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SUMMIT SPECIAL; Kevin Price goes on a victorious tour of Beijing - flying non-stop from Manchester Peking into beijing.

there can't be many places where you're flicked a V-sign - and then called a hero. But it happens at the summit of one of the iconic wonders of the world.

The view was breathtaking - literally. Be warned, the walk up is steep in places. I had a stitch to rival the one on my school sports day in 1974.

But I had conquered the Great Wheeze of China.

I hadn't even hiked the whole way up. A modern cable car takes you nine-tenths of the journey before a short, but steep, climb leads you to the structure itself - a ribbon of bricks stretching into a distance filled with rows and rows of mountains.

The Great Wall winds for an incredible 13,000 miles, straddling the landscape like a gigantic dragon. It was designed to be an impenetrable defence to keep the rest of the world out. Today it seems as if the rest of the world has taken the two-hour trip from Beijing to get there.

Expect to see some unusual sights on the Wall, and I don't just mean the mountain goats munching on the hillsides. Once you've made the final, lungbusting ascent and avoided having your eye taken out by flying selfie sticks, you see not only a timeless landscape, but a slice of Chinese life.

The V-signs? They were delivered by my fellow Wall-walkers Winston Churchill-style, NOT like Harvey Smith, but with your palm facing outwards.

The is a In China, they've become the universal sign language used to signify: "I'm happy."

of " And the exertions were made all the more worth it when one walker waved and praised my "heroics".

into Me, a hero? Hardly. I was just happy to slump down on the ancient bricks and admire the work, skill and courage of the real heroes, the brickies who never threw in the trowel thousands of years ago.

But the Chinese, prompted by the sayings of a certain Mr Mao, see walking the Wall as a badge of honour. Mao once said: "Until you reach the Great Wall, you're no hero."

wall ribbon bricks " Then I bumped into a group of giggling teenagers dressed like the members of Culture Club, offering to help me as I struggled along a particularly steep section.

stretching the distance The symbolism was clear, even though my oxygen levels were dipping fast. Old and new China have emerged from behind the Bamboo Curtain and are now offering a hand of friendship to the West.

Let me retrace my steps to where this adventure all began. Manchester, on a grey Friday morning.

Not your typical setting for the start of a Far East odyssey. But it is now.

Manchester airport now offers direct flights to Beijing four times a week, slicing huge chunks off the travel time and making the Chinese capital accessible from the north west in a little over 10 hours.

I was on the inaugural Hainan Airlines flight and there was a real buzz about the airport, with the departure lounge filled with dragons, jugglers and clowns on stilts.

I had imagined Beijing to be like the setting of Blade Runner - all neon signs and skyscrapers. But the tourist script now reads more like another movie, The Last Emperor.

The tourism chiefs of Beijing, while accepting that China is a modern Tiger economy, want to emphasise its historic and cultural past.

They talk about tranquil and traditional. It's not evident at first sight. Katie Melua famously sang about nine million bicycles in Beijing. She forgot to mention the 22 million people, six million cars and the six, soon-to-be seven, ring roads.

Car ownership is a symbol of success and sex appeal. BMW, the locals joke, stands for Be My Wife.

Pollution is certainly a problem. On the day we arrived, our guides were CONTINUED ON PAGE 43 CONTINUED FROM PAGE 41 saying the Chinese were pointing upwards everywhere because we had arrived on a rare blue-sky day.

For a major capital, Beijing is surprisingly low-rise - another legacy of Chairman Mao, who didn't want his residence overlooked. So he imposed a 40-metre height limit on the surrounding buildings.

But escaping the hurly-burly and the traffic jams to whizz round the main sights of downtown Beijing is easy. The subway network is modern, clean and safe with the signs, ticket machines and announcements all posted in English.

It's bigger than the London Underground and a whole lot cheaper, with tickets little more than 40p for a short hop.

You come out right at the heart of the city, many would say a black one, Tiananmen Square, the name synonymous with oppression and the crushing of the student revolt in 1989.

TASTY Peking delicious local Today, you see selfie sticks, Coca-Cola cans and schoolkids performing cute dances. But there is still plenty of security and a brooding atmosphere.

Five times bigger than Red Square, and bordered by Sovietstyle buildings, you could be forgiven for thinking you have landed in Moscow in the 1950s.

Then you walk under the iconic picture of Chairman Mao and are transported into a time capsule of China's Imperial past.

The Forbidden City is a wonderful antidote to the starkness outside.

Its name is inappropriate, because here you are welcome to wander and explore. A symmetrical, mile-long oasis of palaces containing 9,999 rooms where the emperors entertained - or ignored - their wives, servants and concubines. It now houses a museum and more Ming vases than the Antiques Roadshow could dream of.

At last, this is the true Last Emperor experience - and expect to take several hours to explore the home of Beijing's historical treasures.

From one Chinese icon to another. Imagine a red carpet reception for David Beckham and Kim Kardashian put together - and that gives you some idea of the scrum of photo-graphers you will face at the next venue.

Beijing Zoo houses some 5,000 animals but every person, every mobile is attracted to one group of superstar residents - the giant pandas.

Expect to fight for a shot of these wonderful, sad-eyed creatures who somehow know they are the star attractions. While some are napping, there always seems to be one or two happy to wander and pose for the cameras while chomping on bamboo shoots.

It was feeding time for us humans too and we were ready to savour the city's signature gourmet dish - Peking duck.

There are countless restaurants around the city, most claiming to be the first and, of course, the best at serving the succulent meat dish.

Duck in a Chinese restaurant in England is usually a dry, scaly leg shredded by a waiter using two forks.

duck is the speciality The Peking duck experience here is pure theatre, with the waiters lined up like a Ferrari pit lane team, slicing and chopping the glossy row of poultry with mini cleavers in front of the diners, who then eat the meat with pancakes, cucumber, spring onion and a sweet bean sauce.

After food it was time for spiritual sustenance at the Temple of Heaven, the symbolic, holy heart of the city. It's in Beijing's beautiful version of Central Park, where families hang out, locals play mahjong - and tourists can look like complete idiots.

It was here us stiff, selfconscious Westerners were invited to chill out and perform the ancient Eastern art of Tai Chi. We soon attracted a crowd - and a few laughs - as our teacher put us through our paces, demanding we stretch, breathe deeply and find our spiritual centre.

In reality, we looked like a bunch of zombies in a bad horror movie.

We fell over plenty of times. But we eventually lost our inhibitions and laughed along with the watching throng, bemused and amused by us.

I suddenly realised exactly how the giant pandas felt...

OLD MEETS NEW Looking across the rooftops of Beijing

The wall is a ribbon of bricks stretching into the distance

CAPTION(S):

VV HAPPY Kevin in Tiananmen Square, visiting pandas and exploring modern Beijing

WALL TO WALL The Great Wall of China stretches as far as the eye can see

TASTY Peking duck is the delicious local speciality
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 10, 2016
Words:1355
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