| Alfred C. Snider | April 15-16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 2001| Other Journals | Debate Central |
I arose at 4 AM to finish packing and make my way to the airport. I had to stop by the office to get an Ethernet cable just in case I was able to find a good internet connection and arrange a webcast or two from China.
Dawn in Burlington | Chicago to Beijing
The dawn was lovely at the Burlington Airport. I met my group at the airport and we took off for Chicago. The flight to Chicago was uneventful but full of anticipation. We gathered in Chicago and made our way to our gate, United flight 851 from Chicago to China.
The flight was long, very long (half way around the world so it doesn't get much longer), and even though I was fairly comfortable it is difficult to spend that much time in an enclosed space like that. The food was airline average. I did like the way they showed four different movies at once so that I could actually watch one I was interested in. I got to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again, and found it to be almost as enjoyable a second time, especially given that I was on my way to China. I spent the rest of the flight reading a huge stack of materials I had gathered to prepare me for my experience in China, cultural information, historical background, travelling tips, etc. I had majored in Asian Civilization while an undergraduate at Brown University, so it wasn't all new, and as a debate coach China has loomed large in many of our topics through the years.
We arrived in Beijing at about 3 PM on April 15. The airport was beautiful and impressive as well as efficient, and we made it through customs and baggage claim quicker than a similar experience in New York City. Juefei had arrived in China a day ahead of us and was waiting outside of customs.
We piled into a small bus Juefei had for us, met some of our hosts and translators, and drove into Beijing. It was a lovely Sunday, warm and sunny, but even then there was a haze in the air, which I am told is a combination of pollution and the "sand storm" effect that often afflicts Beijing where dust and sand from Mongolia and Inner Mongolia blows down out of the desert and creates a sort of haze. The roads where not too crowded (it was a Sunday, not a normal business day in China) and I was struck by the similarities my first view of the city had with Seoul during my December visit. There is a huge amount of new construction going on, with high rises dotting the landscape, and there seemed to be a lit of cars and other vehicles in use. Advertising has made its mark, with a particularly obnoxious series of signs featuring Arnold Schwarzeneger. I was pleased to see the many trees and garden areas all over the city, which made it somewhat different from Seoul. Another difference was the fairly wide streets all over the city.
Beijing Airport | View from my hotel window
We arrived at our hotel, the Beijing Grand Hotel, and checked into our rooms. I am rooming with Jim Lombardo, who is the Superintendent of Schools in Middlebury, Vermont. We hit it off well right away, and noticed that we have the same birthdate. The rooms was good, but as usual it took us a while to figure out how the electrical devices worked, and based on my experience in Korea, help from others, and experimentation we were able to make everything work except the television. The room had a refrigerator as well as a hot put for brewing tea.
After a brief shower it was time for dinner. We went just across the street to what seemed to be a very popular restaurant serving authentic Chinese fare. Our hosts did our ordering for us, and the dishes were delightful. Those of you who know me are aware that I have spent a lifetime in love with Chinese food, and I have eaten it from Emporia, Kansas to Budapest, Hungary, and it was a great joy to finally be eating my favorite cuisine in its native land. Many of the dishes were recognizable but delightfully different. A number were absolutely new to me but quite enjoyable. It was good to get to meet our hosts. I particularly enjoyed sitting next to our Beijing hosts, Ardong Li, who is the chair of the English Department at Beijing City College, as well as his students and colleagues. The meal was delightful and jolly, but it was clear that we were a bit fatigued going into our 26th hour of travel experience.
After dinner we had a short meeting in the lobby to outline our activities for tomorrow (tourist day in Beijing) and clear up any issues. I made sure to buy bottle water, because I have been cautioned against the water and the last thing I want on a trip like this is an illness of any sort. We adjourned to our separate rooms. I set up my computer and was glad to learn that my electrical adapters worked and my PowerBook was recharging. I did some brief reading and then fell asleep on a very firm mattress, glad and excited to be in China.
Jet lag was still a problem as my circadian rhythms have yet to stabilize. I woke up at 4 AM and could not go back to sleep. I took a long bath and worked a while on yesterday's journal. I had a nice conversation with Jim Lombardo, my roomy, and then it was time to go to breakfast.
Breakfast was an impressive panoply of foods both familiar and new. The Chinese baked goods were particularly impressive, especially the buns with dates in them and the stuffed rolls. Our group seemed in good cheer, happy and laughing, which many of the Chinese and foreign business persons also having breakfast might have found us a bit disturbing, but joy is, I find, one of the most difficult emotions to control. I had breakfast sitting next to Juefei and he confirmed our plans to go to Inner Mongolia later in the trip. My plane ticket from Beijing to Inner Mongolia and back has been arranged.
Today and tomorrow are both tourist days, which I am not used to on debate trips, but I realized that as part of our group I was in their itinerary, so I just have to accept it, so I put my feelings of guilt aside and tried to just enjoy the day. I succeeded.
We piled into our small bus and off we went. We got on the Badaling Expressway, a toll road, and headed north to Badaling and the Great Wall. I have to say that I was most excited by this visit, since the Great Wall has been a favorite subject for reading since I was a very young boy. The road north was soon fairly uncrowded and wed were whizzing along. We passed a huge amusement-theme park called wonderland, which was supposed to be China's Disneyland, and it was a gigantic plastic cultural abomination, which we were told had stalled in the construction phase when the Asian economic decline some years ago had cut off the investment funds for it. Who says economic downturns are all bad? As we began to climb the mountains Prof. Lee, our guide, told us some stories about the area. He told how Mao Zedong, China's leader, had been thought of as a dragon because that is the symbol for the emperor, and dragons love water and so did Mao. He build many reservoirs, some of which we saw, and Prof. Lee told that how after Mao's death many of them dried up and the water stopped flowing. We went through a pass known as the Gateway to Beijing, a pass which for thousands of years had been a strategic chokepoint for China's security, since holding it stopped armies from marching south, and likewise Chinese armies marching north had to go through it. The terrain was very interesting, very rugged and dry bit soon we started to see beautiful cherry trees in bloom standing out against the brown mountainsides. We saw many old walls and crumbled buildings and I wondered at the stories they could tell. The mountainsides were also totally terraced, although nothing seemed to be under cultivation on these terraces now. The sheer magnitude of the terracing was stunning, going right up the mountainsides nearly to the top.
We caught our first glimpse at the Great Wall in the distance, and instantly its enormity was clear as it straddle a huge mountain. We went through a tunnel (Shosifosil Tunnel, I believe) and emerged on the other side of a mountain and got a good look at the Great Wall.
We arrived at Badaling and exited the highway and made our way to a parking area near a huge chunk of wall. A lot our tourists were already gathered, which was not surprising, and a large number of tourist vendors were going about their business from what seemed like uniformly designed shops which all seemed to be carrying mostly the same selection of trade goods. We disembarked and walked up towards the Great Wall, which loomed before us. Prof. :Lee purchased tickets for us, and we were told to meet again at noon, about two and a half hours in the future. I decided to do some simple shopping on the way back and I headed off for one of the climbs of my life.
I climbed up some stairs and came to a little gathering area before the Great Wall itself and stopped to have a picture taken of myself in front of the Great Wall of China. I don't usually go for tourist items like this, but this was a special moment for me, and I wanted to big print to remember it by. The print would be developed in 30 minutes and I could pick it up on the way down.
I arrived on the top of the Wall itself and found it to be broad and very solid, consisting of well fitted stones and a uniform design. The climb to the first fort was not that challenging, and the fort itself was amazing, solid, massive, with wonderful viewpoints on the side of it. I specifically loved standing in these viewpoints, looking out to the north just as so many Chinese watchers had done for so many centuries, watching for invasion from the north.
It was on to the second fort and things started to get steeper and steeper, with the wall's surface still smooth but steeply sloping upward. The second fort was excellent as well, but I had to stop for a breather. Then it was on to the third fort, and this was towered above me and the Wall's top began to feature stairs, ancient stairs of unequal dimensions and deeply worn by centuries of climbing feet. Many began to turn back as the incline increased and the stairs became harder to negotiate. I stopped a couple of times just to catch my breath, but also to soak up the scene before me. The wall snaked away below me, off to straddle mountains in the distance, and on for over 50,000 kilometers.
I made the final assault onto the third fort, and many more tourists were giving up at this point, but the incline grew more steep and the steps a little more irregular. Banisters were now located on the side of the Wall top and I was not shy about using them. This part of the Wall would surely be seen in America as a "liability nightmare" and I am sure there are a large number of injuries there every year. The steps became almost a stone ladder as I reached the top of the third fort. I stopped there to take in the scenery and it was fantastic. There was another photo spot there with a camel you could sit on and have your photo taken for 10 Yuan (about $1.25 US) but I thought one such tourist photo was enough. I wondered how the camel made that climb, and I assume that I am just uninformed about how stable these ships of the desert are at climbing.
After soaking in as much of the considerable topographical and historical ambience as a could, I turned to go back down realizing that I would not be able to get to fort number four. Later I learned that Richard Nixon had made it to fort four, which disappointed me that I couldn't even keep up with Nixon on climbing the Great Wall. I walked down slowly and spent a lot of time watching the tourists climb up. I have never seen a more international group of tourists anywhere. Besides many Chinese (young in their fab gear and older in their simple Mao suits), as well as Japanese, but also Europeans, Indians, Arabs, Africans, as well as Americans, as the many languages of the planet mixed in my ears as I strode atop the Great Wall of China. It has to be one of my most global experiences.
As time was running out I got off the Wall where I had gotten on. I retrieved by 8x10 photo and it turned out to be excellent. You can see it above. I met with the group and did take time to buy a Great Wall cap to take home. We got back into the bus and I realized that my knees had taken a beating hauling my considerable bulk up to fort three.
We headed back down the pass and I again marveled at the terraces on the mountainsides as well as the many brightly blossoming cherry trees. This time I took special notice of the newer buildings and complexes I saw, wondering what function they had. I also noticed that in many places plastic pipes ran from the river bed (mostly dried up) below and the terraces above. As we came out of the mountains we headed towards lunch.
Our plan was to eat in a city secondary to Beijing called Chongping. We drove through what were still thoroughly modern streets and came to a sizeable restaurant. Restaurants seem to be marked by red lanterns in front. We disembarked and went to an upstairs dining area. Prof. Lee ordered for the group and the dishes started to come. Many were familiar, such as kung bao chicken and steamed dumplings, along with dishes we recognized from the night before, such as boiled peanuts and a spicy cabbage dish, but others were new and hard to describe. Prof. Lee reviewed each dish as it arrived and sent one back because he did not feel it was fresh enough.
Our crew was in a jolly state, having just visited the Great Wall, and welcomed the serving of beer (Nanjing beer, very good, and it comes in large liter bottles and seems to be very inexpensive), although I stuck with water and "raw haw fruit nectar" (delicious, like apricot but a bit darker, very full bodied and not too sweet) and our conversations started to bloom. We began to feel more relaxed with each other and various issues came up, such as the Beijing bid for the Olympics, our upcoming schedule, and the way China is portrayed in the western press. Prof. Kim discussed how he had visited Vermont three times under Juefei's sponsorship and how he had been treated so well. Juefei was not with us this day because he had to give a speech to a group n Beijing, and we both had hoped that he would see Melissa Fregosi there.
After lunch we got back in the bus and headed for our hotel. We arrived back in Beijing and upon getting to the hotel were told to meet in the lobby at 6:30 PM for a ride to the national opera company performance that night.
I pondered between a nap and a walk, and decided to join Bonnie, Dottie, Donna, and Jim for an unguided walk around the neighborhood. This sort of thing is very important to me, because I find on walks like this I am able to soak up a lot of the local culture and learn many useful things. This walk was no exception. Here are some of the things I noticed on this extended walk:
We returned to the hotel for a short rest before assembling for the opera performance that evening. I dressed up just a bit (it is the opera, after all) and we headed into downtown Beijing, noticing the new China Science and Technology Museum which is very close to the hotel, along with a huge "bird park" aviary with a giant net over it. We drove through the "inner city" portion where there were few tall buildings (a previous rule for that district) and then into the business heart of Beijing. We passed a huge hotel which we were informed was owned by the Chinese Air Force.
We arrived at the opera and went inside. An impressive building, we found a nice crowd was gathered. The entrance to the theater itself was situated such that we had to go through an elaborate gift shop first, full of masques and costumes and various souvenirs. We decided to do our shopping later and went right in. There were normal theater style seats in the rear of the hall, but most of the space was taken up by tables at the front of the hall. These tables were stocked with tea pots and cups and at least seven different trays of "finger foods" the likes of which I had never seen. We sipped tea and crunched a bit. There were large digital text screens on either side of the stage where translations of situations and lyrics would appear.
The show began and a mistress of ceremonies took the stage to explain a few things about traditional Chinese opera. We were going to see several short segments of different operas which would demonstrate singing, dance, martial arts, costumes, acrobatics, and storytelling. The costumes were lush and traditional, and the action was accompanied by a traditional Chinese orchestra. The first story was about a historical battle scene and featured singing and dance. Another was the legend of the White Snake which featured many characters and several scenes, notable for the creation of ocean scenes and a final battle in which there was an impressive dance sequence which featured amazing tumbling, martial arts, and a protracted dance in which one character kept turning back swords and spears by kicking them through the air so that they were caught by other characters, increasing to a frenzied pace in which objects were flying through the air as the characters juggled and tossed them about while one character would kick them out of the air but keeping them within the pattern of the dance. The crowd gasped in awe at the display of physical and aesthetic dexterity as the scene heightened. It ended in a flourish and the characters took their bows. I was particularly impressed by the ability characters showed to do a variety of complex motions while standing on one foot in elevated shoes and by the ability of characters to engage in complex tumbling and acrobatics while wearing impressive costumes, masques, and headdresses.
There was an enthusiastic response from the audience as the show concluded. We filed out and into the gift area where I shamelessly purchased a beautiful lacquered fish and a beautiful scroll which depicted my daughter Sarah Jane's name written in western characters but depicted as drawings of traditional Chinese subjects such as dragons, fish, monkeys, etc. An artist sketched a small picture of me on a ceramic bowl which he offered to me for less than $6 and I found it hard to turn down.
After the opera we got back into the bus and went to a nearby noodle restaurant for a late dinner. The noodles were handmade that day and thoroughly delicious, especially with hot oil. Our group has really started to become relaxed with each other and the conversations were excellent. On the ride back to the hotel it became clear to me and others that one of the best things about this trip would be the bonding with other group members. We have learned a lot about each other and have found common interests in music, culture, and even Dr. Who. We are also making friends with our Chinese hosts and others.
Returning to the hotel I worked on my journal for a while and then went to sleep, finally feeling that my circadian rhythms had stabilized.
Tomorrow we tour Beijing and then leave for Qufu on the evening train.