I got back from Beijing about three weeks ago, but it’s taken me this long to process my trip and get to a point where I thought I could articulate my experience in China. First off, I saw an incredible amount of things while on my trip and secondly, Beijing failed to meet my expectations in a really fantastic way.
The differences between Seoul and Beijing are incredible. Korea is, on the whole, homogeneous. Almost everyone I encounter is Korean and when I meet other foreigners, they’re primarily from North America. In Beijing, I heard German, French, Russian, languages I couldn’t identify, and at one point, what I think was Creole. I was with my friends Laura and Jill and Laura put it best when she commented that even if you saw a white person, you couldn’t assume they knew English.
For all the media portrayals of China as a closed off place, being there made me feel like much more of a global citizen than I’ve ever felt in Seoul. I didn’t know very much about Korea or Korean culture before moving here so my expectations were essentially non-existent. Having studied China in school and the news, it felt great to have my expectation of China as a sort of industrialized time capsule SMASHED. Beijing itself had a raw edge to it along with sophisticated architecture and global fashion consciousness, making it feel a lot like New York City. Korea having a high standard of living (again, another generalization, but they are terribly difficult not to make) lacks that… metropolitan grime… and I hadn’t realized I was craving it until I was experiencing it.
One thing that Seoul and Beijing share is that you’ll be walking along, your eyes filled with the usual urban landscape and suddenly you see something that is older than the United States, like the palatial gates to Geyongbukgong or in China, Temple of Heaven. What was different though is the presence of traditional culture in China versus in Korea. In China, there are tea shops and silk lanterns and dragons emblazoned everywhere. In Seoul, I feel that I need to make an effort to seek out information on what exactly comprises Korean culture. Except kimchi. Which I cannot get away from. EVER.
Ever since I’ve gotten back, China has been on my mind in some way or another. I miss Chinese food, I miss seeing red everywhere for good luck, I miss seeing beautiful Russian women in furs, and hearing different languages. The country got under my skin and sunk into my soul and I’ll be going back again over a school holiday in May because I have a two-entry visa.
Going beyond my impressions, my trip itself was really fun. I went with a tour group and ended up making great friends with the girl I roomed with. Kerry is from South Africa but intensely interested in Central Asian culture and we talked a lot about Mongolia and all the numerous -stans throughout the trip.
After arriving in Beijing mid-afternoon on the 30th, we were taken to the Temple of Heaven. It was the perfect time to go because the sun was starting to go down and the gold dome looked gorgeous in the sunlight and the shadows were perfect for appreciating the height of the temple’s principle structure.
That night we had Peking duck for dinner and saw a Chinese acrobatics show in a freezing cold theater. You could take some pictures during the performance, but I just kept my gloves on and enjoyed the show!
The next morning was an early wake up call and I didn’t want to get up out of my double bed (luxurious since in Korea I only have a single) but when I got downstairs and saw the breakfast spread at our international Holiday Inn, I was over resenting my 6:30 wake up call. There was everything was fresh fruit to omelets to granola to congee to dumplings to American bacon. My breakfast was from all over the map and served as good, warm fuel for my laborious climb up the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China.
The temperature was well below freezing, the wind was out of control and made the narrower sections of the wall terrifying at times, and hopefully the pictures help to convey the Herculean effort it took to climb that many stairs, but I would never ever trade this particular experience.
Windburn and all.
As much as I wanted to see everything I could while in China, I couldn’t help but fall asleep on the way back to Beijing, especially after drinking some of the foulest liquor of my life. It’s aptly known as “fire water” and I barely made it through my thimble-sized portion.
The afternoon of the 31st, we visited the Empress Dowager’s Summer Palace, which was anything but summery. My camera kept dying because of the cold but I was able to capture several images of the frozen lake and Temple of Virtue upon Longevity Hill at sunset.
After touring the palace (the living quarters are actually on a small island in the middle of Kunming Lake), we visited a freshwater pearl operation that runs out of the lake. The oysters had been brought up out of the lake for the winter and we got a production as well as history lesson. Pre-Great Wall, we had also visited a jade carving house and post-lunch, viewed cloisonne being made. It was a day filled with lessons on Chinese culture and beautiful sites as well as objects.
For my final dinner of 2010, I had Mongolian hot pot, which is a very interactive meal. Pots of warm broth are brought to each person or table depending on size, and then oils and spices are added. Mine had wolfberries and a chili paste in it for a spicy, sweet, earthy taste that makes me salivate just thinking about it typing right now. Candles are lit underneath the pots and once the soup mixture boils, paper thin slices of mutton, tofu, and vegetables (bok choy, cabbages, onions, mushrooms) are dropped in to quickly cook. You can’t put too much of any one thing in at a time because it is very easy to over-cook your food when working with such a high temperature.
Laura, Jill, Kerry, and I had a very kindergarten teacher New Year’s Eve–we got ice cream sundaes on the first floor of the hotel, them promptly fell asleep long before midnight. But no matter, because I woke up in Beijing for January 1, 2011!!
This final day of our trip was what my goals in coming to China were all about: visiting Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and free time to explore. It was another early one with the addition of aching thighs, but with a tummy full of citrus fruits, lychee, and more congee I was ready to brace the cold once more.
I was brimming with anticipation to see the site of the famous student protests of 1989 and the number of flags combined with the enormity of the space connecting the National Musuem, Mao’s Tomb, the monuments to Communism, and government buildings did not disappoint. There were giant screens playing images of China and the national anthem in the middle of the square, which I watched while under the scrutiny of the many guards on site. But one photo for me, says it all:
I was smiling enough for myself, Mao, and the guard!
From here we took a tunnel into the Forbidden City, which has massive imposing walls painted to red to 1) make visitors to the emperor feel insignificant and 2) keep out evil spirits. Red is considered a color of good luck in Chinese tradition because it’s a safeguard against devils. I took so many photos of all the various gates, gardens, halls, and bridges that it’s difficult to pinpoint a culminating shot of such a grandiose space, but here are a few to give you an idea of what the sheltered life of an emperor was like.
Post-palace, we warmed up at a tea ceremony in Beijing that was a real highlight of the trip for me. I’m a tea lover to begin with and to participate in the motions made the idea of tea culture much more real for me. It was not nearly as elaborate as a Japanese ceremony but there were many intricacies. We also got a lesson in Chinese medicine as the hostess explained what all of the teas were for and the seasons in which they should be drunk for maximum benefit.
The afternoon was spent shopping for gifts for our families and wandering about Beijing with Laura and Jill, including seeing men selling (hopefully fake) fur pelts on the streets, eating plum cakes, and perusing a Chinese grocery store. After such a hectic schedule, it was nice to just absorb the atmosphere of China and see the daily things like apartment buildings, parks, and men in Soviet hats riding bicycles.
That night we had Mongolian barbecue and listened to performances of Mongolian throat singing. After dinner I took a harrowing cab ride during which I don’t think the driver hit the brakes once, traffic law and pedestrians be damned, back to the hotel to take advantage of the bathtub. In Korea I have a shower head that I have to use while crammed up against my sink in an unheated tile room, so it’s easy to understand while I skipped out on the optional kung fu show to soak my bones and pack.
We left for Korea very early the next morning, had noodles on the plane, and returned to the perma-snow that has blanketed the streets for weeks. I left my heart in China.