China Journal Chapt 1

Email to friends. 06/21/2008

Hello, everyone.
So, here I am, roaming China for a few weeks, finally!
I wanted to do this for a very long time. The tumultuous History, the incredible artistic and cultural heritage of this huge country had always fascinated me, and I needed to check it out in person, one day or another. This trip is certainly going to be the first one of a series, as it is only possible to scratch the surface of such an iceberg in such little time, but it is definitely worth starting.
By the way, if you don't want to read all the details and are only interested in the pictures, please feel free to go directly to the end of this email and click on the link that will lead you there.
I arrived in Beijing last Friday to meet with the group of 6 other backpackers, coming from Australia, New-Zealand, England, San Francisco and Michigan, plus our Chinese group leader.
To my surprise, most people were actually women, except the older Australian guy who came with his wife.
We started the first day with the Great wall of China, about three hours away, North of Beijing. We didn't go to the main touristic area, Badaling, but rather a less crowded part of the wall that hadn't gone through very much restoration and was offering a more authentic historical experience. The goal was to achieve a 10 km hike, going through a total of 30 watch towers by the end of the afternoon. I am calling this a hike, but to give you a better idea of what I'm talking about, imagine spending about 5 hours on a stairmaster, constantly going from a 45 to a 70 degree inclination angle, going at random speed and random difficulty levels...without forgetting the very rough terrain, the heat (in the mid 90's) and the humidity. I don't think I've ever drank so much water within one single day in my life.
In fact, two people had to stop and go back after 10 minutes into the climbing.
So, for anyone who wishes to lose a few extra pounds, I got the perfect workout right here for you.
The next day, everyone split to explore different things. I ventured on my own to the Buddhist Lama temple, the older streets of Beijing (the Hutongs), and another Confucian temple nearby. Very cool, despite the inscent burning your eyes all day.
In the evening, we gathered again to go see an amazing Kung Fu show at the Beijing Red Theater. Not just martial Arts, but an incredible mix of choregraphy, colorful sets and costumes and breathtaking acrobatics. I started to film, but was asked to stop after a couple of minutes into it. So, I only have 2 pics to show. Darn.
Well, better than nothing.
We reserved the next day for the big piece of Beijing: Tiennanmen Square and the Forbidden city.
Probably more to talk about Tiennanmen when I get back home, but the Forbidden City was absolutely amazing. It is so cool to find yourself walking through a real life historical set you've seen in so many movies, from Hollywood classics to Kung Fu flicks. But most of all, the richness and drama of the events that took place between those walls, that shaped China for centuries, is mind blowing.
What I find utterly fascinating here (and I could probably say I found similar resemblance in Japan, Thailand and Cambodia), is how this country, through hardship and brutal changes (in spite or because of them) is and always has been able to produce the most beautiful forms of artistic expression. From performing Arts to sculpture, painting, poetry, and everything in between, China undeniably brings amazing artistic standards to the world.
On a more personal level, I have to say the direct contact with people (except our group leader, of course) hasn't been that easy. Not only because of the language -which is very complex, but also because of the different customs and meanings in things as simple as gestures and body language. Much more so than in Japan (where politeness is key) or South east Asia (where smiling is common practice), the concepts of personal space or politeness toward a stranger are not very common here (don't be surprised to have someone cut the line right in front of you not even aknowledging your presence. It is considered totally normal). Only when you meet a person (for business or socially) can you start feeling a major change in the relationship.
Also, you will only receive a smile once you give one, or you are doing business.
Well, different country, different customs. Travelling is kind of an accelerating learning process.
We eventually ended our Beijing experience visiting the Beijing branch of the Intrepid travel Foundation (the company I travel with), that takes care of mentally challenged adults. They played an artistic performance for us after we had lunch at the Foudation. Then, one of the old workers there offered us a cup of tea at his place, before taking us on a small tour of the Hutongs in his area. It was great, and the work accomplished by these selfless and devoted people is profoundly admirable.
That same evening, we took the train in direction of X'ian, where we found ourselves in the morning.
We've been here for 2 days and I've already taken lots of pictures.
But that's for the next email.
Meanwhile, check out these first ones:
I hope you're all well.
Talk to you soon,