Three weeks in China—such a short time to see so much. Some impressions keep coming back. I expected Beijing to be simpler, smaller even, but I saw a busy metropolis that goes on and on in all directions. Here are:
Six things that surprised me in Beijing:
- Blue skies: Call us lucky, but the first two days we had in Beijing were flawless. Fresh October breezes chased the clouds away and bright blue skies enhanced our experience and gave our photos of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall a postcard quality. Sadly, by the time we got to Shanghai, CNN was reporting record air pollution in northern China.
- Sheer Energy: This city of some 23 million people is constantly on the move. I was prepared for Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but not for the metropolis with six beltways encircling endless blocks of apartment buildings interspersed with busy construction sites. How do you even define “downtown” in a city like this? The streets outside our hotel were frantically busy in the daylight and there was still a steady stream of headlights and taillights when I looked out our 19th-story window at 3:00 AM, yet I rarely heard the horns and sirens that one associates with city traffic.
- Space: Here it was a Saturday in October and Tiananmen Square was wide open. Apparently it was more crowded a week or so ago during the National Holiday. The entrance to the Forbidden City, where you buy your tickets, created a slight bottle neck, but once inside, the vast spaces were reminiscent of scenes in The Last Emperor. On Monday, in contrast, the grounds of the Summer Palace were packed. We had a hard time keeping our guide’s yellow Angry Birds umbrella in sight.
- International connections: Maybe it’s because I recently spent a year in Germany, but I enjoyed seeing a monument at the Great Wall crediting the Henkel Group in Dusseldorf with helping to reconstruct this section of the wall and recognizing that the wall, once built to keep people out, now brings people together. We stayed in a French hotel, the Sofitel, where the staff often greeted us in French, especially on the restaurant floor. Both in the hotel and out in the tourist destinations we heard people talking in Italian, French, and English, as well as Mandarin, and several languages we couldn’t identify.
- Tai chi and Square Dancing: People were enjoying outdoor exercises in every public space, not only on the grounds of the Peace Pagoda in Beijing, but on the Bund in Shanghai, the zoo in Chongqing. The guide said they were retired, although most of them didn’t look old. The dancing looked more like ballroom dancing than the do-si-do type of square dancing, and boom boxes provided lively music. This must have been what prompted the article in the October 26- November 1st Economist, “Save China’s Dancing Grannies.” Apparently not everyone is pleased to have music and dance pop up spontaneously on their doorsteps, but it is certainly a happy sight for visitors to see music, dancing, and out in every park and open space.
- History: strictly bring your own context. The guides were great at describing the sights, but used terms like “Cultural Revolution,” and “Dragon Lady” without elaboration. Without background Tiananmen Square is just a big open space. I read 6 books on China during the trip. A good place to start is China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, with contributions by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. For a different take on Tiananmen Square and a first-hand account of recent history, I found Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong a good read. There are a number of books on imperial China which give life to the Forbidden City and Summer Palace sites.
Our three weeks in China gave us a fantastic and unforgettable experience that I’ll be musing about for a long time.