Flying into Beijing, with its smoggy hue and corporate topography, you get a sense of what's already one of the world's largest capital cities. The skyline is punctuated by skyscrapers that are erupting from the ground by the day. Everything about Beijing is huge, not least its population of an estimated 22 million.
Traffic is an enduring problem, to the point where drivers need permits to travel on allocated days — a rule that mine, David, has seemingly forgotten, as he is pulled over by a police officer and fined. Planning a journey by road is seemingly impossible, which leaves you wondering how such a diligent nation is ever on time. My only advice is to find yourself a good driver and always avoid rush hour (assuming you can distinguish when it starts and stops).
I am staying at Shangri-La's China World Summit Wing, located in the China World Trade Center, one of Beijing's tallest buildings, sandwiched between a shopping mall and the city's highest bar, Atmosphere, on the 80th floor. This architectural statement is a prime example of China's determination to lead the world: everything has to be bigger, better, more popular, more fashionable and more expensive. Way up in Atmosphere, a waitress tells me: "Business can only do so well for so long, before a bar is built on the 81st floor of another tower." Welcome to a city where everything is temporary. The hulking buildings used to serve as a reminder of the all-powerful state, but now act as a showcase for affluence and brawn.
Besides the swaggering skyline, there are other signs of "progress". The 798 Art Zone in Chaoyang District proves just how much the political and cultural landscape has evolved, and spending a few hours at this decommissioned Bauhaus-style weapons factory, with its pockets of galleries, cafes and boutiques, is highly recommended. The scene is unconventional and the artwork is very much avant-garde and pop, borrowing heavily from the west - but for China, it's loud, fearless and cool and benefits from a unique poignancy: the fact that young people have found a voice. 798 is an impressive space and a solid introduction to contemporary art in Asia, yet the government is reportedly already planning to demolish it.
After a long day of travelling, I head back to the hotel for a massage, before enjoying an excellent dinner at Grill 79. The American-born head chef, Ryan Sablan Dadufalza, impresses with an epicurean feast of seafood bisque, lamb chops and fillet steak - a little on the pricey side (roughly 1,000 yuan / Dh588 per person), but justified in execution and taste.
"It's forbidden to talk about what happened here in 1989," says Angela, my guide, in hushed tones. I believe her, too - Tiananmen Square is an intimidating place, even at 9am. This is the physical and metaphorical centre of Beijing, the site of the 1989 protests, where the Chinese military opened fire on activists. From here, most of the city's other major attractions are within a three-kilometre radius (except the Great Wall, of course). Looking around, the vast majority of people are domestic tourists, all headed towards the Forbidden City - the enormous palace complex where emperors lived gilded lives for almost 500 years. We decide to follow. It's vast and the hundreds of classical structures are punctuated by the symbolism of colours and numbers, while the positioning of everything is dictated by feng shui and yin-yang; flow and balance. Every detail is examined by the Chinese visitors with forensic care, though most of it only dates back to the 17th century, due to fires and restoration.
For lunch, I meet with Alice McInerney, the fashion editor of Time Out Beijing, in the Dongcheng District, and we go to Temple Restaurant Beijing, set within a 600-year-old temple complex. The conversion is a delicate balance between old and new, as is the food, the highlights of which include steamed cod with truffle, Burmese shrimp string beans and Yunnan pork ribs. This superb meal costs just 178 yuan (Dh104).
We embark on a tour of the nearby hutongs, which, McInerney laments, "used to dominate the city until the government began a campaign of levelling, all in the name of modernisation". Hutongs - alleys of trade and conviviality - are the cogs and wheels of Beijing street culture; the city with its lid off. Rickshaw drivers ubiquitously offer tours, but a better and cheaper option is to rent a bicycle and explore the back roads around the Drum and Bell Tower District (or Gulou). Here you will find the Nanluoguxiang hutong, which has a mile of shops, galleries and cafes, spanning luxury goods to kitsch.
Indeed, the levelling of hutongs truly epitomises modern Beijing - building a future at the cost of the past. That said, Beijing does serve as one of the best points to visit the Great Wall, with the impressive Mutianyu entrance located north-east of the city. Even so, authentic Chinese culture still seems lost in Beijing, overshadowed by capitalist fervour and western superficiality. To discover the romantic China of my mind, I would have to search elsewhere.
Xi'an, located 885km south of Beijing, claims the distinction of being the country's first capital city and is therefore steeped in the ancient feudal stories that make China so tirelessly compelling. The corporate takeover is far less conspicuous here than in Beijing and the people seem far more entrenched in tradition and ceremony.
Because Xi'an is less than half the size of Beijing, both in area and population (eight million), it is much easier to negotiate. The sense of history is greater, too. I meet a Chinese local, Penny, who explains that there has always been a deep respect for local history in Xi'an, although, she adds, this "respect" has not filtered down to younger people - a generation of only children who have been overindulged by lenient parents and have consequently lost the Chinese identity, work ethic and the discipline and who would rather pick up a KFC bucket than a pair of chopsticks.
Stark divides can be seen from the ground up. Unlike Beijing, where ugliness is disguised with bright lights and bombast, Xi'an confronts you with juxtapositions of poverty and wealth, power and hopelessness, of natural beauty and striving urban development. It is a city that is undergoing human, economic and architectural transition. The smell of money, of possibility, is there, but yet to be enthroned.
The Terracotta Army, built to protect the emperor Qin Shi Huang in his afterlife, is what put Xi'an on the map. I go by taxi, which is half-an-hour's drive from the centre, although buses will get you there, too. Despite being well documented, no photograph or article prepares you for the magnitude of seeing the warriors for the first time. There's no warm-up act, no curtain that comes up, and once I'd fought past the gaggles of domestic tourists, I was suddenly there, staring at 8,000 pugnacious men who seem frozen in time. Comprised of three excavation pits, the warriors are undeniably ethereal and the entire experience feels like a pilgrimage.
Xi'an is also home to a large Muslim Quarter, a legacy of the arrival of Arab traders at this, the end of the Silk Road. The main street's four-century-old Gao Fu House (the former residence of the prominent scholar Gao Yuesong) is splendid, but if, like me, you seek atmosphere, head to the cobbled side roads, where sumptuous street snacks attract packs of ravenous gourmands in the evening. I order a steaming bowl of yang rou pao mo, a spicy lamb stew, and watch the Chinese theatre unfold. Shared pavement space means the boundaries between restaurants become seamless, creating a truly festive and conversable environment. I continue to explore by foot. The entire neighbourhood smells of oil, exhaust pipes and cigarettes, but manages to retain a sense of those bygone days of trading.
Locals, such as Penny, will tell you that Xi'an is the real China, where all the history and authenticity lies. But while the former capital serves as an excellent vantage point for numerous historical sites, there is little else on offer. If your interest in history flows deep, then Xi'an will prove relentlessly absorbing; if not, it's best not to spend your entire visit here.
It may sound as though I didn't enjoy China, but I really did. The conflicting nature of a city like Xi'an only adds to the intrigue. China is a nation in transition, and driving back to the airport, there is a palpable sense that this vast land is on the brink of something huge; something that we will all watch unfold over the coming years, as the country makes an even bigger impact on the global stage. Taken together, Beijing and Xi'an provide fascinating binary insight into the world's newest superpower - a giant, yes, but certainly not sleeping.
IF YOU GO
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) offers return direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Beijing from Dh2,380 return including taxes. Flight time is eight hours
The hotel Double rooms at the Shangri-La Beijing (www.shangri-la.com) cost from 2,760 yuan (Dh1,625) per night including taxes