I was really looking forward to my first visit to China. I have been trying to learn more about Asia since we moved to Singapore and China was one country that really caught my interest. It is the oldest continuous civilization in existence with 5000 years of recorded history. I took a (long) course from The Teaching Company on Chinese history. I also read a book on the Great Wall and a book on the Terracotta Warriors. So I was excited about getting to see the monuments and artifacts, buildings and museums, from the various periods of history in China.
I was also curious about modern China. I'd read several books on globalization and the rise of the economies of various countries ("The World is Flat", "China, Inc", etc.). Most of them seemed to identify China as the country to watch. China was clearly backward economically, militarily and politically through most of the twentieth century, but it has been changing fast. A lot of people are predicting that the twenty first century may be known as the Chinese century. So I was curious to see it for myself.
We arranged our trip through Country Holidays, a tour agency in Singapore which is actually based in China. They offer a number of itineraries for trips to China (and other countries in Asia). Although it looks like a group tour type of trip, it turns out that they actually organize it as a personal tour. So in each city that we visited we had a local tour guide and a driver dedicated to us. We had a planned (and paid) itinerary, but it was easy for us to change it according to our interests (or how tired we were). It seemed like a great way to visit China. We were a little nervous about language difficulties, so that was taken care of. But we still had a lot of flexibility and didn't have to put up with a big tour group, which I have learned from experience can be problematic.
China is a huge country. It is virtually the same size as the United States. It is either slightly larger or slightly smaller depending on whether or not you count disputed territories. It lies at very close to the same latitude as the US. And it has 1.3 billion people, which is about 20% of the world's population. So for our first vacation visit we decided to see the most famous tourist sites in the country. Beijing - to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City. And Xian - to see the Terracotta Warriors.
It is a six hour flight from Singapore to Beijing - about the same as Boston to London. Asia is a BIG continent. But compared to flying to the US, it's a local flight.
The Beijing airport is huge and they have just opened a new terminal for the Olympics. There was a long walk after getting off the plane, then Chinese immigration and customs. They did have an interesting process. At one point each person walks slowly through a small gate like the magnetic sensors they use for security screening in airports. But it is actually an IR temperature monitor (Sandy was the one who figured it out). Apparently they are looking for people who might have high fevers that are coming into the country. After some of the problems that they have had with SARS and bird flu, they are sensitive to travelers bringing disease into their country.
After that there was a train ride to another terminal. The sign getting off the train has an arrow and reads "Baggage Claim: 10-15 min walk". Turns out their estimate was pretty good too. But at least by the time we got there our bags were there too. Then we headed out to look for the person meeting us, Mr. Bruce Lee. (I was pretty good - I went a whole day before I kidded him about looking different in person than he did in the movies.) He was holding a sign with our names on it but somehow all three of us missed it. But he found us. Obviously the guy was good. We asked how he managed to find us out of all the people coming out of customs. He said he had a paper with our names on it, so he just "looked for one boy, two girls, tall". I guess we stuck out.
We stayed at the Raffles Beijing, a very nice hotel in cental Beijing only one block from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. A great location. After check in Bruce took us to the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. It is a very famous chain of restaurants with locations all over the city and even overseas (they recently opened one in Melbourne, Australia). It is THE place to go for a dinner of the local specialty, Peking Duck. The original restaurant is almost 150 years old and uses a special open oven process that was originally reserved only for the emperor. There are many locations around the city and they can be recognized by the five foot tall cartoon-like duck statue outside. Bruce made sure that we were set up with the staff and had all our food ordered. We got way too much to eat, something that seemed typical for the trip. The duck was good, similar to chicken dark meet. We got shells similar to a very thin tortilla shell. You put the meat in the shell along with scallions and sauces and then rolled it up to eat it. I thought it was quite good and I don't usually care for Chinese food. One thing we didn't like was that they served the skin with it (actually, pretty much all the parts). Since all of us are fussy meat eaters we had to carefully trim the duck. That is tricky using chopsticks rather than a knife and fork. There were also lots of vegetable and noodle side dishes. I certainly was full by the time I left.
It was just getting to be dusk and we took a short walk to work off some of our dinner. The lights were just coming on everywhere and there were a lot of them. It was kind of like the Times Square of China. There was a large pedestrian mall with all kinds of shops. There were neon and bright lights everywhere. And lots of people out walking. We stopped at one point to watch a women doing some kind of a demonstration/dance with a long cloth streamer. She was just having fun but she gathered a bit of a crowd. Then we found a large shopping mall and decided to check it out. In the mall we felt just like we were back home in Singapore! Quite upscale actually. A little unusual, they even had (small) car dealerships in the mall. And best of all, we found a Dairy Queen. It was a good finish after a spicy dinner. After that it was a short walk back to our hotel. There I had an interesting chat with the services manager. He was a Brit (I think, from his accent) who had just arrived two days earlier. He had just spent two years at the Raffles Hotel in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Since we are going there at the end of July to visit Ankor Wat I got a lot of suggestions from him on where to go.
Whew. And that was just getting to China. Lots of blogging to go!