After spending most of our third week in Guangzhou, we were back in Hong Kong for only a night before we all headed out to Beijing for a long weekend! After rising early to get to our flight and head over, we dropped off our bags at our hotel and headed out to take stock of this new city.

One thing leaped out at us immediately. And I need to preface this by saying that I’ve talked a lot about how great China is on this blog (because it is), but nothing is perfect, and here we encountered something rather unpleasant: Beijing was enshrouded in a thick haze that made it impossible to see very far. It reminded me of the fog we’d seen going by on our train ride to Guangzhou, but even thicker. It was partly fog due to the oppressively high humidity here, but Beijing’s struggles with air pollution also played a role. The smog made it so that we couldn’t even see the sky!

Tiananmen Square

Undaunted by the haze, we headed out to Tiananmen Square. We saw the famed giant picture of Mao Zedong (which I’ve also seen transliterated over here as Tse-tung), and across the street there was a large hammer and sickle symbol set up to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. The Square itself is actually pretty basic. It’s essentially just a large open area at the south end of the old imperial palace. Very, very large, in fact. It has been the site of many important speeches and events throughout Chinese history. At present we found it full of sightseers and stalls crammed with knick-knacks, with a few soldiers standing around the fringes keeping watch – there’s a small garrison that’s always stationed here to protect the Square. In fact at one point I was spaced out looking at the palace and was nearly trampled by a column of soldiers marching along.

We checked out the large Communist symbol, as well as the flag of the People’s Republic of China (there’s a ceremony every single morning and evening to put it up and take it down) and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a large memorial obelisk. We wanted to check out the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, but it was already closed for the day.

At this point we could no longer contain our curiosity and asked the Chinese member of our group how people here view the (in)famous ’89 protests. She told us that nobody really talks about it in this country because that’s forbidden. I do my best when I travel to keep in mind that just because a culture or government operates differently from ours, that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, and yet I couldn’t help but find the thought that those memories could fade from the collective Chinese consciousness chilling. I’m of the opinion that the messy parts of history are the ones that should be preserved best, not forgotten. How else will future generations get a chance to learn from the mistakes of the past unless they are aware of them?

I struggled not to be ethnocentric about it. It’s a very tough and delicate issue, but I was glad I was thinking about it. This world has some harsh realities sometimes, and part of the reason I chose China as my study abroad was because there is so much more to this country than just some pretty sightseeing spots; there are real issues to be thought about, and I feel that keeping that sort of thing in mind is critical to my development into a proper adult and responsible citizen of not just America, but the world.

After leaving the Square, we met up with the brother of our Chinese group member and he took us to the famous Quanjude restaurant (around since 1864) for one of China’s most famous foods, Peking Duck. Unlike many dishes made using animals, the meat is not the main focus of Peking Duck. It’s still eaten, of course, but the main attraction in this dish is the carefully prepared, thin and crisp skin. The whole thing is served with tortilla-esque pancakes to wrap things in and dip into a special sauce. The meal lived up to its reputation, and we happily ate up the delicious duck.

That night I attempted to get on Facebook and put up a status update about being in Beijing, only to find that it’s blocked by the “Great Firewall of China” (officially called the Golden Shield Project; it’s the same thing that blocks people in China from searching about the Tiananmen Square protests, and the same blocking policy that Google recently got into a tussle with the Chinese government over). I brooded some more about the vast gulf between how the American and Chinese governments operate.

The Great Wall

The next day was my 22nd birthday, and our plan for the day was a birthday activity unlike any other: visiting one of the most famous and monumental works ever wrought by human hands, the Great Wall of China. We got into an arranged car ride that took us a few hours outside the city to reach the Great Wall. After we were dropped off, we walked through yet another crowded market area and rode a cable car up to the Wall itself. I was a little disappointed that the haze was still present. I had hoped that leaving the city, we would be leaving it behind, but we just had to make do with the view we could get.

I’ve seen pictures of the Great Wall all my life, and they certainly didn’t lie. But they simply can’t hold a candle to being there yourself. I was enraptured by the sight of the Wall snaking away from me to the left and right, going on and on, up and down the hills, off into the blanket of fog far in the distance. It really just puts almost every other construction project on Earth to shame with its scope. Fun fact: You actually cannot see the Great Wall from outer space. It’s not quite big enough for that, though I still felt dwarfed by its colossal size.

As we traipsed up and down along the wavy spine of the Wall, I really felt like I was standing right in the midst of thousands of years of history. The Wall exuded a strong feeling of being as ancient as it was, yet it was still rather sturdy (though the touristy parts get some maintenance). We hiked along, ascending staircases to the watchtowers sprinkled along the path and seeing what we could see, snapping pictures all along the way. While the Wall does command a view of the countryside on either side, even without the fog there isn’t really a whole lot to see. The Wall itself is the main thing to look at, and there was not a single moment that I felt bored looking at it. Each step forward seemed to bring into view a freshly captivating segment of the structure.

We had a slight time limit on the Wall before we had to return to meet our ride back to Beijing, but before we left we decided to challenge ourselves and climb an absolutely enormous long staircase up the side of a huge hill to reach the tallest watchtower we could find on this part of the Wall. It was a tough ascension, and the intense humidity didn’t help matters. Despite the fact that we were all sweating buckets, we made it up (and bought much-needed water from a strategically located seller – though I’m astonished to think he climbs that huge staircase every day to set up his wares) and after catching our breath, looked back to survey the distance we had covered. We’d gone so far we could no longer see the part of the Wall we had started out on.

It’s difficult to put into words the view we saw of the Wall rolling away from us into the distance. Pictures help, but I wish I’d had some sort of really high-resolution panoramic camera to capture the full scope of just how majestic a sight it is to stand atop one of the greatest creations of mankind. The emotion invoked by my admiration of both human capability and the Wall’s particular brand of beauty briefly let me forget how sweaty I was.

Olympic Park and Random Photos

So we made our way back down, and devoured lunch at a restaurant at the base of the Wall before meeting our ride back to Beijing. We went straight on to our second thing to see that day, the Olympic Park that was the site of the 2008 Olympic Summer Games.

Even though the Olympics were 3 years ago, the Park didn’t seem to be having any trouble keeping people coming to see it; it was rather crowded. We walked around the Park a while before heading into the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest. Both buildings had rather unique architecture that made them a fairly striking sight.

While I was sitting in a high seat checking out the Bird’s Nest, a local man approached me and asked me if he could take a picture with me. I was a bit puzzled, but agreed and let the man’s wife snap a picture of the two of us. I should mention this wasn’t a lone occurrence. Throughout our time in Beijing we had locals asking to take pictures with us. The Chinese girl in our group explained that it’s rare for the people here to see Caucasians, so they wanted to take pictures with us to show their friends later and prove they’d met some Caucasians.

After the Olympic Park I was treated to a delicious birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and wrapped up my 22nd birthday in our hotel bar. I pondered the amazing sights I’d seen during the day, and how it made for a rather unique birthday present. It’s not often that people get to ring in a new year of their lives on the Great Wall of China. I think that no matter how many more birthdays I have, I will never have another one quite like this!

The Forbidden City and an Unusual Dance

The next day we went to check out the Forbidden City, formerly the palace of China’s emperors. In China’s 5,000 years of history, Beijing has served as the capital of many dynasties, so there is a lot of history here. We spent lots of time taking in the sheer size of the palace and its intricate decorations. We saw centuries old tea sets, and simple pottery that was made around 6,000 BC.

We also saw the throne room, as well as the imperial gardens and some of the many smaller palaces within the huge complex. After that we retreated back to our hotel to spend the afternoon working on our papers that were due the next day. Yeah, we have had work to do here – I haven’t mentioned it much as it’s not particularly exciting, but the first word in “study abroad” isn’t just there for show!

The next day we had to fly back to Hong Kong, but before we left we made one more stop, at a place called Silk Street Market. It was sort of like a very cramped indoor flea market. The sellers at this market used a different tactic in addition to the usual yelling and grabbing at us – compliments. Many vendors tried to lure me to their stalls by telling me how handsome I am (so true!), or asking if I wanted to buy something for my (non-existent) girlfriend.

I felt as though there were a rhythm to the place, helped by the looming time limit before we needed to head to the airport. I don’t consider myself much of a dancer, but I quickly picked up the tempo and danced along to the steps: weave through the crowd; dodge attempts to grab my arm; deflect compliments from vendors; keep an eye out for any interesting goods; repeat. It felt like moving to a fast-paced, yet elegant waltz as I glided through the marketplace, keeping my feet constantly moving around to get through the thick crowd.

We soon had to end the impromptu dance/shopping session to grab a taxi to the airport and return to Hong Kong to start the last week of the program. As the taxi took us out, I reflected on the amazing things we’d seen in Beijing and how much food for thought it had given me. Our stay there ended with a pleasant realization: for the first time since our arrival there, we could see the blue sky.