Internet access has been rather spotty the last couple of days. I'm taking advantage right now of the fact that everyone who has a laptop on our trip is hitting the Beijing nightlife to finally update you on the last few days.
We left Shanghai on Sunday afternoon and took an overnight train to Beijing - about a 12 hour train ride. It was actually a lot nicer than what I expected. (I was envisioning something that was incredibly dark and dingy, sort of like the trains they have to take on the Amazing Race.) Aside from people constantly smoking on the train, it wasn't too bad. For 11 members of our group, the train ride did not allow for a good night's rest, but with the help of Unasom, I slept like a baby (no, they aren't paying me to write this, but maybe they should).
We arrived on Monday morning in Beijing at 7:15 am and pretty much hit the ground running. At the train station, we met our guide, Cecelia (don't ask me how to pronounce her Chinese name), who took us to a hole-in-the-wall place for breakfast. Normally, Jamie won't eat the food if the quality and cleanliness of the place is a bit sketchy, however, this was so bad, that well over half of us barely touched anything given to us! Right outside the restaurant, we could see dead pigs that had just been slaughtered being brought into the restaurant in plastic grocery bags! Yuck!!!!
From there, we visited Tianamen Square which is full of history, mostly dealing with Chairman Mao, however, it was actually set up during the Ming Dynasty (several hundred years ago for those of you who aren't Chinese historians). Immediately behind that was the Forbidden City. This area covered several square kilometers, and yes, we walked all of it! The architecture was absolutely amazing, with all sorts of elephants and dragons painted on to the buildings. (After awhile, it started to feel like we were just seeing the same things over and over.) However, it was very interesting just to see the place. It's just so cool to see a country that has had numerous kings and dynasties and thousands of years of architecture to see! After that, it was off to lunch and then, the Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace is set on a massive lake with all sorts of beautiful buildings surrounding it with a massive Buddhist temple at the top of a hill. (We didn't go in there because it cost extra - we're cheapskates, I know!) There is a massive overhang that you can walk under that spans the North side of the lake and each cross beam has a different scene hand-painted on it. With over 8000 beams (yes, I counted them...just kidding), somebody must have really been paid well or had too much time on his or her hands! This was where the emperor during the Ming Dynasty would come and, well, spend the summer! The only downside was that the lake was incredibly gross. Apparently, the powers that be have cleaned it up quite a bit in recent years, however, it was still incredibly nasty looking!
From there, it was off to dinner and then back to the hotel to crash, well, the 11 who didn't sleep well on the train!
On Tuesday morning, we got up early and thought we were headed to the Great Wall. (Quick story about breakfast though: there were probably 30 people in the restaurant for breakfast, and our group was the only one to use chopsticks to eat which made us feel a lot less touristy. Then of course, we followed our guide, waving a big yellow flag so that we would not get lost, and got on our coach bus to head north!) Instead of hitting the Great Wall, we stopped off at a place that made authentic vases out of copper. It was really cool to see how they were made, which I can tell you about later, but to be honest, most of us were pretty frustrated that we had to stop because, after all, the Great Wall had only been around for several hundred years and we were afraid that it might disappear in the next 30 minutes! Finally, we arrived at the Wall!
For some reason, unknown to me other than the fact that it was the closest to us, we picked the most difficult part of the wall to climb. (First of all, let me say that the arrival itself was incredible. The land looked completely flat until you were about 5 miles from the wall and then, all of a sudden, we were amidst this massive mountain range.) I take pride in being in pretty good physical shape, however, the wall humbled me. First of all, the weather was hotter than Shanghai, although, a bit less humid. Secondly, the first portion of the wall was about a 60-70 degree grade (yep, almost straight up). Third, the stairs are all of varying heights, widths, and are not anywhere near being level. Finally, I hadn't drank any fluids all day. The combination of those factors led to my demise on the wall. I let a small group of people get ahead of me and planned on catching up to them... that didn't happen! I made the first climb up to the first watch tower, the steepest part of the wall, and felt sick/dizzy/any other gross feeling you can think of. As it turns out, I was severely dehydrated. After resting there for almost 30 minutes (mind you, it only took me 8 minutes to get to that point), I attempted to make it to the second watch tower. I never did.... I made it to a look out landing halfway there, and decided that since my body was shaking, I'd better quit and drink some liquids. While I was incredibly frustrated that I couldn't do more physically, I did enjoy the incredible views (look for ouChristmas card, coming out this December). I started to climb back down (now finally drinking water and feeling a bit better) to the first guard tower and climbed up for a look there. At the top, I smelled something like the toilet at school when a kid forgets to flush. I then peeked around the corner and my smells were confirmed! I was told later on that farther up the trail, there were piles of vomit from people who couldn't deal with the elements! My words are so inadequate to describe what I saw here and my pictures won't do it justice. It was simply amazing.
After lunch, we headed off to the Ming Tombs where 13 out of the 16 Ming emperors are buried. We liked this one because it was mostly underground and a lot cooler! We then hit Hutong and got to experience life for the normal Chinese citizen. We took a rickshaw ride around a neighborhood that most tourists don't get to see and actually got to see a traditional Chinese home from the early 1900s and sit down and talk with the people who live there (as it was passed down through their ancestors). We didn't get any really great stories out of it, but it was just facinating to see how people live. By American standards, they are definately in poverty, but they were just so happy. The grandpa, a 92 year-old man, was so excited to have company and wanted desperately to be in pictures with us! It was so cool! Afterwards, we did a little bit of driving and saw, from a distance, the "Bird's Nest", or Olympic Stadium, which will be in use very soon!
We then visited a tea shop and became educated on the five different types of Chinese tea and sampled them all,which was a lot of fun. Then, we had dinner and then came back to our hotel, which we've decided is, um, a bit sketchy. (Since there are several people under the age of 18 who read this blog, I won't go into details.) Don't get me wrong, it's a fancy place and definately isn't a "hole in the wall", there are just some questionable aspects to this place.
Beijing is so incredibly different from Shanghai. I feel like I've seen more of Beijing's history in 2 days than I saw of Shanghai in 3 weeks. It's definately not as commercialized, however, the pollution is much worse. At the Great Wall, the mountains in the distance were incredibly hazy and at the Summer Palace, you could not see the temple on the island, just a few hundred yards off of the shore. The city is doing many things to clean up the city, however, it's still pretty polluted. I can't imagine what it's like during normal times!
Tomorrow is our last day in Beijing, then it's off to Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, among other things. I'll try to update this again in a few days. Keep emailing us! It's fun to hear how you're all doing!