In a ten-day tour of China, Jonathan Shkurko welcomes the serenity efficiency brings, and the outstanding flavours of its rich and varied cuisine
In the grand mosaic of China’s transformation from a regional powerhouse to a global superpower, there are stories of remarkable individuals who have witnessed and participated in its evolution.
Meet William N Brown, a 66-year-old American professor who, over three decades ago, embarked on a journey that would not only shape his life but also provide him with a front-row seat to China’s ascent onto the world stage, in a story that in some way reflects the country that has welcomed him. As an educator at Xiamen University in East China’s Fujian Province he has seen the nation grapple with difficulties and challenges as it rises to a global superpower.
Compared to Brown’s experience, laid out in his book Off the Wall: How We Fell for China, a 10-day trip allows the traveller nothing but a scratch on China’s surface but perhaps it is enough for a visitor to long for more.
Beijing, the initial and obvious first stop, offers a striking blend of grandiosity and functionality. Its transformation from a chaotic urban conglomerate into a model metropolis is nothing short of remarkable. Unlike many bustling cities, Beijing at first overwhelms with a serene efficiency that underpins its development.
The anticipated chaos, commotion, pollution, and clamour did not materialise. Instead, a city keen on evolution greets the visitor, especially in terms of environmental sustainability. Nearly half the vehicles on the roads, along with all the mopeds, were electric. Despite being one of the most densely populated places on Earth, Beijing presented a surprising absence of auditory cacophony and traffic paralysis.
Beijing also captivates with its history. The journey began with a visit to the Forbidden City, a name that once accurately described this exclusive and impenetrable place for the majority. The former Chinese imperial palace and winter residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, today it is a frequently visited site, especially during the summer, when thousands of Chinese flock to its gates. This profound interest in understanding their roots was further evidenced at the National Museum of Beijing, perhaps the busiest and most bustling scene in the city.
It was fascinating to observe that the majority of museumgoers gravitated towards the ancient history section. Contrary to the common belief that only the last century holds significance, it’s evident that the broader historical narrative continues to have a deep impact on the hearts and minds of the Chinese population.
The Great Wall of China was unquestionably the highlight, not only of Beijing but perhaps the entire journey. It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by what the colossal structure signifies – a tapestry of history, suffering, lives lost, and the extraordinary human effort invested in its construction and upkeep.
An iconic symbol worldwide, the wall has a storied past. Its construction commenced over two millennia ago, around the 7th century BC, and continued to expand and evolve over the centuries. Walking along its ancient stones, one can’t help but feel like a spectator of history.
The day of my visit, it was amplified by the pleasantly surprising and somewhat joyful absence of crowds. The solitude of the moment allowed for a deeper connection with this extraordinary monument to human achievement.
Surrounding all historic landmarks, vibrant culinary scenes unfold; stalls adorned with every imaginable delicacy, restaurants operating with the precision of factories, and impromptu carts peddling delectable ice creams all contribute to the ubiquitous lively ambiance. It becomes clear that food holds a special place in the hearts of the Chinese. This revelation gained even more significance as the journey progressed through the cities of Qingdao and Guangzhou.
The train journey from Beijing to Qingdao on China’s high-speed rail network was just four hours, reaching speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour.
Upon arrival in Qingdao it quickly became evident this city is primarily a tourist destination. It’s a somewhat peculiar realisation, as one often associates Chinese tourists with international travel rather than exploring their own country. Yet, Qingdao was teeming with visitors – couples, families, and groups of elderly individuals – all drawn by the allure of the sea, the bustling promenades, and the unique charm of the city. The stifling heat and humidity, which seemed to deter only a few foreigners, did little to dampen the spirits of locals and domestic tourists alike.
Qingdao boasts a distinctive history, influenced by its German colonial past, still evident today in the city’s architecture, which stands as a unique anomaly in China. The legacy of German colonial rule is also celebrated through the famous Tsingtao beer, a source of immense pride for the city.
Over the years, Qingdao has experienced remarkable growth, both in terms of population and popularity. The journey from an unassuming town to a full-blown metropolis of over 11 million people reached its zenith during the summer of 2008 when Qingdao hosted the aquatic competitions of the Olympic Games, placing the city on the global map.
Qingdao has evolved far beyond being just a resort town. Over the years, several companies headquartered in the pride of Shandong have experienced remarkable growth. One of the most prominent examples is Haier, a global leader in home appliances and consumer electronics.
Founded in 1984, Haier began as a small refrigerator factory and has since expanded into a conglomerate with a presence in over 160 countries. A visit to the company’s headquarters was indeed an eye-opening experience that showcases the unstoppable technological progress of China.
But Haier is just one example of Qingdao’s economic growth. The China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), a state-owned train manufacturing giant, has one of its main factories in Qingdao, where one can witness the future of train technology, not only in China but also around the world.
The city’s port, with its rich history, tells a similar story of growth. Qingdao Port, one of the world’s busiest, is home to a fully automated container terminal, four times larger than the port of Limassol, where automation has reduced the workforce to a mere 50 people.
As the sun sets and the city lights come to life, Qingdao reveals its bustling culinary scene. From high-end restaurants to local street stalls, the city offers a delightful journey through the famed Shandong fish and seafood specialties. The exploration of Qingdao’s flavours serves as a prelude to a trip south, to China’s ultimate culinary pride – Cantonese cuisine in its home, the vibrant city of Guangzhou.
To better understand the importance of food in China, it’s worth mentioning an informal greeting that captures the essence of the country’s culture – ‘chī le ma?’ The phrase, which means ‘have you eaten yet?’ holds a deeper meaning. It’s an expression the Chinese have used for at least a century. Essentially, when someone asks, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ it’s their way of asking, ‘How are you?’
Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is indeed one of China’s most cherished treasures. It has played a significant role in China’s history, both ancient and modern.
Known as ‘Flower City’, it has a storied past that stretches back over 2,000 years since when it has been a pivotal hub for trade, culture, and diplomacy from the days of the Silk Road. Its strategic location on the Pearl River made it a gateway for international exchanges, attracting traders and travellers from around the world.
Fast forward to the modern era, Guangzhou has undergone remarkable transformation, evolving into a bustling megacity at the forefront of China’s economic and industrial development. Its history is a tapestry of contrasts, where the ancient seamlessly coexists with the contemporary.
Today, the city boasts architectural marvels like the iconic Canton Tower and its towering neighbours, underlining Guangzhou’s place in the modern world. Yet, it still retains the charm of its old alleyways and traditional hutongs, providing a glimpse into its rich heritage.
Guangzhou is not just a city of contrasts in terms of architecture but also in terms of technological advancement. The Nansha district, often referred to as the Silicon Valley of China, is home to incredibly advanced tech companies, with tangible innovations on its roads like driverless taxis and buses.
Amidst this high-tech landscape, there’s also room for appreciation of the past. The Cantonese Opera Museum stands as a testament to the city’s cultural heritage, offering a window into China’s history and traditions. It continues to be a favourite among the people, serving as a reminder of Guangzhou’s enduring connection to its roots.
Cantonese cuisine, often hailed as one of the four main Chinese culinary traditions alongside Shandong, Jiangsu, and Sichuan, has deep historical roots. Originating in the Guangdong province and centred in Guangzhou, Cantonese cuisine is celebrated for its delicate flavours – as opposed to the bold, numbing Sichuanese cuisine – fresh ingredients, and meticulous cooking techniques.
In Guangzhou, food is more than sustenance, it’s a unifying force that brings people together. The Cantonese people are known for their passionate appreciation of food, which often surpasses that of any other region in China.
Among the culinary treasures of Guangzhou, Tao Tao Ju stands as a jewel in the crown. This renowned restaurant is not only a local favourite but has also earned international recognition.
Tao Tao Ju’s history, a testament to its enduring appeal, traces its origins back to the Qing Dynasty, with a legacy spanning over a century. Known for its commitment to preserving traditional Cantonese culinary techniques and flavours, Tao Tao Ju has successfully expanded its influence beyond Guangzhou, as it recently opened a branch in London.
As the 10-day trip comes to an end, one thing stands clear. China’s curiosity about the world, its meticulous study of every aspect of human endeavour, and its relentless pursuit of progress have set an example for the rest of the world. It is now our turn to reciprocate, to embark on a journey of discovery, and to explore the multifaceted dimensions of the country’s history and culture.