China, in five long walks: Nation revealed one step at a time

Great Wall

BEIJING — Trying to grasp a nation as big, old and dynamic as China in only 10 days is a fool’s errand.

But that’s the time I had to spend with my college-age daughter, Dorothy, who had been studying in Chengdu earlier this year and was eager to serve as my guide after her semester had ended.

We agreed on an ambitious itinerary, one that would turn into a series of epic walks through the nation’s second biggest city, through a smaller, picturesque city and through a remote national park.

It wasn’t the easiest or most relaxing approach, but it meshed with one of my favorite Chinese proverbs: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step.”

Perhaps the single greatest sight (and site) in China is the Forbidden City, which lies in the geographical, historical and spiritual heart of the capital city, and the nation itself.

We began our walk at the Archery Tower and Zhengyangmen, or the Front Gate, just south of Tiananmen Square. The Front Gate, built in the early 15th century and rebuilt around 1914, is an imposing piece and is almost all that’s left of Beijing’s early walls.

And it’s just a taste of the monumentality to come.

We then walked up through Tiananmen Square, past Mao’s Mausoleum, which looks sort of like a Chinese version of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s hard not to walk through the open yet bustling space of Tiananmen Square without thinking about what unfolded here in 1989, but the plethora of cameras attached to the massive light poles are the only sign of state authority I saw.

The northern end of the square leads into the Forbidden City itself, an incredible series of gates, courtyards and almost 1,000 buildings in assorted states of preservation that served as the Chinese imperial palace from the early 15th century to the early 20th century. (It struck me as jarring yet reassuring that the inner sanctum of the Forbidden City in this communist country has both ice cream stands and an art gallery with works for sale.)

The northernmost part of the city is a series of smaller-scale buildings and gardens that provide an abrupt break to the monumentality and the biggest visual treat of all.

Those still with strength (and the luck to be here on a rare, clear day) should keep walking north, out of the city and up Coal Hill, an artificial mound built with material dug out to create the moats.

The hill offers an amazing view of the Forbidden City with modern Beijing, plus the Bell and Drum towers to the north, looming in the distance. One can even see architect Rem Koolhaas’ new China Central Television headquarters, a building Dorothy says is known here as “The Big Pants.”

While the Forbidden City presents China in all its imperial grandeur, the historical life and times of the average Beijing resident is better understood by taking time to wander around the maze-like Hutongs, neighborhoods that formed as courtyard residents would build alongside one another.

We stayed in a hotel in one of the Hutongs, and when my cab driver plied the narrow alley to its door, I was incredulous.

In America, one usually finds Dumpsters at the end of such an alley, not a hotel that began with a mere hole in the wall but led to a series of beautiful courtyards and single-story buildings.

Saving the Hutongs presents one of Beijing’s great historic preservation challenges, one the city seems to be slowly embracing after tearing down many of them to create modern roads and new, large-scale buildings.

The streets in and around the Hutongs also teem with life, as pedestrians, bicyclists, mo-peds, cars and trucks all jostle for space on sidewalks and streets. Freedom is relative, and getting from Point A to Point B here is both far more liberating and terrifying than back home.

We took a cooking class (in English) in the Black Sesame Kitchen in the Heizhima Hutong in Dongcheng in central Beijing.

While we arrived at the correct street address, we were fortunate to find someone who could guide us through the alleys that involved no fewer than six turns from the street to the kitchen door.

No trip to China can be considered complete without a walk along the Great Wall, and the weather cooperated yet again, giving us a glimpse of the Beijing skyline in the distance.

We took a cab from Beijing to travel about two hours to Mutianyu, a relatively less visited portion of the wall, though it was still plenty touristy, with a Subway fast-food franchise and dozens of other trinket shops at the bottom.

We had our cab driver wait only two hours, and we took a cable car to the top so our limited time wouldn’t be spent ascending on foot.

I was able to walk briskly from a very nice, recently restored guard house to a section where the wall had all but disappeared under trees, shrubs and grass that had overtaken it (technically past where I was supposed to go, but no one was enforcing it).

The walk was steep and demanding at times, but the scenery was remarkable. A recent archaeological survey noted the wall and all its branches actually cover more than 13,000 miles (the first portions were built more than 2,500 years ago), and it was easy to see parts of other walls in the distance, parallel to the mighty stone wall on our ridge.

We took individual toboggans back down to the bottom in a ride that made me a bit nervous until I confirmed that my handbrake actually worked.

Just inland from Shanghai is Suzhou, a bustling, medium-size Chinese city not unlike Charleston, with a small, historic core.

While most of our memorable sights were seen on foot, it would be wrong not to note the bullet train ride from Beijing to here, a ride where the train hit speeds just shy of 200 mph.

Whizzing by the landscape so fast that one can get motion sickness and seeing so many peasants walking or biking to work in the countryside where they toil by hand was perhaps the perfect summation of how advanced — and behind — China is at the dawn of the 21st century.

The sleek grandeur of Suz-hou’s new train station is a long cab ride from its historic core, with a picturesque mix of canals, stone bridges and narrow streets.

This small city also holds some of the nation’s best-known gardens. They’re not landscaped like the Western gardens; instead, they’re a mix of stones, pagodas, tea houses and other architectural delicacies.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden, which dates from 1509 and was created on the old relics of a residence and temple, may be the best-known. It’s a great place to try to get lost for a few hours.

Right next door is one of China’s more intriguing bits of new architecture that has a lesson for Charleston. The well-known American architect I.M. Pei had family ties here, and his Suzhou Museum is not only beautiful but also highly contextual.

It’s no faux historic building, but its architecture meshes with the traditional scale, palette and shapes of the nearby historic city. The museum has some great artwork inside, too, along with its own modern rock garden.

Getting off the airplane and walking into the airport that serves the Jiuzhai Valley in the western part of China will test how your body adjusts to high altitudes since it’s more than two miles above sea level.

We then took an hourlong cab ride to Zhou Ma’s Tibetan home stay, an authentic wood cabin and residence perched on a hill with strings of prayer flags in the distance.

It’s a great base, not only because the family provides a packed lunch and a hearty dinner, but also because you can start your morning with the truly eye-opening beverage: yak butter tea.

There’s no point going halfway around the world if you’re not going to take a chance once you get there.

Just 15 minutes away by car is the gateway to China’s premier national park, Jiuzhaigou: a series of stunning blue-green lakes, low and wide waterfalls, all framed by peaks in the Min Shan mountain range.

We took a bus up the western valley as far as we could, to the Primeval Forest, then spent the entire day walking 13 miles (mostly) downhill back toward the entrance.

We passed a series of stunning natural scenes, including more than a dozen lakes and bird species unseen in the West, plus an occasional Tibetan village in the distance (Jiuzhaigou is Chinese for “Valley of Nine Villages.”).

While most of the thousands of daily visitors here hop on shuttle buses from one photogenic stop to the next, Dorothy and I found it far more peaceful to remain on the boardwalk.

That way, we could see parts of woods and marsh less photogenic but beautiful in their own right.

We could hear birds, gurgling streams — and little else.

After more than a week in China, one savors a break from the crowds.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.