Hello from Beijing! Everything is going very well. As mentioned, we arrived late Tuesday night, and discovered that the tour company we booked our tour with, actually exists. Since then, everything has been amazing. We woke up early to get some complimentary breakfast and to prepare for a day of adventure. It really didn’t disappoint.
Before I get into the details of what we did today, I’d like to describe some major differences between Beijing and any major western style cities. First of all, the architecture here is quite interesting. We are staying in the older part of the city, so most of the time we see Chinese porch/slanted roofs, but as you get into other parts of the city, there are many buildings with European, American skyscraper, and abstract/natural style architecture. It’s very fascinating.
The driving is absolutely horrendous. We can’t drive down any street without thinking that we’re going to run into someone. The people here are generally very good about using their blinkers, but they have no qualms about cutting people off. In fact, people will get within inches of other vehicles to ensure they claim their spot. It gets really scary when the person doesn’t let them over and they almost collide. It’s crazy, because nobody here drives cheap vehicles. Everyone has a really nice car, but they aren’t afraid to get in near accidents every 10 seconds. It seems that most of the driving laws are suggestions. The only rules they strictly follow are red lights. . . that’s it. I couldn’t possibly drive here.
Besides those two things, the only other thing that’s different from most major cities in America and Europe is the language and the prevalence of cartoon characters. The street signs, shops, food packaging, menus, and just about everything else is written in Chinese characters. We’re lucky if there is anything with English written. This is to be expected, but I was very surprised to find out that almost no one speaks English. This is the first time in my life that I’ve visited a place where I can walk down the road and be genuinely worried that nobody on the street speaks English. It’s quite a unique experience. In addition to the language, there are cartoon characters EVERYWHERE. They use them to demonstrate safety stuff, to promote their restaurants and food, etc. I know we do a little bit of that in the states as well, but it’s not just for kid cereals and fast food. It’s everywhere.
Anyway, the day was great. We were picked up in the morning by our tour guide, Sue, and we headed out on our first day of adventures. Beijing is HUGE, and our hotel is in the very middle of it. If you look at a map of Beijing, you will see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the very middle. We are staying right next to that. Because we are so centrally located, it takes forever to get around. We spend a lot of our time driving.
Our first stop was the Ming Tombs. There is a cluster of 13 tombs spread throughout the large valley we visited. Only 2 of the 13 tombs have been excavated. One of them has been excavated enough for visitors to descend the 27 meters to visit the tomb, but the memorial building above was destroyed during protests. On the other hand, the other has a well preserved memorial building above ground, but the tombs aren’t excavated enough to go underground. Essentially, our options were to go underground, or stay above ground. We chose underground. The grounds around the tomb was very beautiful. Ancient trees that were falling over have concrete poles (designed like tree bodies) holding up their massive branches.
As we ascended the castle-like structure that has the entrance to the tomb, our tour guide began telling us about how nervous she always is visiting the tombs. She explained that there are MANY myths and legends surrounding the things that happen to trespassers of the tombs, and said that if we had heard them, we’d be worried as well. Overall, the tombs were awesome. Not much remains of the original artifacts, but replacements have been put in place to show visitors what it would have looked like. Our guide explained that the only things remaining from the original tomb was the granite walls, and the very heavy granite doors. It was incredible.
We then made our way over to a jade store where we were shown jade carving and had lunch. The jade jewelry and carvings were absolutely gorgeous. It was incredible to watch the people carving. Elle and I couldn’t resist buying a fun souvenir. We then had a buffet-style lunch. It was very delicious. It was especially cool, because looking out the window, we could see the Great Wall lining the peaks above.
We then traveled up to the wall. Oh, my goodness. If we had just come to Beijing to see the great wall, it would have been worth the trip. In pictures, the great wall looks incredible, but when you are there in person, it is simply unfathomable. We visited the portion called Mutianyu. We took a lift up (always take the lift) to the sixth tower and the toboggan when we went down. It took us almost 2 hours to take lots of pictures and travel over to tower 1 and back. Not only was that segment about 2 KM in length, but it was unbelievably steep. I felt like I was hiking the top of Angel’s landing while in a German castle.
Being quite honest, I don’t think any man-made structure has impressed me more than the great wall. Not because the architecture was anything special, but the height and width completely blew my mind. Plus, it was at the top of a mountain. Imagine dragging enough stone to the top of squaw peak or Battlecreek Falls to create a wall that is 20-30 feet tall, 10-20 feet wide, with large guard towers throughout. It was amazing. In this section of the wall, there are 20 towers. We only saw 6 of the 20 in the two hours we were there, and this entire section is only a microscopic length of what the entire wall is. We could see branches of it on different mountains all around us. Not only did we get to see and walk on the restored sections of the wall, but we could look along the mountain and see non-restored sections covered in foliage and trees. It was absolutely stunning. Elle made a funny joke, “If Trump wants to build a beautiful wall like this, then I say we let him!”
We then traveled back into town to visit a tea shop. It was very interesting. Being completely honest, I did sample some of the teas, and I have no idea which ones were against the word of wisdom, but I can tell you one thing, only the fruit tea tasted good. If anything, I have negative desire to drink any of the others again. It was a cool experience, though, because we were ushered in and a Chinese woman showed us traditional ways of preparing and drinking the teas. One tea (that can only be purchased in specific parts of China) is aged to give it a stronger flavor. The type we sampled was 16 years old, but there are some that have aged 100 to 130 years. Those are very expensive.
We then traveled around the city a bitand saw some of the 2008 Olympic structures. We saw the water cube where Michal Phelps won 8 (all gold) of his 28 medals, the nest where the opening ceremonies were held, the Olympic tower, a massive hotel built like a dragon, and a bunch of other structures built just for the Olympics. We also drove by a new structure being built for the 2022 winter Olympics. The Chinese go absolutely building crazy when it comes to the Olympics. They are quite stunning, though.
After being dropped off at our hotel, we walked around the city looking for an ATM, but couldn’t get any money out when we tried, so we just went back to the hotel and spent the evening chatting, blogging, journaling, and relaxing. Not a bad first day in China.