Great Wall at Badaling
Okay, I have just exercised most of my newly learned Chinese vocabulary in the title, but the amazing thing about travel in the large Chinese cities is that all the street signs, tourist attraction descriptions and just about anything else has English subtitles and translations. After the first venture on the Beijing subways, I could get just about anywhere by myself and even took a bus to a subway station with no English whatsoever. One problem area was if you stayed out too late, some of the subway lines stopped running...ooops! The smart thing to do is to take a hotel card with you so that you can hail a taxi, show the driver the card and they will get you back to your hotel and trust me, one attempt at trying to get back to the hotel without the card, late at night, is more than enough to convince you to never again forget the card!
The cities are all huge by our standards.
Potala Palace over Barkhor Market
They consider a city of 2 million to be small. Chunqing is the largest city (probably in the world) with a population of 33 million. One of the strongest impressions is of people packed together and pushing and shoving for position to get on an airplane, bus, whatever. They often drive without regard to traffic lights or signs... these are suggestions, not laws. The idea is to get somewhere first and the strategy is the same for boarding planes as it is for driving on the roads, crowd together and wiggle your way forward (none of this "rows 24 through 35 board now")... a free for all after first class boards. Public bathrooms in airports, hotels, and some stores offer western as well as eastern toilets. I have crudely renamed them to "sit and shits" or "stoop and poops".
Panda Research Center in Chengdu
.. sorry, not my usual language but I think the bad smell of the facilities there lowered my standards in a lot of areas. The eastern toilets are flat to the ground with foot placement treads on either side of the flush bowl... seems a lot of people miss and the places reek of sewage... mostly public bathrooms in parks, zoos and older tourist attractions... makes you want to wash your shoes upon leaving (you are lucky to get to wash your hands). Oh, you learn to carry your own toilet paper everywhere!
Well, enough of the worst of China; the amazing things to see and do there are endless! The Great Wall at Badaling is the heavily touristed area with great shops and clean everything.
Baby in basket backpack in village along Yangtze
If you get a chance, visit some of the unrestored wall sections elsewhere. They are more difficult to climb but give a better sense of the ages and rawness of the environment the builders had to work in. I was fortunate to visit one such section and it was pleasant not to have mobs of people all about (no facilities, so plan ahead). The shocking thing around Beijing is that there is no real wildlife at all. A young woman who guided me around for a few days was awed at the Summer Palace when she saw a squirrel come down from a tree... we had to watch for at least 10 minutes. The younger people (and that is any post-WW-II person) are not so interested in the Chairman Mao idolatry that their elders still seem to indulge in... I spoke with many university-educated people who cite Mao's shortcomings and stupidity.
bike ride on City Wall of Xian
He starved 30 million of his own people by taking the crops to repay a debt to Russia without regard to how his own people would live... may be why there are no wild animals left in the countryside.
The culture there is definitely western-influenced but not to the point of corrupting the rich oritental heritage. The first week of October is a national holiday, this year celebrating the 60-year anniversary of the Communist revolution. I was in Shanghai and Xian while most of the parades and celebrations were taking place in Beijing but got there in time to see the floats on display at Tiananmen Square and experience the mobs of people who visited the area as part of their holiday.
One of many floats from the 60-year celebration of Revolution.
We westerners stand out and are called various things in different parts of the country... long noses, big noses, ghost people and some other terms that I am told are not meant to be derogatory, just descriptive. At any rate, it is not unusual for any of the masses to want to have their photo taken with western tourists... blue-eyed people are more apt to be asked for a picture as we are considered "ghost" people in a land where blue eyes have never been seen by most. I was appropriately awed by the Forbidden City (beautifully restored) and the idea of 9,999 rooms, learned the significance of certain numbers (6, 8, and 9 are good...4, not so much; there are no 4th floors in the hotels as the number four is the same word as death). There is freedom of religion in China with churches, temples and mosques in all the large cities, however only about 10% of the people practice any religion and most of those practice some sort of Buddhism.
Terracotta Warriors outside Xian, China
Superstition still dominates the culture and even the modern buildings are built with some consideration of Feng Shui and other cultural beliefs. I was impressed that they even respect our superstitions in that the hotels also have no 13th floors... and was told that was because westerners thought it unlucky! The superstitions show up in other areas as well, e.g. bridges built with a zig-zag design were meant to keep evil spirits from crossing.
A short list of things I did in China: In Xian, visited the Terracotta warriors excavation outside Xian, rode a bicycle around the 8.5-mile long city wall of Xian (only intact city wall in all of China) and visit the small and large Wild Goose Pagodas. In Beijing, took a trip out to the Great Wall, Forbidden Cty, Summer Palace where I climbed the Hill of Longevity to visit a temple built into the other side of the hill, took the chair lift to the top of Fragrant Hill (Xiangshan Cable Car in Xiangshan Park), visited Beijing Zoo with Panda exhibit, took the subways everywhere as there are many antique markets and shopping areas to be found.
There is also the Sacred Way and Ming Tombs, Cloud Temple Tiantan Park with the Temple of Heaven (where I stood on the place where heaven meets the earth), also the Olympic structures of 2008. In Shanghai, I visited many local markets, great Mosque, took a tour of the WW-II Jewish refugee area and synagogue museum, went on a train ride to Suzhou
where I took a boat ride on the city's Grand Canal. Shanghai has the world's only Mag-Lev train which I took to the airport on my way to Xian; it was only a 20 mile journey but we got up to 421 kph in 3.5 minutes and slowed down the other 3.5 minutes to our stop. They are building another railway (only goes up to 220kph) to Beijing which will be done in time for the big 6-month Shanghai Expo opening in May, 2010.
Longest escalator series in the world in Hong Kong... goes one way only: down in morning and up in afternoon.
I also visited Tibet... took altitude sickness meds for that trip. Lhasa is home to the Potala Palace, another impressive structure built up the side of a mountain. The market place was busy as I am told it is every day... lots of bargaining/haggling to buy things. There is a serious luggage-weight limitation on flights inside China... one piece at 44 pounds plus an 11-pound carry-on, so souvenirs were really a trade-off with clothes I no longer needed... also washed a lot of my clothing in hotel sinks along the way and hoped they would dry before moving on to my next destination.. Another trip that I took was a short cruise up the Yangtze River through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam and then through the three very misty (part smog) gorges. Very amazing countryside and I was able through OAT (Overseas Adventrue Travel) to meet with a family displaced by the flooding of the valleys... they had been apprehensive about the move from the village of their ancestors but are happy with the modern conveniences they now have and many of their neghbors moved with them so they were not isolated in some new place. They all had options to move to a nearby higher elevation village, move to the city or to a different province of their choosing, all with government assistance for the relocation and new home purchase. These are not small condos; this family had three floors with at least 2000 square feet of space.. they had opened a store on the first level, lived on the second (three bedrooms off living and dining area)and used the third for storage. A younger woman said she was glad for the change from a village with a central public toilet, which where she would have to wait in line to use in the snow, to a new spacious home with indoor plumbing.
There is so much more to my discoveries and impressions, that it would take a book to write down. It is definitely worth the visit to learn about the NEW China! I haven't even gotten to my visit to Hong Kong... maybe some day...