I can say pretty confidently that I’ll be ok if I never go back to visit China again in my lifetime. I will give credit where credit is due and say The Great Wall of China was pretty amazing to see in person. To hike a good portion of it and be able to have a visual memory of it is something I won’t soon forget, however the rest of China (at last the cities I visited) rank very, very low on places I’d want to spend time going back to.
My time in China was spent between four cities: Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai. My favorite of these was the very small city (1.5 million) of Suzhou, which is a city famous for its canals and gardens. The tourist areas of Suzhou are brimming with small shops, bright colored flags and women pushing carts selling fruits and handmade pastries. This in itself sounds lovely; however the canals are full of pollution and the gardens are hard to enjoy as your breathing in the very heavy smog encasing the country. The owners of the shops stand outside and smoke cigarettes, carelessly flicking them to the ground as they finish, contributing to the amount of pollution in the probably once beautiful canals. And with the exception of getting to see The Great Wall in Beijing, this was my favorite city in China.
This trip was purchased from Groupon Getaways for around $1000. It included round trip airfare from Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting all four cities, hotels, transportation & tour guide included. This was a great deal and I’m happy to have gone and spent time in the country – it just wasn’t what I expected it to be.
We landed in Beijing and were met at the airport by our English speaking tour guide. She escorted us to the bus which took us to our hotel for the evening. We ordered American style room services, got a good nights sleep and woke up the next morning for our first full day in Beijing. Our first stop was visiting The Forbidden City which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that served as China’s imperial palace for five centuries. After this, we went to Tiananmen Square, which is most famous for the student riots which took place in June 1989 and ended in a large scale massacre. The Chinese government bans discussion of these protests, however it is more or less common knowledge to the locals and tourists alike. It is a large cement square with a single flagpole near the center, the Chinese flag positioned at the top with a large brick building to the North which is referred to as ‘The Gate’.
The next day we had a “free day” meaning no planned tour activities, so we took a bus out to see The Great Wall of China. No amount of 8th grade history can prepare you for seeing this in person and reading about it’s history while standing on the actual grounds. Without offering too much of a history lesson here, The Great Wall was built in the third century B.C. as a means of preventing invasions from barbarian nomads. Though the Great Wall never effectively prevented invaders from entering China, it came to function more as a psychological barrier between Chinese civilization and the world. It was all built by hand by soldiers, slaves, criminals and common workers and is a little over 13,000 miles long. The section I visited was about 3 miles in length with an elevation gain of around 2000 feet from entry point to the top of it. Each uneven stone step towards the top becomes on achievement though, as you picture it being laid down hundreds of years ago. Along the way you can purchase little trinkets and souvenirs which locals have carried all the way on their backs (not an easy task) for visitors to buy. I bought a small gold coin with a photo of the Wall engraved on it and for an extra $5US I had my name and the date engraved on it as well to remember my hike up this famous wall. This was such an incredible experience and one I highly recommend doing if you ever find yourself in Beijing.
As previously stated, next to seeing the Great Wall in Beijing, Suzhou was my favorite city in China. After a few days in Beijing, we caught a flight to Shanghai, and then boarded a bus bound for Suzhou. Nicknamed, ‘The Venice of the Orient’ it is well known for it’s canals and gardens, however having been to Venice a few years prior, I thought this nickname was a bit of stretch. This being said, there is one section of boardwalk which runs parallel to the Grand Canal (the worlds longest manmade canal) lined with small shops and restaurants which besides the Chinese flag displayed everywhere – could have rivaled a stretch of Venice, Italy. On this stretch of boardwalk you can find just about any souvenir you’d want to bring home and bartering down the price is a well known strategy in this area if you like that kind of thing. We spent the money to take a boat ride down the canal and while the banks were littered with garbage and pollution, it was nice to see the town from the vantage point of the canal. Suzhou is considered a tiny city in China with a population of around 1.5 million people and even though it’s more than three times the population of my hometown; Portland, Oregon – it surprisingly does have a smaller city feel to it. We spent our next few days in Suzhou walking around the different areas; visiting a silk factory to see how silk garments are made in all stages from extracting it from the silkworm to spinning, dying, cutting and eventually getting it to the showroom floor. We also walked through the Master of the Nets Gardens which are over 100 years old, and even though it was pouring down rain – we visited the Hanshan Temple which stands about 250 feet tall and is absolutely gorgeous! Think the leaning tower of Pisa, but a Chinese version and not tilted to one side.
From Suzhou we took a bus to the city of Hangzhou, which although I’m not a tea enthusiast- is the only place in the world where Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea is produced. Although I don’t like tea, we did take a bus out to the countryside where this tea is grown and it was a beautiful sight to see acres upon acres of green shrubbery – little white cone shaped hats sticking out amongst the rows of tea plants as workers were busy picking the leaves. We stopped at one of the tea “factories” which was really just a very old building nestled amongst the tea plants where we watched an employee collect fresh tea leaves, dry them out in a large cauldron and then steep them in hot water for those who wanted to try it. They tried to sell us a bunch of green tea products while there: capsules to help with weight loss, candy to soothe your stomach, paper made of the leaves, and of course as much green tea as you could pack home with you. The drive in and out of this area of Hangzhou was stunning.. think wine country in Napa Valley, CA where all you see for miles upon miles are grape vines covering the hills – it’s very similar here, only the hills are covered in tea plants as far as the eye can see. For locals it’s probably a view they’ve grown accustomed to, however seeing where tea comes from and how it’s made was something quite spectacular for me.
While in Hangzhou we also took a boat ride around West Lake, visiting the ‘Six Harmonious Pagodas’ which are built on little islands in the lake and are quite beautiful to view amongst the cherry blossom trees lining the banks of the lake. After this, our tour guide took us to visit a Buddhist monetary where we wrote a wish on a piece of paper before burning it in the communal fire for good luck and then stood in front of the largest golden Buddha I’ve ever seen. Throughout our tour of these cities in China we saw signs of a lot of poverty, people searching through rubble for recycling products to sell for money, begging for change, or standing outside restaurants asking for leftover food. In Hangzhou however, I witnessed a new type of poverty. On a handful of occasions we passed by people standing on street corners with their severely disabled or handicapped family members, using the disability as a catalyst to ask for money. We saw people in wheelchairs with missing limbs, severely deformed faces and appendages, blind, small children who were handicapped in some way – and their family members put them on a parade of sorts to beg for money. This was disturbing and disheartening all at the same time and a memory I won’t soon forget.
From Hangzhou we took the 3 hour bus ride back to Shanghai where we spent the rest of our trip. In Shanghai we were greeted by an East meets West large metropolis, kind of a surprising treat (hello coffee shops and recognizable restaurants!) after seeing only pagodas and ancient Chinese architecture, and sustaining basically on a diet of cliff bars for the previous two weeks, I was excited to be here. I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 20 years so I’ve learned my lesson in traveling to always bring a box of cliff bars, just in case. In this specific case, I was SO happy to have them, as I don’t think vegetarian is a common diet fad that’s quite caught on over there. At every meal I attempted to order vegetarian food, and got the universal head nod sign of understanding, I was constantly served a mix of vegetables and tofu brought out on a platter mixed with a strange gelatinous liquid. On more than one occasion this platter was served with an entire fish head for garnish. I thanked them, smiled politely and pulled out a cliff bar to enjoy with my bottled water.
My time spent in Shanghai was actually quite enjoyable, we walked up and down the Bund, went shopping at the City God Bazaar which is a MASSIVE shopping mall of sorts, made up of little stalls with designer knock offs, people reaching out to grab you, wanting you look at their items, chasing after you to convince you to purchase something from them. I lasted about 10 minutes inside before I felt overwhelmed and decided I didn’t need anything that bad. From here you can walk down the street a little further to an outside market where they serve basically any animal you can think of; on a stick. As we walked through this market, a photo of my brother standing in this same spot a few years prior came to mind, a scorpion sliding off the stick and into him mouth. I eyed the skewered mango and pineapple, all beautifully carved into the shapes of flowers – but didn’t want to risk spending my flight home the next day with food poisoning so I didn’t indulge. There were a number of tourist activities to partake in Shanghai with, but instead I spent my time walking around the different neighborhoods by our hotel, looking at the paradoxical aspects of skyscrapers butted up against vacant lots. Businessmen going in and out of the skyscrapers and homeless, hungry men searching through the rubble in the vacant lots for scraps of recycling to turn in for money. The next day we packed up and headed to the airport, happy to have a Starbucks soy latte in hand and headed home to our modern luxuries.