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New horizons for a new China need to know; PAUL COATES visits China and is blown away by the sheer scale of the sights.

Byline: PAUL COATES

TWO 'facts' about China need debunking. No, you cannot see the Great Wall from the moon. And Fletch was talking nonsense when, in the classic sitcom Porridge, he insisted that the Chinese could cause a tidal wave by jumping up and down at the same time.

But here's one fact that IS true. China is an amazing place bursting with surprises. And, as it roars ahead with its booming economy, the veil is beginning to lift for visitors from the west. It may still be a Communist state, but the brakes are off when it comes to showcasing how far it has come in the last 30 years.

Nowhere is the juxtaposition of history and a booming 21st century nation more apparent than in Beijing. The name means capital of the north, while Nanjang, near Shanghai, is the capital of the south.

As Christian missionaries arrived in the south they were exposed to the Cantonese dialect which pronounced Beijing as 'Peking'. It was made capital of the whole of China in 1421 by the Ming emperors.

Now, with a population of 21 million and covering an area equivalant to two-thirds of The Netherlands, Beijing sprawls as far as the eye can see.

Smog may often hinder that view but China is taking steps to alleviate the pollution which sees many go about their daily business wearing face masks.

The song says there are nine million bicycles in Beijing, but there's probably fewer now as the car is THE status symbol. Residents would seemingly rather sit in a traffic jam on one of the six (yes, six) ring roads than use the super-efficent subway system. A seventh ring road is under construction and will cover a distance of 135 miles when complete.

We were lucky - our tour bus driver has a special permit from a previous job, which allowed him on the dissecting multi-lane highway reserved for government officials and VIPs.

Tiananmen Square Measures to control traffic include the banning of cars with certain registration plates on specific days. You can't take your car out on a Monday if your reg plate has a 4 or a 9 in, for example. And in a city of five million motors, new registrations are limited to 1,000 a month.

While the car is king, Beijing boasts a hi-tech subway system and, with a basic price of 30p a journey, it's the best way to get around. Time it right, and you can see the army of old folk who 'help' passengers get on the trains at rush hour with a well-placed push and shove.

The elderly subterranean helpers are complemented by colleagues on the surface helping commuter flow at bus stops. With 250 million pensioners in China, the government offers them part-time jobs to keep the city moving.

They can also be seen cycling around as part of neighbourhood watch schemes.

As in the west, property is the barometer of the economy. During our visit, we went to one of the few areas that hasn't been developed - the Old Town.

Just a few feet away from the hustle and bustle is a collection of narrow streets and alleyways.

It seems like a shanty town but there are nice cars parked outside, and a number of restaurants. In one, the owners gave us a workshop on how to make Chinese dumplings.

They were very hospitable, a trait apparent everywhere we went but especially surrounding food. The Chinese feel they have failed if guests eat all before them. Hosts feel they should offer more than enough with success measured by how much food is left at the end of the meal.

Housing the population against the backdrop of soaring property prices is an issue. Flats - there are very few houses - are on a 70-year government lease. It was as long ago as 1949 that the Communist Party abolished land and property ownership.

It means leases are coming to end in 2019 and what happens next, and how they can be extended, is still being debated.

You won't see many tower blocks, for residential or business either.

Although restrictions are being relaxed - such as in the Financial district where we stayed at the impressive Fairmont Beijing - it was ruled for centuries that no building could be taller than the Forbidden City, where the Chinese emperors lived from the 15th century to 1912.

A World Cultural Heritage site, it has 9,999 rooms and is in the middle of Beijing. The portrait of Mao Zedong which looms over the entrance is now as much part of the fabric of the monument as the 980 buildings inside its walls. Stretching for 720,000 square meters, the scale is staggering.

The last emperor, Puyi, abdicated - after a little persuasion - in 1912.

He was left with a few rooms, but the rest of the Forbidden City was handed over to the people.

Just across the road, is Tiananmen Square, now forever associated with the pro-democracy movement which was ruthlessly crushed in 1989 with a declaration of martial law.

Ironically, Tiananmen means 'Gate of Heavenly Peace'. Its modern incarnation dates from the early 1950s when Mao visited Moscow and was impressed by Red Square outside the Kremlin. He went large, and built his square six times bigger, demolishing buildings more than 1,000 years old.

The square is smaller now because it contains Mao's mausoleum, where the founding father of the People's Republic of China can still be viewed in his embalmed state. Underneath your feet, there's an underground city covering five square miles.

Complete with hospital and supplies for 100,000 people for a month, it was to be a bolthole in any crisis.

A few miles away is the less frenetic Temple of Heaven, where emperors used to go in summer and winter. They also went in times of drought and flood to pray and make sacrifices to the God of Heaven. Built in 1420, it has seen several re-builds.

Many of China's ancient buildings were constructed of wood and, because it was deemed that ordinary structures couldn't be any taller, they often attracted the attention of lightning bolts and burned to the ground.

Its blue roof represents the sky, and its roundness heaven - Chinese culture sees the earth as square.

But the highlight of our visit, and undoubtedly of most trips, was The Great Wall of China. Everything is on a mind-blowing scale: it's more than 13,000 miles long and the longest structure ever built by man; it's more than 2,300 years old; more than a million people died building the wall.

We went to Gubei Water Town to view the wall. It's termed as an 'international holiday area' and sits in the valley with the wall high on a mountain ride above. Two villages were demolished and the inhabitants moved to build it. A huge government-owned complex it's a cross between Center Parcs and Epcot at Disney World but on an epic scale.

Built in a style sympathetic to the wall, it has 1,000 hotel rooms. A cable car takes you up to the wall for amazing views.

Stood on top, you really do think 'Wow!'. Not fettered by health and safety rules, it's pretty much go as you please. Be warned that some of the stepped inclines are extremely steep and uneven, and we saw people descending on their backsides.

Back down in Water Town and after another sumptuous Chinese banquet, I looked up at the floodlit section of the wall and had to pinch myself. Had I really been on the Great Wall of China? It was a perfect end to a whirlwind, but thoroughly captivating trip.

Next time I'm queuing in my local Great Wall of China takeway, I'll be able to say: I've been there!

| PAUL COATES flew to China with Hainan Airlines, who fly direct to Beijing four times a week from Manchester Airport. It makes Manchester the only UK airport outside of London with a direct service to Mainland China. Fares start from PS465 - see hainanairlines.com for more.

| The Fairmont in Beijing is a five-star hotel in the heart of the Chinese capital, and features 222 well-appointed rooms. Located in the central business district, with easy access to many of the tourist attractions, rooms start from PS160. Facilities include a health club with Yoga Studio and gym, an indoor heated pool, steam rooms, saunas and Jacuzzi (fairmont.com/beijing).

| Manchester Airport is the UK's global gateway for the north with more than 210 destinations. Start your journey off in style in one of the airport's three Escape Lounges from just PS21. See manchesterairport.co.uk A stunning bedroom at The Fairmont Hotel in Beijing The sun shines over The Great Wall of China Inside the forbidden City in Beijing

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Oct 3, 2016
Words:1470
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