Saturday, November 2, 2013


It's not surprising that I'm still in culture shock.  After all, I just returned from 25 days traveling in China, immersed in a way of life that is a far cry from how I live in California.  While it was a worthwhile experience, and I'm glad we went, I'm also very happy to be home, where I can sit rather than squat to pee, and brush my teeth using water directly from the tap and not from a bottle.  And, as for the food?  Well, look at it this way:  Think what it would be like to eat at a mediocre Chinese restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 25 days.  

Pam & Bruce wearing a flower hat in Tiananmen Square

Unfortunately, I couldn't access my Biker Chick blog in China, so I was only able to send emails and photos to friends and family to keep them updated regularly about our trip.    I don't think one  post on 25 days will do my trip justice,  so I will share more stories and photos on my blog in the days and weeks ahead.   

Three Days in Beijing

This trip opened my eyes and gave me a whole new outlook on China, a country about which I had a lot of opinions and preconceptions.  Many of them are still valid.   Before going to Beijing, we worried about the gross air pollution, wondered if we'd be swallowed up by a population of 23 million people all speaking gibberish, and hoped the major tourist sites wouldn't be overcrowded because our visit coincided with the week the entire country goes on vacation.  

Tiananmen Square smogged in

Considering all of the above, the only real downside was the pollution, which was pretty bad, but only on one of the three days we were there.  I didn't wear the face mask I brought, although I  still have a box of 249 masks remaining here at home, in case anyone needs one.   My eyes stung from the smoky air, and it was difficult to see the historic buildings around Tiananmen Square.  With an expert guide and a somewhat sloppy driver, we visited many of the key highlights in Beijing:  The Summer Palace, an 18th century royal garden with 3000 man-made ancient structures, and the Temple of Heaven, where we watched groups of elderly Chinese do their classic morning exercises, play mahjong, and practice their operatic singing accompanied by off-key accordion players.   

Street entertainer

We walked for hours in The Forbidden City and took photographs of the Chinese tourists who dressed up in historical costumes and posed as though they lived in ancient times.   Is this a local thing or do American tourists who visit Plymouth Rock dress up as Pilgrims and pose for pictures?   

The Little Emperor 

One of the sections of The Forbidden City

Mao is still revered by some (note his photo on the building wall)

On the food front, the variety of steamed dumplings we tasted were delicious, but I have to say Peking Duck is definitely over-rated.  The most unusual dish we tried in Beijing was mashed potato with blueberry sauce, and believe it or not, it was really good.  A belly-filling lunch for four people, including beer, came to $28 --  food in this city seems to be a good deal.    As consummate tourists, we attended an astounding acrobatic show,  took a neighborhood tour in a bicycle rickshaw,  joined the crowd watching entertainers on the street, and did a little shopping at Beijing's Panjiayuan Market.

Delicious Mashed Potato with Blueberry Sauce (honest)

Panjiayuan Market --- a great place to see local color

Another impression of Beijing was gleaned by walking the narrow streets and twisted alleyways of a few remaining neighborhoods called hutongs, most of which were torn down at record speed to make way for modern shopping centers, fancy Western-style hotels, expensive high rise office buildings, apartments and condominiums and four and five lane city streets.  Hundreds of thousands of families who had lived in these cultural relics for many generations were displaced and relocated in the new high rise apartments that were foreign to them and did not represent their heritage.  Then in the 1990s, the Chinese government realized the historical and cultural value of the hutong, so rather than continue tearing them down , they labeled them endangered species and put a halt to the demolition.  Today most of Beijing's remaining hutong neighborhoods are where the retired and elderly live, and where small family businesses exist to support them.  

Other hutong neighborhoods have become a mecca for Chinese tourists and young people looking for a vibrant nightlife and a place to meet up and hang out.  The narrow alleys are lined with smoky bars, noisy restaurants, and tacky shops hawking kitsch.  Outside on the street, merchants compete by selling cheap trinkets, like plastic headbands supporting fuzzy lion cub ears that all the giggling teenage girls like to wear.  

Skewered Squid

Outside people who cook street food offer you a  squid shish-ka-bob that is sizzling on a small grill over smoky hot coals or want to squeeze you a cup of juice made from fresh pomegranates or oranges.   One hutong street was so jam-packed with bar hoppers and window shoppers that Bruce and I could barely make our way.    In fact, we were so worn out from fighting the crowds (and a little jet lagged) that we walked back to our hotel and skipped dinner.  I was reminded of the bargain sale days at Filene's basement in Boston, but only much worse.   In the modern sections of the city, most commercial high rise buildings were lit up like Christmas trees with neon lights flashing in every color of the rainbow.  BMWs, Audi's and Mercedes, all costing around a quarter to a half a million dollars each, were bumper to bumper on five lane city streets,  everyone trying to get somewhere in a hurry.

Standing on The Great Wall was an emotional experience that resembled the same feeling I had when I saw the Grand Canyon and Machu Picchu.   It was hard to believe that I was walking on a stone fortification that had been built between the Eighth and Fifth Century BC.  As I touched the cold stone wall, I thought of the millions of people before me doing the same thing.
The Great Wall 
Photographs in books and magazines don't fully prepare you for the actual experience.  It was very moving.  On a lighter side, I must tell you that while we took a fairly long chair-lift to get up to the wall and start our walk, we bravely took the toboggan shoot down.  I was a little skeptical at first, but Bruce talked me into it.  We each had our own sit-down toboggan, and it was  really fun,  except that the woman in front of the line of riders was a scaredy cat and went so slowly that she took the thrill out of the steep descent for all of the riders behind her.  

Bruce at The Great Wall 

We rode the toboggan for a thrilling descent 

Stuffing pork dumplings

Ten girls riding a bicycle at the acrobatic show

The Birds Nest Stadium at Olympic Park

As one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Beijing is an amazing contrast in which the "haves" are driving expensive cars like BMWs and living in luxurious apartments, while the "have nots" live in modest housing and subsist on fruits and vegetables they grow in their small garden plots.   There is no middle class in Beijing.  A marriage proposal will only be accepted if the young man has a car, an apartment and a job, and this standard exists throughout China.   Except for the ethnic minority groups, the one child per family policy still remains. If you have more than one child, a fine is imposed, but that doesn't seem to deter rich couples from having as many as they want

Stay tuned.  The adventure continues.

1 comment:

  1. You're bringing yi all back. Felt the same way on the wall. Forbidden city was the highlight for me, and havinglunchcooked for us in a private home in thehutong. Can't wait for te next installment.