First visit to China: 2008

The city wall in Xi-An is 10 kilometres long, and in good condition for walking or cycling around

When I was young, my family lived in Thailand for 2 years, in Southeast Asia.  It was very strange and difficult to live in a foreign country, but it was also very interesting to learn about new cultures, languages, foods, and environments.  I always wanted to spend time in foreign countries after that, but I didn’t want to make a quick trip to a country that’s a long way from home.  In 2008, my daughter was invited to visit China with a family that she worked for, and she suggested that I also come along.  I was already thinking hard about teaching ESL in another country, so I decided that the time was right to visit China, and then to move to another country (Viet Nam) for teaching.  We visited in May 2008, a few months before the Olympic Games were held in Beijing.  As well as Beijing, I really wanted to visit Xi’An, to see the terra cotta warriors as well as the many ancient historical sites there.  We planned to fly to China on Air China, because the prices from Asian travel agents were very low for return airfare.  In fact, I was able to spend 2 weeks in China on my way to Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, without paying any extra money for the stopover.

We flew first to Vancouver and waited for our flight, and then we spent 13 hours of night in the air, arriving at Beijing on the previous day!  They fed us 3 huge meals, and when it was time to land over the hills surrounding Beijing, I was sick to my stomach.  The airport is very big, with trains connecting the terminals.  We had a small bus that met us at the airport.  I brought my bicycle with me to Viet Nam, and we also had 8 people and a wheelchair to manage.  The travel agent in China made excellent arrangements for us to stay in furnished apartments in a central location, and she also helped us with any extra activities that we wanted to do.  This included trips to the Great Wall (one group to Badaling, and the other group from Jinshanling to Simatai), a hutong tour, the Beijing Acrobats, and all of our travel to Xi’An.  It was excellent to have so many options, but we didn’t have to travel in a big tour group.

Soon after we arrived, we visited Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and the Silk Market.  Everything was pretty amazing to be able to see in person.  One of the things that we learned quickly was that Beijing food was not very delicious, to any of us.  Most food was very heavy and oily, with a strange spice.  Some of us ate most meals at McDonalds or KFC.  I bought groceries from the store in the basement of our building, as well as some cooking utensils, so that I could eat familiar and delicious food.  One of my favourite experiences was visiting a dumpling restaurant, where there was a fantastic selection of freshly prepared dumplings, but this was in a different area from where we stayed.  A hotpot meal was another great meal during our stay.

After a few days in Beijing, most of us took the overnight train to Xi’An, the ancient capital city of China.  For me, these full 2 days were really amazing!  We had a fantastic tour director, Ting, who was an English graduate from university.  We also had a minibus and driver, which meant that we could easily get to many amazing destinations.  It’s hard for me to recall all of the attractions that we visited, because there were so many, and they were all very interesting, for different reasons.  Of course, the highlight was the terra cotta warriors, thousands of individually made, life-sized warriors that were buried for centuries.  The farmer who accidentally discovered them on his land was still visiting the gift shop regularly, but he didn’t want to be photographed.  The scale of this are is so enormous that it’s difficult to imagine how many sculptures were created by the emperor at the time.  Another hill nearby is believed to contain many valuable treasures, but it’s believed to be very dangerous to disturb.  We visited a maternal village that had been buried in a mudslide, with everyone intact.  An ancient bathhouse that had belonged to an emperor was outside the city.  The city wall was really impressive, since it still surrounds the central city and is 10 kilometres in total length.  We needed to manually carry the wheelchair and user up to the wall, in order to enjoy it, since there’s no elevator there.  It’s possible to rent bicycles to ride around the wall.

Other sites we visited included a temple of literature, where ancient writing was carved into stone, for students to visit and study.  The provincial museum had beautiful examples of early ceramics and military equipment.  The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, and the Great Mosque were both very interesting places to visit.  We greatly enjoyed visiting many places where artworks were produced, and the market in the Muslim district was a great place to try tea and see different tea sets.  The food was excellent everywhere we went, and the quantity was amazing.  Ting was such a warm and knowledgeable guide that we all cried when it was time to leave her.  We returned to Beijing by the very comfortable high-speed night train.

I’ll write another post about the last part of our stay in Beijing.  I took a huge number of photos in China, and I also got copies of the photos that the other people in our group took!

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