The sun is out and the sky is a vibrant blue, but the air is thin, windy and crisp.
Young Chinese women are huffing up the steep inclines in stilettos and tight jeans, their boyfriends in roughed-up leather jackets and slicked-back hair.
Oddly, some of the men are carrying laptops. Here, on the Great Wall of China – a 2,500-year-old wall that once protected the so-called ‘Middle Kingdom’ and its lucrative Silk Road from ancient marauders – a laptop seems, well, a bit weird.
But in a nation developing as quickly as China, there is the past, and then there is the future. There is no middle.
After flying over the vast, snowy steppes of Mongolia, I had watched Beijing’s new ring roads and dominoes of high-rise apartment blocks emerge dramatically from the clouds.
Motorways snake across the dusty landscape, choked with cars, motorcycles, buses and 14-wheelers, their thick smog mingling with the sandy grit of the nearby Gobi Desert.
When we finally creep into the city centre, I see that many of Beijing’s oldest neighbourhoods, like the hutongs – old alleyways that once housed courtiers of the Forbidden City – have been torn down to make room for newer, higher-density apartment blocks.
Amidst all of this scaffolding stands the vermilion and saffron-coloured Forbidden City itself, a beautifully manicured paean to China’s imperial past. Here, gold-leaf roofs still glitter in the afternoon light and a quiet calm floats among its cherry-blossomed gardens.
Until just a few decades ago, the Forbidden City was the tallest ‘building’ in Beijing. Now, from within its four red walls, endless skyscrapers can be seen poking their heads up towards the sky, like unruly sunflowers.
At times, Beijing’s development can be a little disarming. But its ‘anything goes’ attitude can also make for some fabulous, jaw-dropping architecture that exists nowhere else on Earth – like the 2008 Olympic Stadium, also known as The Bird’s Nest, or the about-to-topple-at-any-second, steel-and-glass China Central Television Tower.
When we move from the capital to Luoyang, a major tourist destination for its 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues, I find that here, too, China’s past is still tangible – yet only just.
Religious relics in this ‘atheist’ country are hard to come by, but in limestone grottoes along a jade-coloured river, some 100,000 different Buddhas have been meticulously carved into stone.
Our journey takes us onto Xi’an – famous for its 7,000 ancient life-sized terracotta soldiers, among them archers, guardsmen and foot soldiers.
All of them were modelled on Emperor Qin’s real army (of 221BC, no less) and each is replete with bronze horses and arrows.
Laid out like an army advancing, they are a stunning sight – especially as only one-third of the soldiers have been reconstructed in full (the rest still lie in archaeological rubble).
Disappointingly, however, Qin’s mausoleum – thought to lie just 1km to the west of the excavation site – has not yet been uncovered.
When I find myself in Shanghai a day later, my head is spinning.
From the futuristic dome of the pink-and-purple Pearl Tower, I watch the sun set across the city’s Art Deco riverfront, and the flickering neon of Shanghai’s skyline.
I am impressed: China’s past and future seem so beautifully melded together here.
Kate Hodal was a guest of On The Go’s 13-day ‘Fine China’ trip, which includes Beijing, Luoyang, Xi’an, Guilin, Yangshuo and Shanghai, and is available from March to October.
Packages available from £1,149 for 2012, including B&B accommodation, some meals, transfers, local tour guides, and events like City Wall bike ride in Xi’an, Chinese acrobatic performance and rickshaw ride in Beijing.
As this is a group tour, no mandatory single supplement applies, with travellers often willing to share.
Flights are extra. Tour starts in Beijing and finishes in either Shanghai or Hong Kong.
On The Go reservations: 0207 371 1113 and onthegotours.com