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By Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

Despite warnings about Beijing's pollution, as I look out of my windows from my swanky Ritz Carlton Hotel suite this April morning, clear blue skies form a backdrop to a panoramic view of the city's financial district, and in a courtyard below, a group of citizens are practising Tai Chi exercises, their elongated forms in the bright sunlight, twisting and bending in a seemingly choreographed shadow-play.

Tai Chi

This is my first visit to China and I feel a little frisson of anticipation as I make my way to the lobby of the Ritz. Our small group is getting ready to go on a cycling spree through the streets of Beijing, but instead, I'm heading out by pedicab to visit a traditional hutong settlement. My young guide, April, perches by my side in our cycle rickshaw and tells me that the word "hutong" is of Mongolian origin and meant "water well" back in the 13th century.

April & Author in Rickshaw

Today the word refers to a colony of dwellings set within a warren of narrow lanes. Some alleys seem more like mere crevices between buildings and although each traditional house is set in its own tiny private courtyard, I am intimidated at the thought of living in such a cramped environment. This is clearly not of any concern to families who have dwelt here for many generations and, even in this ants' nest of homes, each owner boasts an individual presence-a distinctive emblem below the lintel of a doorway, or perhaps specially crafted good luck stones by the threshold or, in a couple of instances, a flowering plant, lovingly watered, in a courtyard.

Alleyway in Hutong

Leaving the hutong behind, our pedicab driver takes us along a pleasant tree-lined avenue bordered by the sun-flecked Houhai Lake, on one side and about a hundred restaurants and bars on the other. At 10.00 in the morning, most of these are closed, but when we arrive at the Nanluoguxiang hutong about half an hour later, the main thoroughfare is buzzing. Stalls display souvenirs, novelties, toys and clothing items, shoppers haggle vociferously, cyclists dodge and weave through the throngs, and three-wheeled vehicles carrying goods blare their horns to clear a pathway through the melee. Chinese pop music blares from a shop selling CDs and the smell of spicy fried noodles wafts out from Pass By Café where a sign asserts, "Better Travel Than Dead." Locals and visitors jam the road as far as the eye can see. The energy is electrifying, and I tear myself away with reluctance.

Passby Cafe

I rejoin my group and we move from the humble hutongs, to an imperial palace that every movie buff will instantly recognize from the set of The Last Emperor: The Forbidden City. As we walk through the majestic entrance gate, there is a concerted "Aaah!" at our first sight of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, its fluted yellow glazed tiles shimmering in the afternoon sun. This was the centre of royal pomp and power where formal ceremonies-coronations, imperial weddings and investitures-would have taken place during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Only the Emperor could tread the path, "The Imperial Way" that we, along with crowds of camera toting tourists, stroll along so casually today.

Forbidden City Hall of Supreme Harmony

As we progress from one courtyard to the next, it's as though we are unfolding a many-layered gift-wrapped treasure. Each gate opens to a new vista, with palaces bearing poetic titles, and imbued with meaning: The Palace of Heavenly Purity, once the private dwelling of the Emperor represents "Yang" (heavenly energy) while The Palace of Earthly Tranquility representing "Ying" (earthly energy)" was the home of the Empress. The Hall of Union in the Inner Court epitomised the blending of Yin and Yang and enshrined the royal nuptial chamber. Red, emblematic of royal power and good fortune, is the predominant colour throughout the City and every Palace boasts flamboyant ceilings with intricate interlocking wooden painted tiles. The eye is dazzled by magnificently painted cupolas, jade green and gold ceramic designs, and a frieze of nine imperial dragons running along a wall by the side of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity.

Ceiling Detail

The personality that dominated The Last Emperor film was the charismatic Dowager Empress Cixi, who rose from being a mere concubine to becoming Qing Dynasty Emperor Xienfeng's Imperial Consort-a title conferred upon her after she produced his only male heir to the throne. Upon the Emperor's death she elevated herself to the position of Dowager Empress, and with a combination of manipulation, scheming and ruthless determination, took over the reins of power until her death 47 years later in 1908. Her personality still seems to linger in the elaborate Summer Palace destroyed at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and restored and enlarged by her at cost of 30 million Chinese taels of silver, which she imperiously diverted from the coffers of the Chinese Navy. Built on the shores of man-made Kumming Lake, the setting is idyllic, but when our group arrives, we are wedged into a seething mass of Chinese tourists and are propelled along with the crowd into the main building-the Cloud Dispelling Hall-where the Dowager Empress used to celebrate her birthdays. It is too rushed a visit to do more than whip past, and from there we go on to the Long Corridor that runs alongside Kumming Lake.

Kumming Lake - Summer Palace

It is here that I can visualize the Dowager Empress being carried in a palanquin along with her entourage of lady attendants. Cool summer breezes would have wafted across the Lake and perhaps she too, like me, would have paused to contemplate the some of the 14,000 staggeringly rich paintings that adorn the cross-beams and walls, along the entire 728 metre length of the Corridor, and marvelled at the beauty of the four octagonal pavilions en route. Would she have gazed up the hillside at the Temple of Longevity while sipping tea in the exquisite Marble Boat Pavilion? What thoughts would have run through her mind then? She'd outlived her husband and son, had connived and plotted, ruined many and elevated some; would she have exulted in her victories or felt remorse at her cold-blooded and often merciless decisions?

Marble Boat Pavilion

The thoughts that run through my mind the next afternoon aren't anything like those of the Dowager Empress. I stand on the walkway looking out from the ramparts of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China, gazing at the same scene that thousands of workers, and after them, armies of soldiers would have also looked out at from the 6th century onwards. There is an overwhelming sense of awe at the weight of history embedded in the very stones on which I'm standing. I try to wipe out the sight of tourists, the clicking of cameras and the noise and chatter of hundreds of people, and envision a soldier more than 1400 years ago in one of the lookout towers, perhaps eating his lunch and chatting to a comrade. Or doing something as mundane as blowing his nose! Or stamping the snow off his boots. History needs a human face.

Ramparts Great Wall of China


More Information on Beijing:

Getting There:

Cathay Pacific Airways - Airline of the Year 2009. Their attentive service, superb cuisine and wide comfortable business class seats (or cosy cubicles and flat bed luxury) makes the flight a relaxed and enjoyable experience in and of itself.

Dragonair-a member of the Cathay Pacific Group that serves 34 destinations in the Asia Pacific Region. Their service and cuisine is in keeping with the Cathay Pacific Group's standards of excellence.

Pamper yourself at the luxurious Ritz Carlton hotels (and spas) in Shenzhen, in Financial District Beijing, in Central Beijing and at the Marriott Hotel in Hong Kong. (Central)

Photos by Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise attributed

1. Tai Chi in the courtyard of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Beijing
2. Guide April and author Margaret Deefholts set out in pedicab to visit a hutong
3. Alleyway in hutong
4. Pass By Café, Nanluoguxiang hutong
5. The Forbidden City-Hall of Supreme Harmony - Photo Finella Sianbun
5. Ceiling detail, The Forbidden City
6. Ornamental Gate detail, Summer Palace
7. Kumming Lake, Summer Palace
8. Marble Boat Pavilion, Summer Palace
9. View from the ramparts of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China

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