There have been several times in my life when I've had the experience of traveling to a place that loomed a bit notorious in my imagination. In 1993 I spent some time in the former East Germany, just a few years after the wall came down and reunification occurred. My 1980s childhood years were filled with Reagan-era propaganda about how horrible communist states were, and of course, at the age of 21, I didn't yet understand enough about the complexities of such things to even begin to question the things I'd been taught. The reality of being there and talking to the people was incredibly eye-opening, and it was a lesson I didn't forget.
In 1997 I traveled to South Africa for the first time, just a handful of years after the end of Apartheid. Similarly, I had many preconceptions about what the country would be like and what I would see. The reality was, of course, much more complicated than what I expected. Again I learned that the world simply isn't black and white, that governments aren't either right or wrong, good or evil, or whatever. Wars aren't fought for noble reasons, nor are they fought for entirely corrupt ones. It's just not that simple.
The first time I went to China was in 1999, when I went to one of the special economic regions north of Hong Kong. That was a strange experience, mostly because we acquired a new Chinese tour guide at the border (our Hong Kong-based guide stayed with us, but stopped talking), whom we eventually dubbed The People's Guide. His entire purpose seemed to be to tell us that Chinese people were prosperous and happy, and that everything the American government wanted us to believe about China was wrong. It was almost funny after a while, and of course, it had the opposite effect that he intended.
And so, 15 years later, I decided to look at China without any preconceptions, to approach it just as I would any other country we're visiting this year. And that was, to my surprise, remarkably easy to do.
We had a fantastic view on the flight in; the sky was astonishingly clear in this insanely-polluted place. What amazed me the most was that there were skyscrapers that seemed to go on forever. Usually when you fly over a city right before you land, there is a patch of skyscrapers and then the rest of the city is made up of smaller buildings. But this was just insane -- it went on and on and on.
The airport in Beijing is huge; it was rebuilt for the Olympics and still looks very new. It was definitely built to handle large crowds, and is as efficiently run as any airport I've ever seen. Doug has been traveling to Beijing and Shanghai for business for several years, and he said that the pre-Olympics airport was a dump in comparison. The highway that leads from the airport to the city is also new and tree-lined, and everything is signed in English. Many of the buildings are new, especially in the outskirts of the city.
Our hotel was in the central part of the city, surrounded by smartly-dressed people and fashionable shops. There were expensive cars everywhere, and expensive restaurants, and everything was glittering and writ large. It was clear that there is a lot of wealth here, and that many of the people who live here spend a good portion of their time pursuing it.
Other than the fact that our internet access was limited (I couldn't access this blog or Facebook at all without using a VPN, and sites like Tumblr were limited in weird ways), there was no sign that we were in a city under the control of a totalitarian regime. Well, not at first, anyway.
On our first full day, we took a tour to see the Great Wall. Our guide Wendy was awesome and so unlike the People's Guide from 15 years ago that it was startling. She has a daughter the same age as Carter, who apparently lives off in the country with her grandparents -- a common story for young people in Beijing, as I soon learned. It was cold that day and the drive was very interesting. It reminded me a lot of driving around in the countryside in Chile, actually; even the style of the buildings was very similar. There was a moment when we turned a corner in a village and there was a colorful market, and it looked so much like Iquitos, Peru that I was startled for a moment.
The higher we went into the mountains, the colder it got, and we soon began to see snow along the side of the road. By the time we got to the wall, there were several inches of snow on the ground and more falling. It was really quite beautiful!
So, like many tourist sites in the world, the Great Wall of China is mostly a ruin. A few parts of it have been rebuilt for tourists to see, but most of it does not look like the pictures you usually see. That's a bit disappointing, but honestly, it's the way most of the world is. There are very few places in the world that seem really authentic. Not that it cheapens the experience, but still, it's a reminder that not all is as it seems. And it's an apt metaphor for China as well: it presents itself as one thing, but the reality is much more complicated. Is this really the Great Wall? Yes, of course, but... also not. I only spent a few days in China, but it was clear in just the small amount of time we spent there that the reality of this country is so much more complicated than we Americans see on TV.
We braved a gauntlet of very aggressive souvenir vendors up to a cable car station, and we had a lovely ride up to this section of the wall.
And there it is: the Great Wall of China. It looks exactly as you might expect! The rebuilt section disappears off as far as you can see, and it's really spectacular. As with so many monuments like this one, it's amazing to think that people were able to build this structure on top of a mountain range so very long ago, without any modern technology. And yet, humans all over the world have done this very thing. We are truly amazing creatures, aren't we?
Carter, being a Texas kid, has only seen snow a few times in his life, and the snow turned out to be infinitely more interesting than the wall. He spent the entire time making snow balls, basically. Happily, our guide Wendy enjoyed making them with him while Doug and I took pictures. Every now and then we convinced him to stop and pose for one, or better yet, to look at the amazing things around him.
We even managed to get some pictures that make it look like it wasn't very crowded, though it was. The other tourists were mostly groups of Chinese people, though there were also some Korean school groups and some groups of American students (spring break?).
One of the things that happened throughout our time in Beijing was that the Chinese people we met were completely fascinated by Carter. I don't know if it's that they don't see very many white children or what, but I started to realize that people were taking pictures of him. At first I thought I was imagining it because they were being sneaky, but then some of them got a bit bolder and would pose beside him while someone else took a picture. It was bizarre and bewildering, because in the US you just wouldn't do that, you know? You wouldn't just take a picture of someone else's kid like that, not without asking the parents. It would be considered very creepy! But it was clear that they were just genuinely interested and meant no harm, so I let Carter decide for himself whether or not to let them take the pictures. He tolerated it at first, and after a while started to run to hide behind me.
We walked around for about an hour, and then it was time to go. I was sad to leave -- after all, who knows if I'll get to see this again in my life? We took the cable car back down and braved the vendors once again.
We stopped for lunch along the way back and had fun ordering food in a restaurant solely by pointing at pictures in the menu and hoping for the best. The snow really began to fall then, huge fat flakes that didn't stick to the pavement, but looked like fake snow falling from the sky. There was a tiny wee puppy hanging around outside the restaurant, hungry and hoping someone would feed it. It barely looked old enough to be away from its mother, and it was heartbreaking to see it beg and know there was nothing we could do. We've seen so many homeless pets on our trip so far, sadly.
Carter was sad to say goodbye to the snow, but we woke up the next morning to find the city blanketed in several inches of it. It was beautiful!
Our tour that day was a kids' tour of Beijing -- which is a fantastic idea, by the way, and more cities should do it. We started at the panda house at the Beijing Zoo, which is in the middle of a large park complex.
Watching the pandas play in the snow was great fun!
As was watching Carter play in the snow. We had to walk across the park complex to get to the aquarium (our next stop), and the walk was almost magical. The park was beautiful with all that snow, and the locals were out taking just as many pictures as the tourists.
And they took pictures of Carter as well. I eventually started taking pictures of them taking pictures of him. It was just so bizarre.
The Beijing Aquarium was a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. You would think that a city this size (15 million people) would have a better aquarium, but it was nothing special. Feeding these coi was a highlight for Carter.
Check out the snack menu!
After the aquarium we visited the Beijing Space Museum, which was also a disappointment. Considering that China has sent astronauts into space, I expected there to be something about space travel at least, but the vast majority of the museum was devoted to the zodiac. Yes, as in astrology. There was even a big dome theater where they project the film onto the ceiling, and it was a solid half hour about the constellations of the zodiac. All in Chinese, of course, but Carter was riveted! We really need to take him back to the Smithsonian one of these days.
We spent the morning of the third day hanging around in our awesome hotel room. Doug's hotel strategy has been to book rooms either through the hotels web site (we're sticking with Hilton whenever possible to get points), though he also uses Travelocity and Expedia to look for good deals. As a city gets closer, he looks at all the hotel possibilities again; often the price will come down as the date gets closer. When he can get a lower price, he'll make a new reservation and cancel the old one. And in several cases, he's been able to book an amazing room at a very low price. In Beijing, this happened with the Hilton: he was able to book one of their suites at the last minute, at just a bit more than the regular room rate.
And it was HUGE. Seriously, it was like 1800 square feet. Our first house was not this big!
Off in the distance there you can see a kitchen and dining room, which had a separate catering entrance. Sadly, we hardly used that room at all. We considered ordering room service just so we could sit at that table and have dinner, but since we were in a suite, we had access to the executive lounge where we could basically eat all of our meals for free, so we never did.
After months of living in hotel rooms, having all of this space was crazy!
On the third afternoon, we decided to walk to the center of Beijing to visit the Forbidden City, the palace that housed China's emperors for centuries. The complex is huge and surrounded by a moat.
This was just the entry courtyard; we hadn't even entered the palace grounds yet at this point. It goes on and on and on!
This is one of the first buildings you see when you enter the complex.
And this is the view from the front of that building. Huge! And you walk past that building and keep going.
There was lots of space for Carter to run around in.
We had the same issue here of people trying to take pictures of Carter, and on this particular day, he didn't want to have his picture taken. Unfortunately, some of the people didn't want to take no for an answer, and kept sneaking up on him and trying to take a picture. He would scream and run away, and they would laugh -- they didn't seem to understand that he was saying no, and we couldn't seem to communicate it either, somehow. We finally had to rush through our visit and leave, because poor Carter wasn't being left alone. I now have a tremendous amount of sympathy for celebrities who can't go anywhere without people wanting to take their picture. :-P
We walked over to Tiananmen Square before heading back to our hotel. The walk was harrowing in places: beggars gather on the sidewalks outside the Forbidden City's main entrance, and I don't think Carter had ever seen anything like it before. There were people who were horribly disfigured, people who had been burned beyond recognition, people missing all of their limbs, and so on. Some were begging pitifully and others were singing songs, trying to attract positive attention to themselves. Most of the people walking past were ignoring them completely, but it's hard to do when you're not used to seeing it Carter stopped and started with the unabashed curiosity of a child, and I'm not sure he really understood what he was seeing. I missed an opportunity to talk to him about it, I realize now. I wasn't sure what to say at the time and so I said nothing. If he brings it up, we'll discuss it -- and looking at where we're going in the next few months, I'm expecting it will come up again.
After an hour of walking (during which I told Carter a very long story to keep him entertained), we finally reached Tiananmen Square. We actually tried to take a taxi a few times, but they weren't allowed to stop along the roads we were walking on. Each time they tried, an official shooed them away.
The police presence in the square was pretty incredible. The soldiers who lined the entry to the square looked like they were straight out of central casting: the toughest-looking soldiers that there are in China, I swear. And of course, here is the famous picture of Chairman Mao.
It was a long walk back to our hotel, and in this day, the pollution was pretty bad. I ended up with a sinus headache that lasted for several days, unfortunately. But at least there were no more paparazzi. ;-)
I'm still not sure if this sign indicating that we keep off the grass is a bad translation or is actually a translation of poetry. We took a picture of it anyway.