I woke up early, excited to begin my first day in China. The hotel breakfast was by far the best hotel breakfast of my life; Hampton Inns and Holiday Inns cannot even begin to compete with this breakfast. The hotel served a combination of western and eastern foods. There were eggs, bacon, and muffins, but also amazing pork buns, steamed buns, noodles, rice, and Asian pears. The other guests eating breakfast were mostly Chinese, with the exception of a group of young children speaking French. I was surprised that what appeared to be a middle school would send students all the way to China as I never went on a field trip more than a couple of hours away. After breakfast, we had a brief orientation meeting where our local guides, Liliana and Jane, introduced themselves. Then we got on the bus to travel to our first cultural site, the Great Wall. Our tour guide for Beijing, Joe, was a very funny and memorable guy. He talked about American history for almost as long as he talked about Chinese history, mentioning Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. Joe also immediately talked about two of the touchy subjects our guide book had warned us not to mention: Taiwan and the abolition of President Xi Jinping’s term limits. He called the president a dictator and also poked fun at Chairman Mao, the founder of Communism in China. Before coming to China, I didn’t know if the Chinese would avoid criticizing their government and skirt around politics or if they would be more open. Joe was definitely more open.
I was struck again on the bus ride about how bad the traffic was. The massive highways were clogged by cars, the result of millions of Chinese all wanting to drive. Bikes and scooters also seemed to be more popular here than in the US. We drove past old Chinese buildings that according to Joe were the ancient City Gates of Beijing. It was interesting to see these buildings surrounded by modern office and apartment buildings. Finally, after driving through the country side, we arrived at our lunch destination. The food at lunch seemed much more casual, and in my opinion tastier, than the formal dinner we had had the night before. The standout dish by far was the green beans. I don’t know how they were cooked, but they are the only green beans I’ve ever wanted to have seconds of. After lunch, we drove to the main attraction: The Great Wall. It was hard to get a grasp on the wall at first glance. From the parking lot, the Wall was a thin line snaking over the mountains. First, we had to walk past stores selling Great Wall merchandise. These would serve as my introduction to Chinese shopping. I only had to look at a product for a shop keeper to come out of thin air, offering a special “student discount”. They don’t seem to understand the concept of window shopping, and I wasn’t prepeared for the aggressive sales tactics not found in America. We started our long hike to the wall. It was very hot, and apparently, we climbed 70 stories worth of stairs. After countless water bottles and a lot of sweating we finally made it to the top, and boy was it worth it. The Wall was incredibly impressive up close. In both directions it extended out of sight over the mountain. The view of the valley was incredible, even if the distant mountains were obscured by smog. We walked along the Wall and climbed to the far end. At points, the steps up the wall were almost vertical, more like a ladder than stairs. My biggest question about the Wall was how it could be practical for military purposes: it’s incredibly remote and enormous.
The scale of the wall is hard to capture on camera
Art of Making takes on China!
After taking lots of photos, it was time to come back down the wall, this time by toboggan. The toboggan was fast and fun, but seemed incredibly dangerous. It was 100% up to the rider to apply the brake and lean into curves. There were so many opportunities for accidents I knew it would never be allowed in the US, but none of the workers seemed overly concerned. The only English sign simply said “tobogganing is very simple!” Somehow, we all made it down alive. We returned to the hotel, and upon showering decided it was time to attempt our first dinner on our own. We went to a hotpot restaurant Liliana recommended with no idea what we were in for. First, none of the staff spoke English. Second, we had no idea how hotpot restaurants work. After a lot of gesturing with the waitress and looking at other tables, we figured it out. You had to order soups and then meats and veggies. The soups were heated on the table in front of you, and then you cook the other food in the boiling soup. The highlight of dinner was when a man came out and spun out fresh noodles right in front of us. I had never been to a restaurant like this before, and the language barrier made it even harder. This was the first time I fully understood just how hard it was to live in a country without speaking the language. We wrapped the night up by going to the mall and buying a delicious slice of chocolate cake. A great end to a Great Wall Day!
Soup at Hot Pot