17 July 2004

Red China.

Finally setting foot in Beijing was even more exciting than Russia – finally standing on the site of so much history. On the first night, I went to another acrobatics show after our flight arrived. It had a few different acts than the one in Shanghai, and was generally not quite as impressive, but still far better than I could ever hope to do. The next morning, we went to climb the Great Wall at Badaling. Although packed with people, it was still one of the most exhilarating and memorable parts of the trip. The view was incredible, looking across the mountains and other sections of the wall. When a group of us stopped to take a picture, we were mobbed by Chinese tourists who wanted to take their picture with a group of American girls. Although we stand out naturally, my group was particularly special looking. Cassie has blonde hair and bright blue eyes, Julia has olive skin and tightly curled black hair, and then there’s boring old brown haired, pale-skinned me. With the Chinese tourists, we all probably looked like a college view book! The Chinese people have very different ideas about how to respond to different looking people- they tend to point, laugh, or run up and ask if they can take a picture with you. It was a bit disconcerting, but definitely a cultural experience! We spent almost 15 minutes taking tons of pictures before we were able to escape- it was flattering though- we felt like celebrities! The Great Wall was absolutely amazing, no question about it! Something to check off the list of things to do before I die.

After the Great Wall, we went to the Summer Palace, the enormous grounds of the Imperial Emperor's summer home. The grounds and buildings were gorgeous, but not as impressive as the Great Wall! We also saw the famous marble steamboat of the Empress Cixi- thanks to her extravagance, the Chinese lost badly in the Opium War, and the British gained control of Hong Kong. After the palace, we had dinner with students at our host school, The University of International Business and Economics. They all spoke wonderful English, and it was fascinating to talk to them about the differences in our schooling. We visited one of the dorms of the students- four graduate students in a very small room- undergraduates have six in a room! They asked about my housing, and I was almost ashamed to describe my spacious four bedroom, two bath apartment from last semester.

After dinner, some of the students took us out to a local karaoke bar- it was humiliating, but very fun! The Chinese students had had a lot of practice, and were surprisingly good on the English songs. They take it VERY seriously – it’s not the drunken revelry it is in the States! Since the students had an 11pm curfew at their dorms, the night ended early.

On the third day, we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen is so much larger than I could ever imagine. Mao's mausoleum is enormous, but it is dwarfed by the square. The Forbidden City was stunning- we had the audio tour, so it was especially interesting to hear the stories about the buildings, narrated by Roger Moore of James Bond fame. I passed by the Starbucks inside, but didn't stop – why perpetuate the myth of good coffee!

After the Forbidden City, we went to a big commercial street for lunch, but I decided to walk back to Tiananmen to see Mao, since the tour didn't leave enough time. Unfortunately, the mausoleum closed around noon, so I walked through a poorer market area and the commercial area before catching a taxi back to the hotel. There’s something disarming about standing in the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, then wandering two blocks away to heartbreaking poverty. Children begging from all directions, horribly disfigured veterans laying in the streets, people little more than stumps dragging themselves around on skateboards. I’m almost ashamed of how quickly I became numb – it just became easier to stare straight ahead than to deal with the emotion. With that many people living like that, it’s hard to even know where to begin “saving the world.” If I’ve learned nothing else thus far this trip, I’m definitely joining the Peace Corps after graduation.

On our last day, the group went to the Temple of Heaven, but I decided to go visit Mao in the morning instead. The lines rivaled anything I’ve ever seen at Disney World! We finally made it to the entrance and into the mausoleum. It was intense. Mao looked like a tanned wax sculpture- it was extremely eerie to look at. Especially creepy was the spotlight focused on his face, making him appear to glow. Vendors stationed around the line outside sold flowers to bring in as offerings, and at the entrance of the mausoleum was a box to put them in. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were recycling the flowers – quite a money making scheme! The cult of Mao is alive and well, even in the virtually-capitalist atmosphere of modern China. It’s difficult to tell how much is genuine (I’m guessing not much) and how much is state mandated. All in all, it was worth the wait in line, and definitely up there with the Great Wall in terms of memorable experiences. I just have to see Ho and Lenin, and I can check the triad off my list.

We rushed back to the hotel for our Peking duck lunch – it was good, but I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. Despite the typhoon (see below), our flight left on time and we made it into Hong Kong that night. The ship wasn't able to dock all day, so the 300 students coming in from the various Beijing trips went to the Hong Kong YMCA for the night. While there, we watched some English television, and almost keeled over again when I saw a jingle extolling the virtues of condoms to protect against HIV – on primetime network television even! Say what you want about political repression, but the Chinese definitely have sex education figured out.

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