A Not-So Fresh Breath of Air

I have always found myself open to new cultures and different experiences and adventures. In fact, I have always welcomed them with open arms. That’s what living is all about, isn’t it; I have filled one passport book and my second one is almost full after only two years. China…I was excited to go and explore this mysterious land and hoped it would be a breath of fresh air being something so different and new to me. I have heard stories of all sorts from people of many kinds, but the one thing I gathered was you either loved it or hated it. What was I going to be? Before stepping onto the plane I would have said, loved it. But after my arriving after my delayed flight and our driver charging us extra for waiting, my opinion quickly changed. (Don’t driving companies check the flight status?) But it was hard to argue with someone who can’t understand a word you are saying at 2:00 in the morning, all I wanted to do was get some sleep so paid the extra $10 and left it at that.

Second impression left even more of an influence on my experience of the city of Beijing more so than the country itself…pollution. Nothing can begin to prepare you for the amount of smog and air pollution there is in this city. From the moment you walk out the door, you spend five minutes trying to get used to breathing in the thick smoggy air and the next five adjusting the smell that will linger with you throughout the day and the taste in your mouth gum can’t take away. No place on earth is like it.

Then you get out of the city limits and you see one of the most amazing structures man has ever built. With construction beginning in the 5th Century BC and when finished, almost 4,000 miles of actual stone wall, 220 miles of trenches and about 1,400 miles of natural barriers. Over time and as Dynasties changed, so did the Wall, sections were torn down, re-directed, rebuilt. It is simply impressive and worth flying half way around the world to spend a day hiking; a piece of history that has lasted centuries. The Great Wall is worth making a trip to China, if just to see only it. The Juyongguan Pass was the section we took, less restored than the tourist famed Badaling, but if you are will to make the hike to the highest point here you will be rewarded with an expansive view of the Chinese countryside that showcases miles of the winding Wall as it travels through the hillside.

With limited time in this massive country, we unfortunately only had time to stay in the Beijing area so we made the best of it and traveled to historical areas such as Tian’ anmen, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple and the Silk Market. Each place was its own adventure. We stayed near Hutong, the “Old Beijing” where the alleyways are lined with street food and little markets. Here it is very difficult to get a cab, but here you are able to find a piece of culture you won’t get if you stay in the downtown area. If you aren’t on a retail alley, you will find long walls where the lives of the locals are hidden from the streets. Menus don’t have English subtitles and even a word as simple as hello is not understood. But if you are lucky you will walk across an open air food market where you can see fruits and meats that were a mystery to me. As an occasional cab would pass, it wouldn’t even stop for us so we had to find our way back to our hotel by foot which was about two miles away.

Maps aren’t necessarily to ‘scale’ if you pick one up there, so when looking at the distance from a main road to the next – it isn’t what you would think as you would an American city block, it could be a mile between with little alleyways between. So when I said lets walk to Tian’ anmen Square, I didn’t realize it would be almost eight kilometers away. We definitely got to see a lot of the city, but even once we arrived to the Square and Forbidden City we didn’t know we were actually there because it is surrounded by a nine hundred meter long wall. You start from the south and worked your way north through a maze of monuments from Tian’ anmen to the Forbidden City; I felt like I was on a conveyer belt being moved forward with the continuous flow of people giving little time to take in all the things to see. Once we made it to the gates of the Forbidden City we decided to have a guide show us though the Forbidden City which was found to be a smart decision. Our guide gave us a lot of information and historic background on the area and the buildings, giving us a much better education on China then what we had before we started the day.

The Summer Palace was beautiful while covering 2.9 square kilometers of land which includes Longevity Hill, Temple of Buddhist Virtue, Kunming Lake, Tower of Buddhist Incense; the building space alone is 70,000 sqm. Locals play hacky sac and dance for their morning workouts in the courtyard where you enter. Unfortunately, even on a clear day the pollution takes over the potential of its true beauty. It is one of the few places in the city where it is easy to travel via subway, walk above ground and know exactly where you need to go.

Besides the Great Wall, the one place in the inner circles of Beijing we found to be well worth making the trip to was Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist Lama Temple. Here you will find a lot of (censored) history on the Lama and where he studied. Easy to get to, simple yet expansive and even with many tourist and pilgrims it was a place peace and beauty.

While there were many places traveled that were enjoying, there were also downfalls. Communication is near impossible and takes a lot of patience, but it can be done. I spent a good twenty minutes with my driver trying to find a translator to tell him to take me back to my hotel. And speaking of hotels – ALWAYS keep your hotel address written in Mandarin with you. The hotels will give you cards with typical tourist places written in Mandarin and all you have to do is point where you want to go…the driver actually taking you there all the way isn’t a guarantee. We had a rickshaw driver scamming my husband giving him Rubles instead of Yuan as change (not to mention dropping us off two miles away from our destination). I won’t even address the thirty minute foot massage that turned into a two hour fiasco my husband will never let me live down. However, leaving this on a positive note the street food is great and the little local noodles shops are very cheap (we are talking $4 for two people to eat and $6 if you want a beer). Needless to say, Beijing was an adventure. Would I go back? Yes. But I would like to see something more than just Beijing. I would like to see the countryside and spend a few days hiking the Wall in other areas. Maybe if I go to an area where the air is fresher, I will have a fresher perspective.


2 thoughts on “A Not-So Fresh Breath of Air

  1. It looks like you got some of the best and some of the worst of China. Though the pollution is much worse in Guangzhou and even Shenzhen (where we are) than in Beijing.

    A note of caution over street vended food in China though – there’s an awful lot of reclaimed cooking oil (by which we mean dipped out of a drain by a guy) which goes into really cheap eating here. Current estimates make it 1 in 10 Chinese low end restaurants using oil recovered like this.

    If you do head back to China try Sichuan and the areas around Chengdu, it’s really nice.

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