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  China, the land of mysteries
  By Elizebath Philip  
  WHEN I planned to join a group going on a week-long trip to China, everybody's reaction was: "Why go to China? It's not worth the money and time. After many days of indecisiveness, I finally took the plunge and went to Shanghai, Xian and Beijing.

We boarded the Chinese Eastern Boeing flight from Delhi at 4 am and reached Shanghai at about 2 pm (Chinese time). The Chinese time is two and a half hours ahead of IST.

We were in for a great surprise at the Shanghai International airport. From the cramped, under-renovation Indira Gandhi International Airport, we were in one of the world's largest airports. It had amazing architecture given a dash of eye-pleasing artificial greenery. Moving paths ensured that the walkers did not feel any strain. We were not prepared for this kind of luxury and expansiveness.

Immigration clearance was as smooth and efficient as the luggage delivery. The drive from the airport to the city kept our eyes wide open. We were simply stunned by the sights all around. Suddenly I remembered my visit to New York 10 years ago. At that time I thought New York was the last word in urban glory.

Shanghai had all the marks of a rich city. It was amazingly clean. There was no litter anywhere. There was no dust either. The roads were mostly in eight lanes. Even ten-lane roads crisscrossed by long and wide bridges and flyovers were not rare. All the roads were flanked on both sides by flower-bearing trees. Often, roads were divided by long rows of trees right in the middle. Like the regimented Chinese, even the trees were of the same size and shape thanks to the nice trimming and shaping at the hands of expert gardeners.

Western-style skyscrapers dotted the skyline. Our guide introduced herself as Ms Grace when she learnt that our group was exclusively Indian. As a practice the Chinese guides adopt a name that suits their clients. If they are English-speakers, they use English names like John, Smith, Anne etc. They will reveal their Chinese names only if their clients were Chinese. I wondered whether an Indian guide like Chandra Shekhara Varrier Kandathil would ever change his name to suit the convenience of his clients.

Ms. Grace explained that Beijing was the father city, Shanghai, the mother city and Xian the grandma city. Shanghai has the tallest tower of China, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (468 metres). It is Asia's tallest and the world's second tallest tower, the tallest being Sears towers of Canada.

Relatively speaking, Shanghai is a new city. It began to grow into its present form in 1990, the year when China took to the capitalist path. Unlike Beijing, there are no mountains around Shanghai, though it has several rivers. A sumptuous lunch awaited us at "Indian Kitchen." The incongruity of having Indian food in China struck me but then that was the compromise I had to make with a group which was mostly vegetarian. In the evening, we went for a cruise on the Huangpu river.

The cruise turned out to be one of the most exciting events of the trip. Grandiose buildings, including the TV tower, the World Finance Centre and the Chingmar Tower, once the tallest in China, lined the beautiful waterfront. We all concluded that Shanghai was more beautiful at night.

We took a round of the city the next day. Visits to Park bridge, the tallest bridge in Shanghai, Peoples Heroes' monument and Huangpu Park, which provides an insight into the old Shanghai city, were the highlights of the trip. We also visited the Yuyuan Garden, which has a history of over 450 years. Its pavilions, stones and streams depict the South China landscape designs that trace their origin to the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Shanghai has huge shopping centres and malls and hundreds of apartments vying with one another for both height and architectural brilliance. The buildings are all clean-looking and there are no signboards, hoardings and loose wires to be seen. It is difficult to distinguish the office buildings from the residential buildings. There were no power-cuts.

On any given day, Nanjing Road is thronged by thousands of shoppers and fashion seekers from all over the world. Public transport system was world class. Buses were neat looking and never overcrowded. But our guide told us that traffic jams were common in the morning and in the evening, i.e., during the office time, especially on Mondays and Fridays.

Used as I was to the chaotic traffic in New Delhi, I could empathise with Ms Grace when she spoke about the traffic travails in Shanghai.

China is known as the home of tea. But Chinese tea is different from Indian tea. There are different varieties and combinations of Chinese tea, which is also sold for its medicinal properties. The tea is taken without milk and sugar.

The Chinese are fond of tea and they drink it all the time. They seldom drink plain water. Warm tea is a must after every meal. At teatime, dry fruits are eaten as snacks. Unlike us, the Chinese seldom eat sweets or fried items.

Chinese food is different from Indian food. They eat many types of meat like pork, mutton, beef, chicken and ducks. They also eat a lot of vegetables in the form of soup. The Chinese food that is famous in India simply does not exist in China. The Chinese rice is peculiar -- big and sticky. Indian-style tea and coffee were not available even in Indian hotels.

Shanghai is famous for its pearls and has both fresh water pearls and sea-water pearls. The golden-coloured pearls are unique and quite expensive. In the past only the queens wore them. Pearls in chocolate colour are a specialty and command a high price in the market.

China is famous for acrobatics and there are regular acrobatic shows in Shanghai and other towns. We could see some of the items they showed during the Olympics and it was quite amazing and new.

Shanghai is thickly populated (18 million). It is now preparing for the World Trade Expo, 2010. There is no doubt that it will emerge as the world's largest Expo Centre.

From Shanghai we visited Xian, a two-hour flight. Xian is the third most populous city of china, after Beijing and Shanghai.

Xian is an ancient city and was the capital of the Ching dynasy. The silk route started from Xian. All along, we could see red and yellow pomegranate trees, originally brought from Afghanistan, through this famous route. Pomegranate wine is considered a specialty here.

Factories of all kinds dot this city, also famous as the Manchester of China. The most exciting thing to see here are the Terracotta warriors, replicas of those who guarded the imperial city.

The Wild Goose Pagoda built in 652 is a Buddhist shrine and houses many religious items taken from India. From Xian we went to Beijing, the last leg of our tour. It is truly a modern city.

Our guide Ms Lily says Beijing is famous for four things: The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall of China, the Olympic Stadium and the Kum-fu show.

Though there are acrobatic shows in all big Chinese towns, the Kung-fu show is only in Beijing. We were all excited about visiting the Forbidden City, at one end of which is the Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City was home to 24 emperors and, of course, the Dragon Lady. It is spread over 72 hectares and has 9999 rooms.

Tiananmen square is the largest square in the world. Though we all had memories of the 1999 students' revolt and the massacre, there was no mention of it anywhere in the place. Our guide conveniently ignored our queries on this.
The summer palace of the Dragon Lady is another place of tourist interest. It has a lobby, which is the longest in the world. Stories abound about this lady, whose memories still evoke dread in the minds of the average Chinese.

The next day we visited the Great Wall of China, the only landmark on the earth that could be seen from the moon. Most people of our group preferred not to climb but I decided to give it a try. I managed to reach the top. For all my effort, I got a certificate of having climbed the wall for 40 yuan. I remembered visiting the Petra in Jordan last year and the Taj in 1985, all among the wonders of the world.

The Ming tombs, the burial site for 13 of 16 Ming emperors is another historical site frequented by the tourists. Nobody can forget how each one of us glued to the TV marveled at the architecture and size of the Olympic Stadium. Particularly memorable was the visit to the swimming pool where Phelps made history by winning nine medals.

Beijing is famous for jade and jadite ornaments. In China, it is mandatory to give a jadite bangle to a girl at the time of her marriage. The Chinese are fond of stones and pearls, not gold. Painted copper and clay items are a Chinese specialty.

The Temple of Heaven is unique. It is the place where senior citizens gather to spend the whole day singing, dancing and playing cards. We saw thousands of them there. In China, every year is associated with an animal. This year is the year of the ox.

All good things must come to an end. We all returned to New Delhi with fond memories of the seven days we spent in China. There was something antiseptic about China, where roads and buildings were supremely clean -- so clean that gardeners jumped at the falling leaves to catch them. But where were the ordinary Chinese? Probably, they were busy in the factory of the world, i.e., China.

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