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China is Changing

Professor Arnie Greenberg

A first time visitor to China will discover that the old has been transformed. China today, especially the major cities is glittering, modern, bustling with tourists and futuristic hotels are opening all the time. The old Shanghai is hidden behind a forest of steel and glass. The modern airports, the purchase possibilities and the welcoming spirit of the people make it a place for travelers, business people or just gawkers.

China is becoming less mysterious. The country is transforming into an inviting and modern nation. More and more people are visiting places that they once only dreamt about. Now that they are gearing up for the Olympics, more and more people are thinking of China as a holiday destination.

I was once told that China wasn’t ready for foreign visitors. Not only are they now ready but the network of hotels, especially designed for tourists, the tour companies, guides, the food services or special entertainment make China ‘THE” place to visit. The streets where tourists walk are generally clean and safe. The people are warm and cordial, especially the children. The merchandise is worth buying, even if many of the items are ‘knock offs’ and the price is right. Consider my Burberry winter coat that I’ve worn now for three seasons at a cost of $40. Each visitor returns with his tales of modern cities, river cruises with visual sights that amaze even the seasoned traveler or entertainment peculiar to this now-inviting country.

Each visitor has his favorite sites. Shanghai is now modern, sparkling and inviting. A Yangtze cruise or a trip on the Li River is on most traveler’s lists.  Here are a few of my special discoveries in the Beijing area.

Beijing is as modern as you can imagine with fast food outlets and modern western shops everywhere. Even the styles are up to date. Beijing hotels boast everything a visitor could want. The squares, palaces and modern boulevards are not to be believed.

China’s Official Capital and most popular attraction, The Forbidden City, dating back to 1406 when construction started, containing 8700 rooms that took 200,000 workers to build. It occupies 720,000 square meters with 9,000 bays of halls and rooms. The ten-meter high walls are 3,428 meters long with four splendid corner towers. There is a 52-foot fortifying moat surrounding the whole wall. It is so big that when we walked from Tiananmen Square to the other side, we had to take a taxi back. For centuries, ordinary people could not enter the gates, hence the name, Forbidden City. It served both the Ming and Quing dynasties well. Twenty-four Emperors ruled the whole country from here for almost 500 years. The last person to actually live there was Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Quing Dynasty. (See the film “The Last Emperor”)

The city includes magnificent halls, serene pathways and secret places where discussions could be held away from prying ears. The Imperial Gardens boast huge pines, exotic flowers and rare stones. There are pavilions, two-storied houses and ponds. There was nothing left to be added, except, perhaps, toilet facilities for the masses of visitors. They are few and far between. Nobody expected this sacred sanctuary to be a visitor’s paradise. Of course Mao’s picture greets you and reconstruction is an ongoing thing but it’s a place worth visiting with a guide.                    

The reconstructed project became a key cultural relic in 1961. It was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1987.

I found the site fascinating to visit. There were hundreds of foreigners there that day but even more Chinese who still venerate the traditions of the site.

Even before you enter the Meridian Gate you are faced with two magnificent gold-plated bronze lions. The guide explained that the one with its paw resting on a ball was male and the one with the baby was the female. They are perfect symbols of power, grandeur, dignity and luxury. It is at this point that the emperor would give his New Year’s announcements as well as his decision about the destiny of those imprisoned.

There are too many halls (rooms) or courtyards to describe or even remember. I particularly enjoyed the bedroom of the emperor (Quinqing Hall with its ornate ceiling, red pillars and ornate rear screen. Like most buildings of this era, one can find great ceramic heaters. This room is no exception.

The Tai he Hall is larger but similar in some respects. It was here that the emperor was enthroned and held important ceremonies. The emperor’s throne was made during the Ming dynasty. It is painted gold with dragons adorning it. Behind it is a gold-plated screen.

Documents, lanterns, bridal chambers, inner moats with sculpted bridges, gardens with pagodas, ornate curtains and statues of cranes or tortoises plus sculpted marble staircases, gold encrusted globes or clocks and dragons as well as portraits of emperors and empresses give us a better idea of the opulence of the rulers of this gigantic and once-mysterious country.

About an hour outside the city, constructed, as a protection over vast distances is still a draw for people from all nations. Walking on the Great Wall is an exciting thing for visitors. Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and dating back to 770 BC and built in sections, it covers a distance of 54000 km. It is the only man-made construction that can be seen from space. When it was constructed, wars were fought with swords, lances and bows and arrows. This was the best way to defend against warring invaders. The beacon towers, could be a source of communication in case of attack. The expansion of the earlier walls in 221 BC required 300,000 soldiers to do the work during the Ming dynasty. The guides like to tell us that if this were turned into a wall one meter thick and 5 meters high, it would have enough material to encircle the globe ten times.

It is difficult to describe the feeling one gets when one visits this monumental undertaking. Thousands still visit daily just to walk over tiny sections of the wall. At the base camps there are restaurants, parking lots and souvenir shops. It has been turned into a tourist Mecca. The view during a red sunset or at dawn’s first light or even when it is covered with snow looks like a silver dragon.  It’s lifting. During the rainy season, it sits above the low clouds as a silent sentinel to man’s ingenuity.

We visited the large mountainous section at Badaling which has been meticulously constructed and is an outstanding example of ancient military architecture. Here, the surroundings are beautiful, especially during the autumn months when the surrounding colors are so vivid.

From Sima Terrace on a dizzying height one can see the lights of Beijing on clear nights.

The wall looks like a dragon winding its way through green forests that are covered with puffy white snow in winter. Being there is its own reward. It is key to China’s pride. You can enjoy it in any season.

The sections are all open to the public. People come to breathe fresh air, some to do exercise and some to bear witness to the enormity of the project that will surely leave one humble on return. I certainly felt that way. I think about my walk on only a fraction of the wall and I dream about returning. True, it’s a tourist haven but it is beyond belief that something as old and grand as this should still be standing and welcoming strangers. Just being there takes away some of the mystery of centuries.

There are so many other places in China worth visiting.

I recommend the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian, a city of 11,000,000 that few westerners ever thought of visiting before the thousands of Terra Cotta warriors were accidentally discovered. Now you can see nearly 80,000 of the million life-sized armed warriors, 10,000 horses and 1,000 chariots arranged in Qin battle formations. The area covers 20,000 sq. m. It’s awesome and once the capital of all China.

The Li River near Guilin, in Guangxi Province where tourists cruise on flat bottom boats over all or part of the 52 mile journey through mysterious looking peaks on the limpid Li River under perfect blue skies. You drift by water buffalo, rice paddies and fishermen on bamboo rafts. The eye-feasting scenery will amaze but never disappoint.

The mountain terrain is unique.

I ended my first tour in Hong Kong. Again, there is nothing like it, from the crowded streets of Kawloon to the dizzying heights above are memorable. People, busses and hawkers fill the streets. Markets abound as do street signs, and people, people, people. Hog Kong is like nothing I know. I’ll write more about it when I’m there this summer.

I am planning another visit to China for the spring of 2006.  One cannot expect to see it all at once.  It is captivating and one gets the feeling of being on the back of a sleeping giant. The people are cordial. The experience is most rewarding. But go soon. The changes are so rapid it’s hard to keep up.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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