With each step, my feet landed on six centuries of history. The craggy gray stones making up this wild, unrestored portion of the Great Wall are worn from generations of merchants, warriors and guardsmen, leaving me to carefully maneuver unpredictable terrain and crumbling steps. As dusk set in, I paused — alone with my boyfriend and a few amateur photographers farther down the path — to appreciate the warm orange hues illuminating the wall’s miles-long scar through an expansive, undulating forest and up distant mountains.
Days later, I gazed down from the 121st-floor observation deck of the sparklingly new Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building, in the vast modern business district of Shanghai, one of the world’s most populous cities.
China holds a millennium of history and a constant pull toward the future at every turn. Guidebooks are packed with superlatives about its modern construction achievements — “biggest,” “tallest,” “longest,” “busiest.” Yet its past is ever present in its traditions, people, food and landscapes. Cuba may be the current hot spot for traveling back in time, but a multi-stop tour of the Middle Kingdom offers all that plus a detour through tomorrow.
We began our trip in Beijing, a 20-million-person hive of history, commerce and culture. The city was once packed with winding, walled neighborhood streets known as hutongs. Though they are being leveled at an alarming rate to make way for towering high-rises, these warrens of walled alleys offer a quiet refuge from the city’s chaotic traffic, as well as tableaus of everyday life in Beijing.
One evening, we wandered through the labyrinthine streets, still buzzing with life long after dark. On one block, street vendors offered late-night snacks below the neon lights of a tiny drinking establishment. We turned a sharp corner and found a foursome of women playing mahjong in the street. Nearby, a shop owner washed dishes with a hose, and a young man sat for a quick haircut.
We turned another corner, and old China seemed to disappear, replaced by a brightly lit luxury mall, stacked with watch and luggage stores and a dapper doorman for every shop. We turned back down another alleyway to find a historic courtyard residence turned trendy microbrew pub. Filled with hipster expats drinking high-quality IPAs and porters, Great Leap Brewing felt more like northeast Minneapolis than Far East Asia.
Beijing’s narrow streets can feel like a museum on the evolution of transportation come to frenzied life: herds of people on foot walking at different speeds, delivery boys on scooters whizzing past, rickshaws zigzagging with tourists hanging on for dear life, and — despite being illogically large for the space — luxury sedans inching by.
We spent our days on foot or cruising underground on the city’s extensive yet intuitive subway system. We visited bird and bug markets, watched packs of women practice a fan dance, drank coffee at cat cafes, gazed up at the world’s largest LCD ceiling, and walked through a luxury mall boasting its own suspension bridge.
A country of cooking
Each day brought a new lesson in the eight distinct regional cuisines of China. Our first night in Beijing, exhausted from more than 20 hours of travel, we headed to a restaurant where we could enjoy traditional Yunnan cuisine in a beautifully updated open-air courtyard without needing to make any decisions.
“Do you have any allergies?” the young waiter asked. After that, she simply kept returning with dish after dish: savory mushrooms and ginger steamed in banana leaves, whole grilled fish with crumbled peppers and spices, refreshingly cool, wide and flat rice noodles mixed with mint and vinegar.
I quickly discovered that dining in China is a whole other opportunity to travel through time. It’s possible to have meals that haven’t changed much in terms or recipe or presentation in centuries, such as the goat kebabs and homemade yogurt we enjoyed at a traditional Uyghur restaurant in Beijing, or the hand-pulled noodles sold by street vendors in Shanghai. At the same time, chefs are experimenting and innovating with long-established dishes, like at the Southern Barbarian, which pairs Yunnan foods with a wide variety of beers, both foreign and domestic.
Not far off Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s trendy pedestrian shopping plazas, we took the elevator in an upscale shopping mall to Da Dong Roast Duck to try the city’s most famous dish, Peking duck.
Calm fountains throughout the dining room were offset by the hurried staff, darting from table to table like hummingbirds in a marble garden. A chef in a pristine white hat stood just behind me, slicing individual bite-size pieces of duck for the table. With its crispy skin and almost candy-like flavor (particularly when eaten with a touch of sugar, sweet bean sauce and wrapped in a tiny pancake) it wasn’t hard to figure out how this dish became a national symbol recognized across the globe.
It was not in an upscale, chic restaurant where we found our favorite meal, however, but a hole-in-the-wall so unremarkable in appearance that we walked by twice before realizing it was what we’d been looking for. Jia Jia Tang Bao in Shanghai is renowned for its Xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings: small, unleavened flour shells wrapped by hand around crab, pork or vegetables.
The place had the feeling of a busy lunchroom, with customers constantly filing in and out of its communal tables packed to the brim. As we entered, a stern-looking woman standing behind the counter held out a well-worn English menu and pointed at the two types of dumplings available that day.
Soup dumplings get their name from their liquid filling. A novice, like me, is liable to pick their first one out of the large bamboo steamer, bite in and be surprised when its rich, aromatic broth explodes down his shirt. Thankfully, there are about a dozen in an order, so by the third or fourth, I got the hang of simultaneously biting in and slurping out the mouth-wateringly savory filling. The all-crab dumplings were so delicate yet loaded with flavor that after each one we would have to lean back from the table for a moment to catch our breath.
China has a high-speed rail network that makes Amtrak look like a child’s train set. Our 800-mile trip from Beijing to Shanghai took just over five hours and crossed three of the world’s 10 longest bridges. I lost count of the number of construction cranes I saw as we zoomed across the countryside. Several towns we passed had as many as 14 new high-rises under construction. At least one development appeared to have gone up so quickly that the line of apartment buildings was not yet connected to any roads.
Arriving in Shanghai, we were struck by the relative orderliness of its streets, its manicured gardens and the Parisian-like boulevards of its French Concession area around our hotel, a district built by the French more than a century ago.
It’s difficult to imagine a more striking juxtaposition of old and new than along Shanghai’s riverfront, the Bund. On one shore, the ornate and imposing white and gray stone of the Russo-Chinese Bank Building, the Fairmont Peace Hotel and Waldorf Astoria Shanghai offer some of the most impressive examples of early-20th-century art deco and French architecture in the East.
The opposite shore feels like the city skipped more than a century of architectural evolution and simply started up again around the time of “Blade Runner,” set many years in the future. Shanghai Tower is only the latest of the gigantic structures piercing the city’s skies. From either the Jin Mao Tower or Shanghai World Financial Center you could easily look down on New York’s Empire State Building.
One Sunday we took a stroll through People’s Park and discovered the Shanghai Marriage Market. Hundreds of parents sat behind typed biographies of their adult children taped to the front of umbrellas. Their aim was to find a suitable match for their unmarried child who had treacherously passed the age of 30 without finding a mate on their own. No pictures or elaborate sales pitches from what we could translate: just age, height, college degree and occupation, sometimes accompanied by an annual income.
Strangest of all, this was entirely a parent-to-parent transaction; we saw no one of marriage age perusing the wares for themselves. The result was something akin to a low-tech Tinder, with swiping left replaced by other parents simply strolling past the umbrellas that didn’t pique their interest.
On one of our final evenings in Shanghai, we sat on the fifth-floor terrace of the pirate-themed Captain’s Bar overlooking the Bund. Below, a steady stream of cargo ships plodded by, just as ships here have done since before William conquered England. As the sun set, the skyscrapers on the other side of the river began twinkling like Christmas trees with moving LED light shows. One displayed 30-story Disney characters. Another scrolled “I [heart] Shanghai.” The iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a building seemingly plucked from “The Jetsons,” sparkled in what seemed like a dazzling transcontinental competition with the Eiffel Tower.
The one (perhaps only) thing we came home sure about China is that it is changing ... fast. Sights listed in our 2016 guidebooks had been closed or leveled by the time we got there. Shanghai, which had only one subway line 20 years ago, today boasts 13 lines, 8.4 million daily riders and plans for another 12 lines in the next decade.
Yet it is still a place where a friendly shopkeeper made us bespoke dress shirts for about $25. It is a place where we were taken to a street food stand that beheaded and grilled snakes on the sidewalk. Where seniors gather in city parks to dance together or sing along as an amateur brass band plays nationalist anthems from a time gone by.
China’s old charms and traditions persevere, even as modernity grows and takes up more and more space. Visit soon. It is impossible to say how long the old and new can coexist.
Tane Danger is a writer who lives in Minneapolis.