Doing Beijing the tour-group way

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Thursday through Sunday, September 20th through the 23rd

As I've mentioned, I first got interested in traveling to China when I saw an article on a tour to Shipton's Arch, in far western China, in National Geographic's Adventure magazine. While considering the tour, I assumed that going alone to remote areas in western China would be more difficult than going to large cities in the east because fewer people would speak English in the west. This is probably true, but it's not a huge issue; I've found few fluent English speakers in most of the places I've gone in Hohhot and Beijing and have done fine overall. I also assumed that going alone to the many places along the Silk Road that the tour went (Xi'an, Dunhuang, Turpan, Urumqi, and Kashgar, plus Shipton's Arch outside Kashgar) in two weeks would be much more difficult. This is absolutely true. Public transit is available to most of the places we went, but would have been considerably slower than our dedicated tour buses. Cabs are also available, but I have yet to meet a cabbie in China who will admit to speaking a word of English, and without the address of your destination written in Chinese or a map to point to, you might as well not bother hailing a cab. Some of what we did would not have been open to me as a solo traveller, including dinner in two private homes (which I didn't know when I signed up), and though I could conceivably have gotten to Shipton's Arch on my own, it's an undertaking that requires the help of a local adventure travel company, not a scheduled bus route with stops to pick up hikers at every hotel in Kashgar. In short, the tour was the best way to see everything that we saw, but it was sometimes a trial, and I'm decidedly not a convert to travelling by group.

The Shipton's Arch tour group assembled for the first time at dinner on Thursday evening. Gary, the tour guide from Snow Lion Expeditions, who would be with us for the entire trip, had already been here for a day, and I met him briefly when I checked into the China People's Palace Hotel in midday. He was on his way to pick up the others on the tour, who were all arriving on the same flight from San Francisco: Humphrey and Kevin, two friends who both live in the Bay Area and who have taken at least one other vacation together (to Peru), and Chuck and Kathy, a couple from Shoreline, Washington who live, we calculated, something less than 10 miles from me. When they arrived at the hotel, they were all thoroughly jetlagged, so dinner was at a restaurant a short walk away. Another advantage of travelling with a group (at least in China, where people share dishes) came at mealtime: because we shared seven or eight dishes at every meal, we all got to try more different dishes in one meal than any of us could try in a week's worth of dinners eating alone. I benefitted from this even more than the others because I got to try dishes that I wouldn't have ordered for myself, including anything vegetarian and anything with the word "tofu" in the name.

Friday morning, the group plus our Beijing tour guide, Peter, took a long bus ride northeast from Beijing to Simatai, one of the places where tourists can get onto the Great Wall. Gary passed out the sandwiches that we'd eat for lunch and some extra bottles of water, we put on plenty of sunscreen and our funny hats, and we set off for a 10-kilometer hike to the next access point, at Jingshanling. I'd read several articles about the Great Wall, so I knew that it was sometimes steep and not always in the best condition, but words cannot convey. I'll try anyway. Several years ago, I did a 12- or 14-mile hike with my friend Linda to Mystic Lake, on the north side of Mt. Rainier. This hike along the Great Wall, at not quite half the distance, was at least in the ballpark in difficulty. The terrain is just like what you see in pictures: steep hillsides with the wall running along the crest of the ridge on a route that makes you wonder how they built it. I'd guess that we were climbing or descending steps a quarter or more of the distance that we travelled, and the rest of the route wasn't flat. The steps are uneven sizes, often rough, and sometimes crumbling. The angle of the climb changed with the terrain and occasionally approached 60 degrees (the steps we're accustomed to are closer to 30 degrees), with steps just deep enough to fit a shoe on if you turn your foot sideways. The hike was a challenge, the only shade was in the towers, which are a few hundred yards apart, and the temperature was in the 80s, and yet I had an exceptional time. Every step of the way (except when I was looking at my feet in an effort not to fall to a certain death ;-), the view was the sort of view that people go on vacation to see. I constantly lagged at the back of the group taking pictures and, in the process, triggered a running (and soon tiresome) debate with Chuck over the differences between film and digital photography. Gary was often right there taking pictures with me, though, so I didn't feel that I was delaying the others much. Heavy traffic slowed our return to Beijing, so after we finally got back and took a shower, we had time for nothing more than a late dinner.

Saturday was Tiananmen Square (where I'd already spent some time on my own, mostly staving off sellers of Mao watches, Little Red Books, and other tourist junk), Mao's mausoleum, the Forbidden City, Prospect Hill in Jingshan Park, the official Beijing silk shop, and a Chinese-acrobats show. As you might guess, Tiananmen Square does not include any plaques or monuments related to the student protests there in the 90s, and any tank-tread marks have long since been paved over, so it's just a big, open space with several monumental buildings on the periphery, including Mao's mausoleum.

Visiting the body of a long-dead politician whose legacy I don't much respect is not high on my list of favored activities, but Peter offered to stay with our bags, which were not allowed inside, so I joined the long but fast-moving line with everyone else on the theory that it would be a cultural experience. In a plaza outside the mausoleum, a few people (one in 10 or 20) jumped out of line long enough to spend a yuan or two on a white rose and, inside the entrance, left their flowers in an impressively large, neatly arranged pile in front of a statue of Mao. (I'm convinced that the flowers are resold until they start looking wilted.) Soon we were in the room that contains Mao's body (unless it's a wax replica, as some have suggested), and we all had the same initial response: his face was lit in a way that caused his head to appear to glow from within. Then we were out the door and on to the Forbidden City.

After a look at the Forbidden City, the best response, I think, is, "No wonder people overthrow their royalty." Even from the outside, the place is the very picture of excess. The perimeter wall, inside the moat, is roughly 1/2 mile by 6/10ths of a mile. My Beijing travel guide says that the Forbidden City is said to contain 9,999 rooms, and having spent part of an afternoon meandering from one end to the other, I think it's possible. (If it were nothing but rooms, each room would be over 800 square feet. There are a lot of outdoor spaces, including plazas and walkways, but there are also a lot of small rooms for, for example, concubine quarters.) I don't mean to be a Philistine, but the architectural style is consistent throughout and, as a result, one area quickly started to look a lot like the last. There were plenty of interesting details-sculptures, large pieces of unusual rock, plaza entrances graced with expanses of decorative tile, paintings on the beams above covered walkways, rooms that you could peer into to see how people lived-but I was ready to go when we walked out the north gate and up Prospect Hill, from which we had a hazy view of the Forbidden City and the rest of central Beijing. After a late lunch, we made a quick stop at the official Beijing silk store, at which the only advantage over other fabric and clothing stores was an interesting display on how small cocoons are turned into thread and large cocoons (from a different breed of silk worm) are turned into filling for quilts. Amazingly to me, a single large cocoon can stretch to the size of a quilt. (A week or so later, in a grocery store in Kashgar, we saw packages of silk worms in the snack-food section.)

I saw one troupe or another of Chinese acrobats on Ed Sullivan plenty of times when I was a kid, but it was still fun to see them in person that evening. Some of what they did was weird (doing mouth stands, which are much like hand stands, only you support your weight with your mouth), and some was more strength than agility (going down and back up a short flight of stairs while in a one-handed hand stand), but I still loved it, especially the bicycle tricks.

Sunday we went out to the Summer Palace, on the northwest side of Beijing, where royalty hung out during the summer because it was cooler there. This was another full day, so we did a quick pass and then popped back into the city for a slow bike ride (without helmets, like everyone else in Beijing) through the neighborhoods around Qianhai Lake. While we were out, we stopped for a while at the home of Wu Xue Jun, who is (I was told by Peter, our Beijing tour guide) a well-known artist in an arcane field: he paints on the inside of bottles. His work was beautiful, he was personable, and I vowed to return to buy some of his work after the tour. (I'm writing this from Beijing on Monday, October 8th, a day after I bought rather a lot of glass. Now I just need to figure out how to get it home before I leave for Shanghai on Wednesday.)

After dinner that evening, we got on the night train to Xi'an, our first stop on the Silk Road.
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