As kids on the beach in West Wales, my brother and sister and I used to dig holes which we were convinced would eventually lead to China. “Digging to China” was the generally accepted reason for digging in the sand. Geographically challenged as I still am, I have no idea whether the direction of ‘down’ from Wales leads to China if you dig all the way through the Earth; nor do I know where Australian children think they’re digging to when they’re on the beach - I shall have to ask one when I get home.
If I’m honest, China wasn’t really on my list of places-I-must-visit-immediately, but when Mr Cheah brought in the advertisement from the Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia which offered principals and other educational leaders the opportunity to apply for a subsidised week’s trip to learn about the culture of the country and their education system, it sounded like a fabulous idea. We would visit schools, sit on a panel, answer questions from the locals and do a small presentation on a topic we chose beforehand. It would cost the school nothing and would take place in the holidays, so it fitted my schedule perfectly and didn’t interfere with anything back at the ranch. So with a few helpful hints about how to fill in the application form, I was accepted, along with 17 others from WA.
Subsequent weeks saw Mr Cheah trying hard to teach me some basic useful phrases and despairing at my lack of ability. What a language. Who would have thought that the pitch at which one pronounced a word could possibly affect its meaning?! It would appear that none of my French, German nor Welsh training would be of any use whatsoever in China. And when I allegedly called him a rat rather than an esteemed teacher, Mr Cheah took to emailing me pronunciations and helpful worksheets which I supplemented with a Berlitz phrasebook purchased online. I continued my studies quietly at home.
The first day of the holidays dawned and a motley crew of educators met at the international terminal of Perth airport. You can always tell teachers when they travel because they show their inbuilt need to frequently count the people in their group. I was looking forward to not being in charge and to being told where to stand and what to do; occasionally, the freedom of knowing that nothing can be your fault because you’re not the organiser is very attractive. There were staff members from schools all over WA, from Denmark to Geraldton and everywhere in between. Some had travelled to China before, some were Chinese teachers, others of us had never visited the country previously. We met up with our guide from the Confuscius Institute who was to accompany us for the week and we checked in uneventfully.
Flying China Southern Airlines, the A330 plane appeared to take off without incident, had more legroom than most and the food was fine. It still foxes me why airlines think that vegetarians require Ryvita instead of a bread roll and aren’t ever allowed butter, but the fruit was fresh and juicy and I enjoyed the chick peas and rice. I even watched three excellent films in a row, mainly so I could assure Mr Minchin that I was continuing my film education which he had kindly started earlier this year. I saw The Thin Yellow Line (the tale of a group of Mexican men who are given 15 days to paint the line in the middle of the road for 200 km and who get up to all sorts of dodginess on the way); Book Club (which would have been unsuitable to watch if any students had been on the trip but which did make the prospect of running off with a handsome pilot seem like quite a good idea) and Edie (the story of an old lady who wants to climb a Scottish mountain because she’s had a miserable life and never done anything she actually wanted to). All very interesting.
The films and food made the eight hour flight pass very quickly and we didn’t have long in transit at Guangzhou airport. Looking through the airport lounge windows, the air outside was thick and grey and we were told it was 34°C which was surprisingly warm compared to the 25°C we were expecting in Beijing. More importantly, one of my fellow travellers managed to somehow access the West Coast match score and we had a brief celebration of the fantastic result.
Onto another aircraft which looked identical to the first, and a comparatively short flight later (no films, though – because it was a domestic flight, there were no screens available) we arrived in Beijing. The capital of China. The tour guide told us there were 25 million people here – more than in the whole of Australia. That very thought is hard to compute. Until, that is, you see the unending blocks of high rise flats. It was dark by the time we got to the city, but the blocks of flats just went on and on and on. I wanted to see them in the daylight, to get a better impression of just how many there are and how many people can be squished into a small place. Ms Truscott had educated me about ‘vertical zonation’ just before I had left and I had committed to getting some photographic evidence of it, for possible use in Geography classes. I reckoned this could be it and that getting photos of it might be easier than I had anticipated.
The many lanes of almost stationary traffic from the airport to the city itself were impressive at 11:30 pm. Where on earth were all these people going? Why weren’t they asleep? Were they actually still trying to get home from work having set off at 5 pm? It was too late to consider logical answers to these questions and I hadn’t yet worked out how to look things up on a bus without wifi in a country without Google. Perhaps tomorrow it would all become clear.
Day 2 - Beijing
We woke up to a breezy, sunny day and enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the hotel. There was ‘live cooking’ of eggs, cold beer on tap (I felt that for me, 7:30 am on a Sunday morning was just a little too early for this) and a plethora of foods from which to choose. A good start to the day.
Our itinerary today didn’t match the previously distributed schedule. Those who know me well might think that this would be disturbing, but I have settled in so well to the role of enjoying not planning ahead nor being in charge, I actually didn’t mind at all. The reasoning was that because it’s a public holiday (for the moon festival) there will be far more traffic on the roads and more people on the Wall tomorrow, so would swap itineraries and do it today.
June, our guide on the bus, kept up a remarkable commentary for quite some time during the two hour drive to the Wall. I learnt that Beijing is a city of 30 million people (as opposed to the 44.5 million in Ghanzhou); that there are more than a hundred Universities in the city and that the Great Wall of China is 75 km away. We were also told that choosing a Beijing wife was no longer considered sensible, because they are unlikely to be content to cook and clean for their husbands nowadays, preferring to get educated and shop. Shanghai is allegedly better in terms of wife choosing possibilities. Always good to know.
Seeing Beijing during daylight hours was amazing – you could see how quite so many people have been squished into the city by virtue of enormous blocks of flats. We drove for well over an hour until we reached the outskirts of the city and it was huge blocks of flats all the way, on both sides of the roads. We drove past a 7 star hotel which costs a million ¥ per night to stay in; a set of buildings aiming to represent a dragon and hundreds and hundreds more blocks of flats. Perhaps surprisingly, the air has been clean and fresh in Beijing during our stay – there are many electric vehicles (cars, bikes, scooters) – maybe these are having a good effect on the anticipated but not-yet-encountered air pollution? They are lethal in terms of not being able to hear them as they bear down upon you (I nearly got run over twice today) but they are evidently fumeless.
At the end of a very slow 75km drive, we joined long queues of vehicles also wanting to visit the Great Wall. The structure is impressive and far bigger than I had imagined, both in terms of height and width. Apparently various sections were designed to be wide enough to simultaneously accommodate four horses and their riders, although it’s hard to verify this without Googling it. I am surprised at how frequently I must normally use the search engine to check facts and surprised at how many things I hear which I doubt without this online verification, which is interesting to consider.
We had an hour and a half to wander along the Wall. (It was so impressive I felt it deserved a capital W). There were little tunnels at various points, lots of what I’m guessing might be arrow slits and zillions more people. The Wall was built to keep out Barbarians and Mongols (rather than rabbits) and it appeared to have been quite effective – everybody was friendly and focused on walking up the steep slopes and taking pictures over the sides. I have never seen so many people in my life – they positively swarmed up and down. I loved some of the helpful public information signs, presumably designed to ensure that so many people behave sensibly and don’t put themselves or the Wall at risk in any way. Some were weather-related, others more focused on maintaining public order. My personal favourites were:
- Walk slowly in rain or snow
- Please do not use cellphones during thunderstorms
- Protect the cultural relics – commit no nuisance
Happily there was neither rain, snow nor thunderstorm today – just too much wind for the cable car to be functioning, but I made sure that I committed no nuisance and kept an eye out for all cultural relics.
The first time someone asked me (using hand gestures) to be in their photo with them was slightly confusing. I thought that they were asking me to take a photo of them and their friend, which I was happy to do. But by the time they had wrestled their phone back from me, it became clear that they wanted a photo with me in it. I am not particularly photogenic (always disappointingly shorter and fatter in photographs than I am in my rich imagination) and this was not something that has happened previously in my travels. And it wasn’t until the eighth occasion this happened during the morning that someone kindly explained that they just don’t get to see people with white hair here and this was why they wanted a selfie with me. I wasn’t quite sure how to take this (clearly I’m no longer considered blonde) but looking around, they were right – every single person had black hair, so perhaps I was a novelty. Either way, it made the walk slightly slower than it might otherwise have been and it was vaguely amusing (and slightly unnerving) to have complete strangers come up and put their arm around me for a picture. I just smiled, attempted to enjoy what I suspect will be momentary fame and tried not to imagine the captions they might put under their photo when they upload today’s images of themselves on the Great Wall with the white-haired foreigner.
After a good buffet lunch with a fantastic view over the mountains, we drove back into the city and spent a pleasant hour wandering around the Olympic stadium (the bird’s nest) and aquatic centre (cube) which everybody except for me seemed to recognise from watching the 2008 Olympic Games. Impressive buildings and a lovely, open area to walk around, hampered only by the aforementioned semi-lethal electric vehicles everywhere.
There were a few opportunities for shopping and I enjoyed haggling for a couple of boxes of tiny, hand-painted pottery figures which I pictured lined up on a shelf in my lounge or perhaps the office. I had committed to buying something panda-related for my daughter and something Chairman Mao-related for my son, but judging by the things we’ve seen so far in shops, neither of those presents should take too long to procure.
An early night was had by all. Tomorrow we’re visiting Tiananmen Square, which should be thought-provoking for anyone who was around at that time. I suspect it will bring back strong memories.
Day 3 – Beijing
I woke up in need of an interaction with a dog. Although these days I rarely miss my children when I’m travelling, I do worry about my dog, mainly because it’s hard to explain to her (intelligent hound though she is) that I will definitely be back next Sunday; and when I get my suitcase out and she looks at me as if to say “Really? Again?” I just feel terrible guilt. So I got up early and walked to the left out of the hotel. My thinking was that if I walked down the street in one direction and never took a turn, then it would theoretically be impossible to get lost as to return to the hotel I would just turn around and walk back the way I had come. For someone with no sense of direction, this is a comforting thought. Within 15 minutes I had found a small park and some old ladies out walking their pooches. Two poodles, a pug and a sheltie - not my preferred breeds, but they and their owners were friendly and I felt better afterwards.
June was in top form again as our tour guide on the bus, telling us about the Temple of Heaven we were about to visit and how the hope is that praying here three times a year ensures a good harvest. Her usual exhortation to “adjust your energy levels now!”, used as we exit the bus and clearly necessary to ensure we crank ourselves up to walk at speed in the set direction, has become a catch phrase and at regular intervals we remind each other to “adjust your energy!”. The Temple of Heaven was a huge complex of parks and gardens and buildings, with thousands of very old people sitting around doing crochet and playing cards and chatting. The grass was apparently imported “American grass” and it confounded us that in such a beautiful, green place nobody was allowed to actually sit or walk on it. I did have to ask why and was told (in puzzled tones) that there are so many people in China that if they all walked on the grass it would die. I suppose this may be true, although it did seem like a great waste to have such lush, green spaces that nobody could walk or sit or play or picnic on.
The park sections of the temple were set up with large stations of exercise equipment, on which many seemingly very old people were performing impressive stretching exercises. It appeared to be a very popular pursuit and was fascinating to watch. The gymnastics and flexibility on show were phenomenal and we watched and even attempted somewhat unsuccessfully to join in.
After a delicious lunch at a vegetarian restaurant specialising in pseudo-meat products (the sweet and sour pork was my favourite) we drove to the nearby Tiananmen Square. I had really wanted to stand in the space where, all those years ago, one citizen stood up to the state in such a courageous way. We were advised that we don’t talk about “sensitive things” here and it was interesting to watch the way some official looking people came to stand with our obviously foreign looking group to listen to the talk being given by our tour guide. I found it moving to reflect on where I was and what had happened there.
The Forbidden Palace was just across the road from the square, accessed by a subway under the busy road and occupying about 100 acres, with 9,999.5 rooms. Without Google I am unable to verify this, nor to check whether I have got the decimal point in the wrong place, as it does seem like a heck of a lot of rooms … Anyway, no longer forbidden, it is now a massive tourist attraction and, as with all the other places we have visited, many thousands of people queued to enter. It was a long, hot walk from one end of the Palace to the other. The same design of building and huge courtyard was repeated many times, as we listened to sad stories of child emperors and concubines and what sounded like quite lonely lives. Happily, I was reliably informed by one of my colleagues half way through the tour of the Palace that we had walked 12,000 steps so far, and it was only 3:30 pm.
An interesting day today – tomorrow we will visit the Confuscius Institute, which has so generously subsidised this trip. As we leave Beijing at lunchtime tomorrow, I note that this megacity (thank you for the correct terminology, Ms Truscott) has not been in any way as I had imagined. It has been clean and quiet and the air has appeared to be relatively pollution free. We are off to Shanghai on the bullet train tomorrow and I suppose it may be very different – we shall see.
Dr Julie Harris
Director of Teaching and Learning
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