I had the good fortune to visit China for 2 weeks in 1988 on my first sabbatical and for 6 weeks in 1992 as the chaperone for a Milton Academy Chinese Language program. Both times, I had the pleasure of spending most of my time with the Experimental Middle School attached to Beijing Normal University. I developed some wonderful friendships with two the schools’ teachers and I was hopeful Frances and I could re-connect with them. Due to China’s visa policy we were only able to stay in Beijing for 72 hours. Beijing has many spectacular sites to experience, so I booked us on a 2 day tour that promised to limit the number of tour participants to seven and that did not include tourist trap shopping stops.
Opon our arrival, we had to negotiate with taxi drivers who were approved by the government versus private drivers who charged a very hefty fee. After a long wait with immigration, currency change and booking a taxi, we arrived at our centrally located Beijing hotel.
On Thursday we began our 2 day whirlwind tour by visiting Tian’anmen Square. It’s difficult to relay a sense of how large and significant this space is. China’s national government operates from this area, Mao’s Tomb is there and across the street is the Forbidden City. The Square can hold 1 million people and was the site of the famous protest in 1989. We walked through the area on our way to visit the Forbidden City. This was the home of the Emperor for almost 500 years. To say it is massive does not adequately describe its scope. It has 980 buildings in over 70 palace compounds, with over 8,700 rooms! Entrance to this site was not allowed for ordinary citizens, and this is why it is called the”Forbidden City”. It takes a few hours to walk through this area and mind-boggling to imagine what life was like living in this palace.
We next we boarded our van and headed towards the Mutianyu section of China’s Great Wall. I had been fortunate to visit 5 different sites of the Wall including its beginning at the ocean during my 1988 and 1992 visits to China, but I was looking forward to visiting this newly renovated section of the wall. Once we arrived it was time for our “authentic chinese” lunch which was included with the tour. Our tour guide said that we had a choice of Chinese or American food—it was unanimous, all chose Chinese food. However, what was most surprising was that either choice was provided by the same Subway chain. This was not what we expected and the meal was disappointing to say the least. It did give us something to laugh about while we consumed Subway lunch.
After lunch, we took a tram car up the mountain to access the wall. This particular section of the wall is the longest restored section that is open to the public. I found it strenuous and challenging for my knees but did walk quite a distance on the wall. However, Frances went all out, despite our allowed time restrictions (one of the joys of being in a tour group) and came 100 steps short of climbing to the highest point on the wall. I was very impressed as the stairs are quite steep and irregular in their height. Upon her return, and after being scolded by the tour guide for holding up the group, we returned to Beijing and our hotel.
The next day was rainy, but we visited many sites. Our first stop was Jingshan Park across the way from the Forbidden City. I had not been to this Park and loved the panoramic view of the Forbidden City. The Gardens were also beautiful. Next we visited the Summer Palace. This is a spectacular summer home for the Emperor. Most notable is the long covered walkway following the lake’s border and the beautiful gardens. We next journeyed to the Beijing Olympic Parksite of the 2008 Summer Olypmics. It was fun to view up close the Beijing National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) and the The National Aquatics Center (Water Cube).
Next had lunch at a traditional Chinese Restaurant, and after our feedback to the tour guide, he took us for the authentic meal we were hoping for. Chinese style dining often involves several different dishes of a variety of foods on a circular rotating platter (lazy susan) and each diner takes what they want. It was truly delicious and enjoyed by all.
Finally, we traveled to the Temple of Heaven where Emperors would pray for good harvests. There were several different structures in this famous Chinese landmark. The rain made it challenging to fully take in and appreciate its beauty and we were all tired from the long day of touring.
After resting at our hotel, we met a former Milton Academy colleague and good friend David Peck and his wife, Dongyu, for dinner. David has been living in Beijing since he retired many years ago. It was wonderful to spend time with both David and Dongyu, be treated to and enjoy an amazing meal selected by them, and to catch up and learn more about China. It was a most pleasant way to spend our last evening in China.
I was struck by how different the city looked from my 1988 and 1992 visits. I knew it would be more commercialized, but the amount of new buildings and the modern look that the city has acquired was unexpected. I also was struck with the fact that accessing email on Google was not an option. We in the US enjoy so many more freedoms than much of the rest of the world and it was easy to appreciate that aspect of being a US citizen. Unfortunately, I was sad not to be able to connect with my friends from 30 years ago, Lu Xian Bi and Shen Qing Lai, both of whom retired years ago. We tried to reach them through their school, but they could not be located.