My journey started one day late from Vancouver due to some timing problems with Air Canada (oh, Canada!) and we ended up having to take away a day from our Beijing tour. The gist of the trip was basically to go on a rampage of Beijing, Xian, Lhasa, Chengdu, Guilin and Shanghai - all in 14 days including a boat ride and 5 domestic flights. If you couple that with the fact that people in China are
Anyhow, since my last trip to Beijing about 9 years ago, things have changed remarkably. There are much more cars, air quality has spiralled insanely out of control and where there were once ancient streets and private houses are now massive apartment blocks and mega malls. American fast food chains ala KFC, McDonald's and Pizza Hut have sprouted on every street corner and mobile phones are more likely a daily essential than bicycles.
The obvious tourist-y things to do in Beijing include taking a picture of Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square, visiting the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace, hiking along the Great Wall, and strolling through the 'hutongs' (old houses) and night markets. The night market is a great place to sample some exotic insects e.g. scorpions and silkworms, although I would highly advise against it if you're get easily queasy like me =P. On the other hand, I'm quite amused to report that fast food chains have also infiltrated the old defense system of Far East - you can now easily order a turkey sandwich with easy mayo from the top of the Great Wall via Subway.
From Beijing we continued on to Xian to pay the semi-excavated Terracotta Warriors a visit. The sheer size of the mausoleum is amazing, each of 8000 warriors have different physical characteristics modeled after real soldiers. It's a little bit chilling to think about how much effort and lives were put into building tombs and projects for ancient kings; about 800, 000 people at any one time were reported to have worked on the tomb over 40 years. While I am quite upset at the rate environmental degradation in the name of progress in modern China, I am actually glad that humanity has moved towards a less cruel ways of constructing things.
On the fifth day we flew to Tibet. The sights were incredible, from the majestic mountains to the exquisite Buddhist temple carvings to the colorfully dressed local Tibetans. Lhasa was perhaps my favorite place that we visited on the trip even though the hotel was pretty nasty and the bathrooms treacherously disease-plagued. Our guide told us stories about summers with the warmest temperatures on record, of yaks that had to move higher up into the mountains because their thick coats could not withstand the heat, and of water intensive vegetable farming brought in from across China. Local Tibetans cannot leave the city proper without some form of approval by the Chinese government and even to obtain a travel permit, it involves some sort of bribery and bureaucracy. In some weird way, it felt to me that I was watching a final curtain call of a greatly produced movie, a masterpiece that was fleetingly close to finishing and that once it was over, there will never be another quite like it.
This photo below is one of my favorite from the trip to Lhasa. It captures the very essence of modern life in Tibet. Kids are now more fluent in Mandarin than in Tibetan due to compulsory Chinese schooling , and yet for all the colonisation and urbanization China brings, these two boys are still here playing with primitive soldier figurines on the street outside a laundromat on a school day.
In Part 2, I'll be visiting Chengdu, Guilin, Yangshuo county, and Shanghai!