GREAT WALL: Chris Bullen visits the Great Wall of China from the new visitor centre at Mutianyu. Photos supplied

CHINA, I’ve just spent a week or so there and found it fascinating. But I’m also left with a feeling of frustration over tackling climate change here in New Zealand when I see what’s happening there.

My wife and I flew to Beijing in late August, ahead of a cruise aboard huge new cruise ship Majestic Princess, from Shanghai to Australia.

It made sense to try and see a bit of China before the cruise so I asked Anne McIntosh from McIntosh Travel in Whakatane to put together an itinerary including some of the usual touristy things.

Anne set to work, and her first tip proved very wise – book the hotel from the night before, as we would be arriving at 4.30 in the morning and wouldn’t want to wait until mid-afternoon to check into our hotel. Even though it was 6.30am when we arrived at the hotel it was great to check in and start unwinding.

She also worked with Exotic Holidays who came up with a plan for us to have a car, driver and guide, which probably cost more than using tour buses, but made everything so much smoother. Our guide’s English was not perfect but in a country of 1.5 billion people, where almost no-one speaks English, it made a huge difference. Beijing’s population is 22 million.

Our first full day there was allocated to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Eighty thousand people already there, filing past the tomb of Mao Zedong (Tse Tung if you prefer, or just Chairman Mao), and because it was a rainy day, 80,000 umbrellas.

The square can apparently hold a million people so we didn’t feel cramped. More than a kilometre’s walk, then through the Tiananmen Gate and into the Forbidden City. Another kilometre or so was spent exploring this amazing place, snapping furiously, before finally we were out the end or northern gate.

We climbed the hill to a temple, and looked down on the whole scene. The Forbidden City was closed to ordinary mortals for 500 years, and seeing such things as the Emperor’s throne, and other relics of a long and proud history was breathtaking.

The next day featured a visit to a hutong – the traditional settlement in Beijing, including lunch with a local family, and learning how to make our own dumplings. Most of the hutongs were demolished as Beijing embarked on a building boom ahead of the 2008 Olympics. The people now live in huge apartment blocks, 30 or more stories high, all reaching in search of a clear blue sky.

Our final day in Beijing was the highlight – our trip to the Great Wall. I had done some research on where to go, and so we headed to Mutianyu (Mu Tian Yu) where the crowds were less dense, the wall was easier to access and the overall experience much better than other parts of the wall.

Some people we subsequently met on the cruise had visited the wall at Badaling, and couldn’t find enough room to move to take photos. At Mutianyu there’s a new visitor centre, with all the cafes, and souvenir shops you could wish for. And free Wi Fi at the wall.

We had to queue for about an hour to board buses to be taken to the aerial cableway that takes you to the base of the wall. A dozen easy steps to climb and you’re on top of the Great Wall. We had taken walking poles but didn’t need them.

The Wall was built over 3000 years ago and runs for 10,000 kilometres over the most inhospitable mountainsides you could imagine. Why invaders from the north would even try to traverse this countryside beats me. I walked for a couple of hundred metres from one lookout tower to the next.

You can picture the countless thousands of Chinese climbing up the mountains carrying blocks of stone to build the wall. Nobody knows how many are buried in the foundations. Part of the section at Mutianyu has been restored but it’s not obtrusive.

On the way back to Beijing we visited the Emperor’s Summer Palace, including going through the covered walkway known as the Long Corridor. Apparently the empress for whom the palace was built was fond of her food, and needed a long walk after every meal.

In a hot climate it had to be shaded. It is more than a kilometre long. The people-counter inside the entrance gate showed over 76,000 visitors by mid-afternoon.

The next day we were taken to Beijing’s South Station to board the high speed train to Shanghai, some 1450 kilometres distant. It reached 345 kilometres an hour, but you wouldn’t know it. We had no problems reading the signs on buildings as we flashed by.

The pattern of the Chinese countryside quickly became evident. Market gardens, orchards, rice paddies, then, wow – 40 or 50 apartment blocks, all over 30 stories high. Another new city. Back into the country, our journey repeated the process at least a dozen times.

The old, traditional homes are deserted, or gone. Even in the country, most people live in skyscrapers. Incidentally the Chinese are building 10 new cities, each the size of New York. Sadly, we saw no sign of farm animals anywhere.

Pollution had not been evident in Beijing, but the further south we went the worse it became. At times there was an orange-brown layer in the sky. And the reason became apparent when we passed a power station, chemical plant, or other heavy industry.

As we neared Shanghai and the Yangtze River Basin, something else caught the eye. There were rice paddies everywhere, with the skyscrapers often built barely 50 metres away.

Once again, a car, driver and guide were there to meet us and take us to our hotel. It was actually part of the sports stadium complex, with an indoor sports stadium across the road.

Two separate underground rail lines intersected a short distance away so we were able to get around the city of 24 million on our own. Shanghai’s Metro is as good as any in the world.

We had planned to go up the Oriental Pearl Tower, but the crowds were so thick that after two hours in the queue and no end in sight, we gave up, even though we had paid for it.

Shanghai is now the commercial hub of China with the Pudong New Area the focal point. It is a little ironic that the city that gave birth to the Communist Party is now the centre of China’s free enterprise economy.

Our time in Shanghai went quickly and after three nights we were picked up and taken to the cruise terminal to board our ship and start the next stage of our adventure.

By Chris Bullen