I’m sorry to say I don’t have much to say about coffee in China. The more industrialized and modernized the countries I visited became, the less “local” coffee I could find. I did have a latte in the Forbidden City though. I wish that I had learned more about China before I went there. It’s such an old country with so much history, but it is still a major player in the world today. I think it is important to understand its history because events that happened in China have influenced so many world events in recent history like the Vietnam War and other countries’ failure to assist in the conflicts surrounding Tibet and Darfur. That’s why it took me such a long time to write this post. I didn’t feel right writing about China and all of the historic sites I visited without really understanding the significance of each and why they are considered historic sites. I’ve been waiting to get some free time to do some research (it’s been hard… I’ve been busy trying to catch up on all of the homework I neglected from India to Japan, and now it is finals week! Sometimes I feel like my education is getting in the way of my education). Finally I had some time to sit down and do some reading, and while I know I still have a long way to go in understanding China and how it got to where it is today, I can at least do it a little bit of justice. I’ll try not to give you a history lecture, though. I know that’s not why you read my blog, after all.
My flight from Hong Kong to Beijing left early in the morning (I got myself a café vanilla latte to wake me up, of course). As soon as we landed in Beijing we boarded a bus and were taken to the Beijing National Stadium (or the Bird’s Nest, as you probably know it) and the Beijing National Aquatics Center (the Water Cube) where the 2008 Summer Olympic Games were held. We didn’t get to go inside either one—our time was limited—but we got to walk around the Stadium for a while. The grounds surrounding the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube are huge! I know they need to be to accommodate so many people, but you really have no idea until you get there. The place was swarming with tourists, foreign and Chinese alike but mostly Chinese. The Chinese tourists kept taking pictures of us—three even came up to me and asked if they could take a picture with me! This was a common occurrence the whole time I was in China. It was actually kind of cool—in every country leading up to China I have been so fascinated with the people and here they were just as fascinated with me! After leaving the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube we were taken to the Peking University campus where we would be staying for the next three nights. Peking University is described as China’s Harvard. They have their own hotel on campus for visitors like us. After checking in we had some free time before dinner. My roommate and I wandered around the campus to find an ATM and a convenient store. It was really strange being back on a college campus, watching students walk by or ride by on bikes, backpacks on their backs and books in their hands. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was like almost any other college campus I have been on—big homogenous dorm buildings, academic halls made of brick, fenced in tennis courts, a campus store, dining halls… it was even cold in Beijing, so the trees were bare and everyone was in sweatshirts and jackets, much like it would be back in Nebraska, minus the snow. After getting some Yuan (and some Pringles) it was time for dinner. We were taken to a restaurant on Peking University’s campus. In every restaurant I ate at in China they served about eight people at a round table. Each person is provided with a small plate, a bowl, a small cup, and chopsticks. On the table is this giant glass lazy Susan, if you know what that is. It’s basically a rotating surface. The servers bring dish after dish of soups, vegetables, seafood, meat, and rice and place it on the lazy Susan. You serve yourself a little bit and then turn the table so the next person can serve themselves. It’s a lot more efficient than passing food around. And of course, there is always as much tea as you can drink. I have to admit, I think I like Americanized Chinese food more than authentic Chinese food, but I also think we were brought to more upscale restaurants and weren’t served everyday food that the average Chinese person would eat. In fact, we were eating with some Peking students later and even they didn’t recognize some of what we were being served. Anyway, after dinner we were introduced to our student hosts and split off into groups to spend some time getting to know them. The student I was paired with was YaJing. YaJing is a freshman studying history and has lived in Beijing her whole life. We walked around the campus for a while and wandered around some stores before YaJing went back to her dorm to study and I went back to the hotel to sleep.
The next day was the visit to the Great Wall! We had a few stops beforehand though, of course. That morning we got up and had breakfast at a campus dining hall. Chinese breakfast is nothing like American breakfast—they eat dumplings filled with meat, egg drop soup, rice, pickled vegetables, these greasy fried flat breads… it was good, but so different. We visited a cloisonné factory—a Chinese art where they take copper posts, use copper wire to make designs on the outside, and then fill in the designs with colored fired clay—before reaching the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs are the burial sites for 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty, dating back to the 15th century. Only one of the tombs—the Ding Ling tomb—has been excavated, but no others have been excavated since. Excavation of the tomb was started in 1956. Inside was found thousands of articles of silk, wood, textiles, and porcelain, and the entombed bodies of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses. Unfortunately, because of the lack of proper technology and the political pressure to finish the excavation quickly, the articles were not documented and stored properly. Most were thrown into storage and were ruined by wind and water leakage. Then the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. The Cultural Revolution was a movement started by Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. Basically Mao had young students called Red Guards purge China of any western influence, from western books to western trained doctors and scholars from the years of 1966 to about 1976. One of the major leaders of the excavation was targeted by the Red Guards and thrown in jail, halting all further excavation. Then, the Red Guards invaded the Ding Ling museum and stole the bodies of the emperor and empresses and burned them along with other artifacts. What remains today is an empty tomb. Any artifacts inside are replicas of the originals. It was less than impressive while I was there, but now that I know the history behind it, it means so much more.
Finally it was time to go to the Great Wall! After visiting so many countries and encountering so many cultures, I had kind of started to lose that giddy feeling in my gut I get when I travel. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely still get excited for each new port, but by the time we reached China such a state of exhaustion had set in that it was hard to muster up so much anticipation for each new place. But not for the Great Wall. The portion of the Great Wall we visited was about two hours outside of Beijing. I kept staring out the window the whole time, hoping to catch a glimpse of it. The landscape started getting more mountainous and the road was starting to wind more and more until suddenly we rounded a corner and there it was! The Great Wall is one of those places where I always wanted to go, but never actually thought I would. It always seemed far too exotic and mythical to actually be a reality, but there it was. We were given two hours at the Great Wall to climb and explore. You know all those nice pictures of the Wall with its long, flat stretches? Those were nowhere in sight. It was all stairs. Uneven, steep stairs. And it was cold. But I didn’t even care! My adrenaline was enough to keep me going, and after a while I was so hot from climbing I had to take my jacket off. There were some beautiful views of the mountains, faint grey lines skimming the tops where the Wall continued off into the distance, but visiting the Great Wall was less about the views and the climbing than it was about actually being there. After the drive back to Beijing we ate dinner and met back up with our student hosts. They had a party planned for us where we played various games like the limbo and the human knot. After the party a bunch of us went out to karaoke with Robert, one of the students, and a few of his friends for a few hours before heading back to the hotel.
The third day was spent in downtown Beijing near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. When we first reached Tiananmen Square we were given a couple hours of free time to explore. That was another surreal experience for me. I had seen many pictures of Tiananmen Square with the large portrait of Mao looking down on everything below, so it was so strange to be seeing it in reality. I also knew vaguely about the history surrounding the Square and the massacre that had happened there, and had I known exactly what had happened, I think I would have been even more struck. The massacre at Tiananmen Square happened when I was born, in 1989. Tens of thousands of college students staged a prodemocracy demonstration in the Square. It lasted for weeks until the Chinese Communist Party, afraid of loss of control, injured thousands and killed hundreds of the students. Hundreds more were systematically hunted down and brought to trial for sedition and spreading counterrevolution propaganda. The most shocking thing about all of this is that most Chinese people either don’t know what happened that day or deny that it happened. I didn’t know to ask about it at the time, but a few of my friends on different tours asked their guides about the massacre and all of the guides basically said that it was all rumors or that they had never heard of it before. Nothing about the protest or the massacre was mentioned on my tour. Interesting fact: Mao’s body is preserved and is on display in a building on Tiananmen Square. I didn’t get to see it—again, long lines and time constraints—but it’s there. Instead I walked a few blocks away from Tiananmen Square to see the new National Centre for the Performing Arts. It is an opera house opened in 2007 more commonly called “The Egg” because of its shape. It is dome-shaped and surrounded by pools of water, so when viewed with its reflection, it looks like a giant metallic egg. Once again, I couldn’t go inside, this time because a concert was being performed. But it was still cool. After seeing The Egg I met back up with the group and went inside the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is named as such because it was where the emperors lived and commoners were never allowed inside. It is a beautiful series of temples and living quarters, all ornately decorated and painted in red or gilded in gold. There were giant white marble staircases leading up to each building, each one carved into dragons and clouds. I also liked the gardens toward the back of the Forbidden City. There were beautiful pagodas, crazy coral-like rock formations, and flowering trees. After leaving the Forbidden City out the back gate we went across the street to Jingshan Park, a tall hill that offers a beautiful view of the Forbidden City and the rest of downtown Beijing. After eating dinner we went to the Chaoyang Theatre to see an acrobatic show. It was amazing! Things I thought were impossible were being done onstage right in front of me. There were balancing acts, contortionists holding themselves up in the air by their teeth, up to 20 people on one bicycle, two men jumping rope in giant rotating hamster wheels… so crazy. After the show we headed back to the Peking campus to sleep.
Our last day in Beijing was pretty jam packed. We had our last breakfast and checked out of the hotel before boarding the bus to go to the Summer Palace. While the Forbidden City was where the emperor lived and conducted official business, the Summer Palace was like his vacation home (kind of like Martha’s Vineyard to the White House… kind of). It was so beautiful! There is a giant man-made pond with islands in the middle. The pond is circled by the famed “Long Corridor,” a long covered walkway covered in paintings and murals. There are various temples and lots of trees. It’s all very tranquil. Or at least it would be without all of the tourists. After the Summer Palace we had lunch and finally got to eat the famous Beijing roast duck! We ate it wrapped in a very thin rice pancake with cucumber and onion and a sort of thick, sweet soy sauce. Beijing roast duck is one dish of Chinese food that I did like. After lunch we went to the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple from the 15th century constructed by the same emperor who built the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs. To be completely honest, I was really tired and a little templed out by this point so a few friends and I spent most of our time taking pictures near a cherry blossom tree. Four Chinese people about our age started taking pictures there too, and soon we were all taking pictures together. We even sat in the tree until a security guard came and asked us to get down. Oops! He was really nice about it though and let us finish taking our picture first. After some shopping and one last meal we headed to the airport to fly to Shanghai. The plane had a personal television and movie selection for everyone and a complimentary meal… I actually wish the flight had been longer! We reached Shanghai about midnight.
My one day in Shanghai was split between shopping and eating for the most part. Shanghai is sort of a cross between Hong Kong and Beijing. It is more modernized than Beijing, but not as much as Hong Kong. At the indoor market where we were shopping they have these kind of personal shoppers that follow you around. They’re really there just to take you to their shop, but on the way they help you bargain and find what you’re looking for. At first I found our girl a little annoying—they don’t leave your side, no matter how many times you insist you don’t need help!—but after a while it was nice to have her there. She spoke pretty good English that she learned entirely from working with tourists and helped translate and bargain. She is just 19 and when we asked if she was in school she said no, absolutely not, she is done with school and is just working at this market now. I wonder if that was her choice or if she just couldn’t afford anything else. As far as eating goes… I have to admit, I got a cheeseburger. At McDonald’s. And it tasted exactly like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I don’t even like McDonald’s in the States, but it was wonderful. Then it was back to the ship and on to Japan.
I don’t think I entirely achieved my goal of not giving you a history lesson, but I think it is impossible to talk about China without mentioning its history, past and present. And I did cut back a lot on what was originally in the post. Anyway, congratulations on making it to the end of this post if you did! I know it was a long one. I’ll try to make Japan’s shorter.