Although we’ve traveled in many places throughout the world, China hadn’t moved to the top of our list – until this year. After Susan read about a tour that specialized in the parts of China that in which we were interested (pandas), we didn’t hesitate to sign up.
We’re not normally “tour people”. But since we wanted to sample just a little bit of China, and these places were far apart (and neither of us were interested in learning Mandarin), taking an organized tour made sense. One would need a lifetime to explore all of China. But this tour focused on just a small chunk: the pandas, the Great Wall, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the terra-cotta soldiers of Xian. The company we selected specialized in small groups, off the beaten path sites, interactions with the pandas, and personal service.
We arrived in Beijing at nearly midnight, after what felt like a never-ending flight, made more enjoyable by screaming children most of the way. We were promptly met and whisked away to our hotel by our tour company’s agent. Amazingly, after a night’s sleep, we felt fairly well adjusted (well … maybe not fully adjusted).
We visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Getting tickets at the Forbidden City was our first experience of China’s lack-of-a-line culture. After watching dozens of people cut the line and get tickets, we joined the fray.
Although we’d read a lot about the Forbidden City and seen videos of it on TV, we just weren’t ready for something of this scale. We viewed the City’s courtyards and palaces, with lavishly decorated rooms. The Forbidden City was the home of China’s ruling families during the Qing and Ming Dynasties, from 1400 to 1900. Even with its large area, about one square mile, the crowds were enormous. It was wonderful to see the Chinese people take such pride in their past, (especially since so little of it remains in China’s rush to modernize) and that the current Chinese government has gone through such great efforts to maintain and promote their heritage.
The Forbidden City is directly adjacent to Tiananmen Square. In order to get to Tiananmen Square one needs to go through a pedestrian underpass and through security. We were told that the security was put in place right before the Olympics. But it was a grim reminder for us of what took place here in 1989. Tiananmen Square itself is huge, and surprisingly bleak and stark. On one side there is a decidedly Soviet looking Monument to the “People’s Heroes.” But other than that, there are no trees, fountains, greenspace, nor other monuments.
The Summer Palace was built during the same era as the Forbidden City. And is where the royal family went to escape the Beijing heat. (Which, as we can attest to after an August visit, is formidable.) Situated on a lake, full of boats with dragon bows and small paddleboats, the setting is beautiful. A highlight is the long walkway that goes from the entrance gates to the palace along the lakefront, covered with hand-painted scenes of old dynastic China. This place, as well as many the others we visited in China, was a mob scene. In the evening we went to an acrobat show that was attended by a 99% Chinese audience. It was more of a Cirque du Soleil show than an acrobatic performance, however it was unique and fun.
The Great Wall
There are many parts of the Great Wall (it is 5500 miles long). Tourists typically go to a few sections near Beijing – instead, we went to the Mutianyu section, 90 minutes outside of Beijing, which is a bit less crowded than others. This section was beautifully reconstructed. The Wall is amazing, tracking along the mountain peaks. Stretching from horizon to horizon this massive structure was maintained for nearly 2000 years. We took a ski lift to one peak and walked for over an hour, thinking about the people hours spent building and guarding this monumental structure.
Chengdu is the base from which people visit the Panda Sanctuary of Bifengxia. In Chengdu we attended the Sichuan Opera. The Sichuan Opera is famous for their actors who wear vividly colored masks, which they change within a fraction of a second.
We had signed up for two and a half days of volunteer work at the Panda Sanctuary. Upon our arrival we were given a photo opportunity with two of the 2-year old pandas (there are 60 pandas at this reserve). Each of us had to wear plastic aprons, gloves, and shoe covering — and then sit next to and pet a real live panda for a photo! We got to see one infant that weighed perhaps 2 pounds. Many of the pandas were approximately one-year old; some were just two years old. All of them were incredibly cute, looking just like plush pandas. They’re also a little dirty – unlike plush pandas.
The conditions inside the panda preserve were excellent. We hesitate to visit zoos because we see them as animal prisons. Even when they’re created to help preserve a threatened species, these poor animals, at no fault of their own, are placed in jail for the rest of their lives. Too often, the conditions of the cages are awful. But this preserve was different. There are very large pens – perhaps each one an acre or two.
The cells that you see in our pictures may look like jail cells, but these allow the keepers and volunteers to feed the pandas without danger. We were frequently reminded that pandas are wild animals. Although they are herbivorous, they do have the teeth of the carnivore as well as giant claws. If the pandas wanted to, they could easily inflict a lot of damage very quickly.
The diet of the pandas at the sanctuary was primarily bamboo, carrots, “panda cakes” made of grain, honey and apple, and apples. Part of our responsibility as volunteers was to feed the pandas. (Susan actually got licked by a panda!) The panda cake tasted like homemade whole wheat bread, but very coarse and heavy (yes Phil just had to try it). We got to feed the pandas twice a day everyday during our stay- that was the fun part. The not so fun part is that every morning we had to clean out the pens, which meant gathering up yesterday’s bamboo (because as every panda knows day-old bamboo is just not edible). We also had to remove all the panda “poo”.
Susan signed up for an opportunity to play with the pandas (for a donation) where she could spend time getting very close and personal with a one-year-old panda. Young pandas are bristly and not at all like soft plush pandas. The pandas are also not very interactive animals (like dogs or cats). They seem to simply take the food from us and tolerate our presence. There’s no eye contact and no physical give-and-take like a dog. Nevertheless Susan had a peak life experience and we have hundreds of photos.
The terra-cotta soldiers are a spectacle that is absolutely amazing. The Terracotta Army was built by Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of unified China. Dating from 210 BC, they were discovered in 1974 by some local farmers (see my photo of one of these now-famous farmers) The figures vary in height, and are about 20% larger than life. The figures include warriors, chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits.
We were told that Chinese food in China only vaguely resembles the stuff we get in the USA. However, we found that it was more or less the same. And not surprisingly, some dishes were great, some were boring. There were some very interesting dishes, like grilled lotus root, gourmet dumplings, and spicy tofu. We visited a street market in Beijing that served dog, grasshoppers, and scorpions – but we skipped these treats. We were amazed to see so many coffee cafes, including Starbucks, and McDonalds.
China is crowded, and gently pushing is socially acceptable, as is cutting queues. This was somewhat difficult to deal with, and we responded by calling up our ‘inner new york’. But the pushing is good-natured, and we just pushed back.
This was a constant source of entertainment for us. Everything must be discussed, and checking into or out of a hotel typically involved 3 clerks and 15 minutes of lively discussion on their part. Getting a table at a restaurant was the same. Sometimes it took 4 or 5 staff, but everything seemed to require a committee meeting. Maybe it’s a leftover of communism.
Communism and Consumerism
China was very different from our expectations. We expected to see some of old China’s narrow alleys, traditional crafts, non-western lifestyle – and perhaps remnants of Mao’s China. But China is very westernized. The narrow alleys are nearly gone from the cities we visited; the pace of demolition was accelerated for the 2008 Olympics. Quality handicrafts were few and far between. Some of these older sections have been sanitized and turned into upscale shopping areas. The Mao generation is now our age (and older), and the younger generation has adopted Western styles and Western consumerism. McDonalds, KFC, 7-Eleven, cell phones and cars are everywhere. There are high-end designer malls in every downtown.
In reality, we saw no evidence of communism in China. The government behaves like a corporation, privatizing everything they can, and fostering their already-developed capitalist system. Healthcare is private and expensive, and hospitals will supposedly let you die if you arrive there without insurance or a MasterCard. We were told that they’re privatizing the roads, transportation systems, and about everything they can.
The Tour Company
Keith Jones, Jones Adventures:www.jonesadventures.com
Our group was only 3 folks for the first part, and 3 more during the panda portion. If you want a reference on them, please let us know.