Spring was breaking as Libby Cameron and her group of Ross travellers journeyed through China from Beijing to the Tang dynasty tombs and their terracotta figures in Xian, the peony festival in Luoyang, the beauty of Hangzhou and Suzhou and the modern metropolis of Shanghai. Pear blossom was a delicate veil on the hillsides, the streets of Beijing glowed with magnolia bloom, willows wore a fresh green shimmer and the peonies were dazzling.
Libby had some Ow! moments, including losing a camera and losing her footing on a wet marble floor, but the Wow! moments were many, and often surprising. These are a few of the things that really struck her (not counting that hard floor!).
The magnolias in Beijing
The tall, elegant Magnolia denudata were a revelation. They were planted throughout Beijing and their large creamy white flowers shone in the spring sunshine. Those in the Magnolia Garden at Beijing Botanical Gardens were stunning.
The hero flower of our tour was the tree peony, known in China as Mudan. In Luoyang, where they are celebrated, there was a massive collection of huge flowers in an assortment of colours, their fragile petals glowing with a silky sheen. It’s easy to understand why so many artists have tried to capture their beauty over the centuries.
Photo: Linda Ross
The Sacred Way
We walked the length of the Sacred Way, near the Ming Tombs outside of Beijing on a sunny day, with very few other tourists. It is part of ancient Chinese tradition to have a road leading to an imperial necropolis that is lined with stone statues, each with a symbolic meaning. The road is the path to heaven for the emperor and is called the Sacred Way. The one leading to the Ming Tombs is the best preserved of all those in China. The long avenue is lined with graceful willow trees, their new fresh spring growth giving them a lovely elegance and making a great backdrop to the 24 immense statues that guard the Way. There are 12 human figures as well as kneeling and standing lions, camels, elephants, horses and unicorns. We loved the tranquillity of this ancient site, and its huge statues.
Photo: Penny Peninton
Pear blossom at the Great Wall
That same day we visited the Great Wall at Mutianyu, again sharing our experience with very few other tourists. All around us on the mountains were wild pear trees, just breaking into blossom. In the gentle glow of the late afternoon we walked on the Wall, marvelling at the vision of this incredible structure snaking its way into the distance along the ridge of the mountains, and the huge effort put into building it
Photo: Madeleine Gray
We were delighted at the friendliness of the Chinese people we encountered. Our amateurish enquiry: “Nee How?’ met with broad smiles and polite replies. We loved watching groups of locals practising their tai chi, dancing, singing – even harmonica-playing! – in public spaces in the early morning. There were always kite flyers out too; the kites soaring against a backdrop of the skyscrapers of modern China. We even saw kites flying at night, bedecked with lights. Also great fun – the Chinese custom of photographing brides for days before their wedding…
Photo: Libby Cameron
Penjing miniature landscapes
I can’t go past the Chinese art of Penjing, which we encountered in many gardens, particularly at Shanghai Botanical Gardens, and the Lingering Garden in Suzhou. One form of penjing resembles Japanese bonsai, but it is the miniature landscapes, complete with rocks, plants and sometimes water and pavilions that I found enchanting. Notice the tiny blue pavilion in the photo below.
Photo: Libby Cameron
Being a mathematician at heart, I found myself drawn to the patterns and geometric shapes in windows, doorways and paving, particularly at gardens and temples. This is a gate at Guo’s villa, in Hangzhou. Hangzhou has been famous for its natural beauty for thousands of years – Marco Polo reckoned it the ‘finest and noblest’ city in the world. Its high point was in the 12th and 13th centuries when it was the capital of the Southern Song dynasty and home to a million people. Guo’s villa was built in the late Qing dynasty in the early 20th century, but follows classical Hangzhou garden design principles. With a mountain behind it and the beautiful West lake in front, it is considered the ‘Number One Garden of the West Lake’.
Photo: Madeleine Gray
I’ll stop there, but were many more WOW moments in a truly memorable trip – I haven’t even started on the dumplings and other delicacies, the kung fu or the acrobats!
We’d love to hear what those of you who joined me in China found especially wonderful. Please add a comment and tell us the stories you are sharing with family and friends.
And p.s. Thanks Madeleine and Penny for filling a few of the photo gaps left by the lost camera!
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