Avoiding the tides of tourists in China is near impossible. So how do you see the sights but stay well clear of the pack? AMY ADAMS reports.
I’ve never seen a queue like it. An hour before the doors to Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum open and already the line, 10 people wide, stretches halfway around Tiananmen Square. But it’s not just the length that’s astonishing. Bar the odd straggler, the fiercely guarded queue is divided into colour-coded hats. If you peered from an aeroplane it would look stripey.
The tour groups of China have to be seen to be believed. It seems you aren’t worth your salt as a travel company if you don’t demand your coachload wear matching caps and follow the same route round the sights as every other group. First stop, pickled Mao, then a march round the Forbidden City, down to the Temple of Heaven and back to Tiananmen Square to see the flag lowered at dusk. Tomorrow, the Great Wall and, if time permits, the Summer Palace.
It’s exhausting even typing their itinerary, and a lot like swimming against the tide when you’re in the thick of it. As the countdown to the Olympics opening ceremony (8pm, August 8, 2008) gets nearer, the current will only get stronger. Here are some ways to avoid the crowds in a city that makes the West End seem undiscovered.
Hiding in the hutongs
The mikado alleyways that make up Beijing’s traditional residential areas are worlds away from the city’s public facade. Within minutes of leaving the kite flyers and postcard hawkers of the square or bustling bars around the Shicha Lakes you find yourself in a cement-walled warren, the bemused stares of locals a sure sign you’re not in touristville any more. Your guidebook becomes redundant but, provided it’s not dark, it’s fascinating to wander aimlessly, peeking into daily lives of cooking and washing, and eating at some of the tiny, four-table restaurants.
If you don’t fancy getting lost, there are a selection of tours to choose from – take one in the early evening if you don’t want to be caught in rickshaw gridlock. Mine starts outside Beihai Park and, with my tip-hungry driver yelling out place names, stopping at vantage points and even giving me his jacket when it gets chilly, it’s more than worth the metaphorical neon sign flashing ‘tourist’ above my head.
The best stop comes at one of the hutong’s 400-year-old quadrangles – a complex of four buildings facing onto a courtyard, and a heritage rapidly being bulldozed for more modern housing. Every aspect is arranged according to ancient beliefs – a pomegranate tree in the centre for fertility (In those times it was best to have lots of children, unlike under Mao and his one-child policy,” says my guide); a goldfish bowl for wealth; and odd numbers of steps into each room (even numbers are for the dead). Furnished much as the quadrangle would have looked, but with happy families gossiping over dinner, it’s like a living museum.
Wall of people
On the entry visa to China is an image of the Great Wall – an interesting choice given the wall’s original purpose was to keep visitors out, but also slightly deceptive as the magnificent structure looks deserted. Head to one of the main sections such as Badaling or Mutianyu and instead of this isolated splendour, you’ll be greeted with herds of other tourists, several tacky souvenir shops and even the odd toboggan run.
So when Ting jumps out from an alleyway and offers me a tour to the peaceful Great Wall”, brandishing a photo album of grinning daytrippers climbing the guardrail-free wall, it’s hard to resist. I am, however, a little worried that I’ve been had until I meet the rest of the minibus – a family of professional photographers touring the world to produce a book of their images. “This ticked all the boxes of what we were looking for,” says dad, Carl. “I can digitally remove a couple of people but I’d rather not.”
Four hours north-east of Beijing, near the Miyun Reservoir, there are no people to remove at all. The sign that greets us says “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints. Keep our wall wild and wonderful”. And that’s exactly how it is – we climb the crumbling brick, weaving around trees and ducking through ancient archways. If you don’t get ambushed by Ting, you can contact him yourself – see his website www.tingstours.com.
Wide open spaces
You have to pay to get into most of Beijing’s parks, but it’s worth the small fee. Even minutes from the big sights, the green spaces seem to absorb the numbers so you can find yourself wandering alone along paths flanked by ancient thuja trees. At Tiantan Park, surrounding the Temple of Heaven, you’ll see locals spinning tops, practising T’ai Chi and playing fierce games of cards. Beihai Park, further north, is the place for rowing or pedal-boating. Almost all of the vast area (dreamt up by Kubla Khan apparently) is lake, and though the island in the middle is full of gift shops and cafés, you can get away from it all on the water.
For a view of the Forbidden City cross over the road to Jingshan Park and climb the hill created with land cleared for the palace moat. At the moment the extravagant rock garden is undergoing a pre-Olympic facelift (like much of Beijing), but don’t be afraid to duck beneath the fencing. When a group of builders point the way out for me, I clamber through the trees emerging at a viewpoint that I have all to myself. Down below the tourists mill, their coloured caps weaving ribbons of colour through the maze of imperial courtyards.
• Amy Adams travelled to Beijing with Global Village (0870-442 4848) on their Super Trans-Sib. Prices start at £1340.”