly the city is changing for the better, but sometimes I think it is moving too fast.’

Following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Shanghai became China’s wealthiest trading port, growing rich on the proceeds of silk, tea and opium, while attracting swathes of western merchants and investors. The legacy of the city’s golden age is still clear to see along the Bund, the city’s most celebrated boulevard, where the banks, office blocks and heritage hotels run the architectural gamut from austere Neo- Gothic to dreamy Art Deco.

For Wang Yi, this mad mix of styles is symptomatic of Shanghai’s addiction to change. ‘Every new building must be bigger, higher and shinier than the one before,’ she says.

Outside, rush hour is in full swing. Scooters whine through tailbacks and drivers lean into car horns. Skyscrapers stack along the streets, blazing with incandescent colour. High above, the night sky glows like a filament, and the traffic stretches out into the darkness like circuits on a motherboard.

Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center (; admission £3)
Jinmao Tower Observation Deck (; admission from £8)

Longsheng and the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces

From Shanghai, it’s a two-hour flight to Guilin. The Longsheng rice terraces are 65 miles north. Expect to pay £20–30 for a taxi or minibus.

longji rice terraces
Steeply tiered rice terraces, Longsheng / Image © Oliver Berry 2012

Rice isn’t just a staple in China – it’s the stuff of life. Beyond the big cities, in the flatlands that cover much of the country’s interior, every inch of available earth is given over to its cultivation, and the landscape’s colours shift according to the rice season – acid green when the shoots are young, deep jade when the crop is mature, and tawny brown following the annual harvest.

China accounts for more than 26 per cent of the world’s total rice yield, an astonishing statistic given that the majority of the country’s crop is still sown, tended and harvested by hand. High in the mountains of northern Guangxi stretches the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, a vast network stacked across the hillsides like the tiers of a wedding cake. Cultivated for more than eight centuries, the rice terraces cover 16 acres and range in altitude from 300m to 1,100m.

Liao Guozhen can trace back his family’s rice-growing heritage here for at least 700 years. Now in his early seventies, he’s been working in the terraces near his home village of Pinyan since he was eight years old. ‘I’ve never known anything other than growing rice,’ he says, puffing on a crooked cigarette as he wades knee-deep into the waterlogged paddies. ‘If you put me in a big city, I’d be lost, but here I always know what to do.’ As he tends to the shoots, banks of fog roll up from the valley and a few peaks peep out above the cloud.

The terraces aren’t just beautiful, they’re practical too, a self-sustaining ecosystem. Springwater is trapped by the terraces, and then evaporates, forms clouds and falls again as rain higher up the mountain. The tiered structure also prevents erosion and provides a habitat for insects, birds and butterflies, which act as natural predators, reducing the need for pesticides. Yet as in much of rural China, the old ways are disappearing fast.

‘All of my grandchildren have left for the city now,’ admits Mr Liao, ‘and I don’t know what will happen to the terraces when there’s no-one left to work them. The future is uncertain, but we have always found a way to survive.’


Yanghsuo, land of a thousand rivers

The main town of Yangshuo is 41 miles south of Guilin. Frequent buses operate (single journeys costing around £1.80). A taxi should cost £25–30.

yangshuo river
Traditional bamboo rafts jostle for space on the Li River / Image © Oliver Berry 2012

A spiky patchwork of peaks, plains, creeks and canyons, Yangshuo is where China’s city dwellers go when they want to experience the great outdoors. Stretching along the banks of the Yulong and Li rivers, this rural county is home to some of the country’s most famous landscapes – they even feature on the back of the 20 yuan note.

Strewn with karst pillars, rural villages and riverside trails, it offers a glimpse of an agrarian past that feels a world away from the clamour of China’s traffic-choked cities. For centuries, life here has been dictated by the river. During seasonal monsoons, the floodplains and rice fields all but disappear under water; in high summer, many of the creeks and tributaries dry up to a trickle.

Before the advent of motorways and high-speed trains, the rivers were often the only means of transportation in rural China and, even now, traditional bamboo rafts are still a common sight along the riverbanks – although these days, they’re more likely to be transporting tourists than trade goods.

Tourism may be Yangshuo’s most lucrative industry today, but some of the old river ways endure. Cormorant fishing is one such custom – fishermen train the cormorants using loops of throat twine, which allow the birds to guzzle smaller fish but prevent them from eating the larger ones. As recently as the 1950s, there were as many as 500 cormorant fishermen working on the Li River, but now only a handful remain, mainly to stage shows for visitors.

Grandfather Huang is one of the last; aged 86, he’s been fishing here since learning the secrets from his father almost 80 years ago. ‘Cormorants are very clever birds,’ he explains, dressed in his traditional garb of loose pyjamas, matted cloak and bamboo hat. ‘Each has their own character – some are hard workers, but others are very lazy. They understand many commands. Some of them even know swear words,’ he laughs.

Later, fleets of bamboo rafts float out along the Yulong river. Steering between stone weirs and hidden eddies, the boatman points out wildlife along the riverbanks: shelducks in the shallows, water buffalo in the grass, a grey heron hidden among the reeds.

In the distance, limestone pillars spiral skywards, their pinnacles cloaked in cloud, and white mist drifts off the fields.

Raft trips are available (from £3 per person).