Following the structure proven successful in last year's Semester in Asia program, we visited the capital of Beijing, the ancient capital of Xi'an, and one of the premier economic hubs of the world, Shanghai.
I traveled light during the trek and opted not to drag my laptop with me. Instead, I kept a handwritten journal as required by our course leader Professor Grasso. So I'll be posting numerous days worth of travel in what will probably broken up by only a handful of actual blog postings. The first of which is my thoughts and experiences in Beijing...
BEIJING: February 16-20th
DAY 1 - February 16
Beijing's literal translation is "Northern Capital." Judging by the drastic change in temperature (its now peaking in the mid 40's) as well as the absense of greenery, Beijing seems to remember everything I remember it for last time. But that's not really a fair way to put it, other than the Chicagoesque scenery and weather, Bejing is an amazing place to visit.
After a delayed flight, which was explained by personel as everything from weather to conjested air traffic, we finally were back en route to the "heart of China," as our guide Mike put it.
Day 1 in Bejing could easily be summed up as the day of nostalgia. Before even boarding our Xiamen Airlines carrier, my buddy Galway was clearing space for us to play Chinese hackey-sack ala our trip from a year ago. Its the little things, like us falling into line behind the guidance of Mike's yellow flag that gave me a kick this first day back. Each time we'd go out in one of these big cities, the guides always carry a bright flag for us to follow like a flock of ducklings.
Its not quite as embarassing as some of the domestic Chinese tourists who all wear matching, brightly colored baseball caps to find their way through the masses.
Now I truly felt like I was back "in the saddle." From there was the bus rides I learned to love. Even if they're kind of like the shopping carts...They're not always the most comfortable things, the tour guide in front usually has to fiddle with the microphone settings and such, but its all good. Its an amazing thing for me to be living out this trip again, as it certainly qualifies as a "once in a lifetime" trip.
The best part was not only revisiting sites and maybe experiencing them in a more relaxed way, but also seeing new things that were originally overlooked. Thanks to the Chinese New Year, much of Beijing and its sides are relatively emptied. Following tradition, many of the people in the cities leave during the holidays to return to their hometowns and families.
Whereas Tianamen Square was a mad house last year, this time we were able to enjoy it with ease. At one end of the giant city square is Chairmen Mao's resting mosoleum. His final resting place usually has a three hour line in front of it, but this time we were able to view his body within 10 minutes.
Its perfectly maintained, resting in a giant empty room with stern faced gaurds overlooking his glass encased coffin. A soft light shines on Mao's face and, at first, looks as if his body is a replica with a jackolantern for a head. But as I walked silently by his resting body it became clear that it was his actual face being highlighted.
Our first evening consisted of a 1 hour traditional Beijing Opera performance. Their are only three places that still practice the show, one of which is attached to the hotel we stayed at. Two stories are told over the hour with an intermission in between. The first story was of an emperor and his interactions with his favorite concubine while his undermanned army was under seige. The concubine kills herswelf so aso not to distract the emperor from his own survival, regarding the iminent invasion that was about to come down on him and his nation. A tradtional tragedy from Chinese history.
DAY 3 - February 18
This marked my return to the Great Wall. An hour drive out of the city at the crack of dawn helped our tour bus be the first to arrive at the scene. There are a handful of spots outside the city that are designated as sites for visitors to climb, but the one Grasso takes us to is considered the most rewarding of them all.
In order to understand my experience climbing the wall, its important my history with such. The wall had my number last year. It was a rough climb to the top, and I ended up throwing up only after I reached the top. The section of wall we climb is roughly 2,500 jagged, uneven steps to the top. Needless to say, not everyone makes the complete climb. Its quick to reveal what level of shape you're in. Thisyear, I'd already spent plenty of time playing hours of basketball everyday for the past 2 weeks in Xiamen which definatly helped.
Not only did I reach the top, I was the first of the group to reach the top. Our bus was the earliest to arrive at the walls base, so it was especially rewarding to reach the summit. I was completely by myself and able to take in the view/accomplishment. It was a very rewarding experience. Following not far behind was my travel partner Alex Roche and Prof Grasso.
That was just the warm up for the day, as plenty of steps and walking lied ahead. After the Great Wall, we visited the Ming Tombs, a sprawling grave at the mountains base. Its a scenic walk, highlighted by a large, cavernous underground palace complete with a throne room.
As if that wasn't enough, we then moved on to the Summer Palace. The site in Beijing where the emperors would spend much of their time during the hotter months. A large, manmade lake (in the shape of a giant peach symbolizing completion) helped to create a cool breeze for the park. Highlights include the Marble Boat, a decent sized foothill to climb thats well worth the view. Tour shops selling scrolls, books, and other trinkets are speckled throughout the park as well. Its a beautiful place and one of my favorite sites throughout all of Beijing.