Jan 24th
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Journey into China

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Journey into China
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A Journey into China with Sarah

    Last year, I took my 11-year-old nephew to the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Galapagos Islands, where he went wild among the marine iguanas, sea lions, and agoutis. Emboldened by my success, I decided to take my niece, his 15-year-old sister Sarah, to China and Mongolia where I was testing a trip for Thomson Family Adventures.
    I invited Sarah with some trepidation since she had traveled very little. Nevertheless, I felt strongly, as a traveler to nearly 30 countries, most of them non-westernized that I wanted my ten nieces and nephews to see that there were other worlds and cultures out there just waiting to be discovered.
    As it turned out Sarah accepted my invitation and I was proud of her for having the gumption to join me in my China adventure.

Our China Adventure Begins...

    In the late 13th century, Marco Polo visited the Great Mongol Empire and was persuaded by Kublai Khan to linger and observe awhile. Seventeen years later, he returned to Italy and told such colorful tales that his fellow countrymen labeled him Il milione, or the boaster.
    After our long flight from Boston, we landed in Beijing and were met by our guide, Christine. Opinionated and good-humored, Christine was our first exposure to the Chinese on their own turf. She shepherded us through the attractions and chided us only occasionally when we failed to remember an important event in Chinese history or stubbornly insisted on using the western-style toilets, which the Chinese are kind enough to provide at all their famous spots.
    Our first stop was the fabled Forbidden City. Only recently have commoners been allowed access to this array of classically styled Chinese palaces and courtyards, which served as the seat of imperial power during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).
    The Forbidden City also is a popular place for Chinese as well as foreign tourists. As we wound our way into the heart of the complex, along with flag-waving children and elderly women in fanciful hats, we saw that much of the central space was taken up by thousands of chairs, all facing a tiny stage.
    The day after we arrived, we learned there was to be an open-air concert of The Three Tenors Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti, in this legendary setting!
    The city is treeless, both to preserve the impact of the architecture, and to prevent assassination attempts. In all of the completely cobble-stoned pavilions all visitors are visible to guards in all directions. The appearance of the Forbidden City is livened by artwork, including great somber incense burners, myth-inspired paintings, and magnificently carved dragons in inclined panels leading to the palaces.
    Here, a tiny Chinese woman asked Sarah to pose for a picture with her, and around us fellow travelers were having their photos taken in full royal regalia–dragons adorned the silky robes of the “emperors,” for the “empresses,” there were phoenixes.
    Meals in China were elaborate and regal affairs. Sarah and I sat back and watched as our tables were laden with plate after plate of goodies. She had lots of chicken, beef and pork, while I preferred the tofu, except the one time we were given what we dubbed Tofuloney, a cold rubbery bean curd cut as if to fit a sandwich. We both enjoyed plenty of fresh bok choy, crispy green beans, mushrooms of all types, peanuts, noodles, and the wonderfully fragrant tea and white rice. A red chili paste provided spice to suit our tastes. Watermelon was always served for desert, and seems most popular among the Chinese.
    At one restaurant a man in a gold satin suit poured our tea from a pot with a spout nearly as tall as Sarah and I. He would stand a couple of feet away from our table, and somehow never managed to spill a drop outside
the teacup. In this case, the cups were filled with leaves and blossoms and we had to take care to avoid swallowing anything solid.         
    At another restaurant, we were approached by a kindly Taiwanese man, who told Sarah she had un-knowingly committed a faux pas by leaving her chopsticks standing in her rice cup. In China, this symbolizes the death of someone close to you. Our instructor carried a small camera in his hand, and I could tell he wanted to take Sarah’s picture, but was too shy to ask. I waited till he returned to his table, which was adjacent to ours and asked him if I could take his picture. He laughed and agreed, and pointed to the girl Sarah’s age next to him, saying proudly, “This is my daughter!” He jumped up to snap a photo of us. Sarah shortly developed great dexterity with the chopsticks, and we were quite smug about not needing forks for the rest our visit to the Orient. We wondered, however, how a civilization that came up with the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing could have failed to invent the fork!
    On our second full day in China, we left Beijing and headed for the Great Wall. The distance between was paved by highway just like in the US, except for the presence of people on bicycles. “Look,” said Sarah, “not one person is wearing a bicycle helmet.” I nodded, then exclaimed, “And look at those bold ladies!” I held my breath as middle-aged women bicycled across three lanes of traffic. Our guide, Christine, laughed.
    Though China’s legendary Great Wall once stretched hundreds of miles, we zeroed in on a section near Beijing called Badaling. We were lucky enough to visit the Wall on a day when the Chinese were holding a rally to support Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics. The lively antics of the crowd and their wonderful costumes made for great photographic opportunities on an otherwise gray day. Graceful young women in fuchsia satin pantsuits danced for us, their heads covered with crepe flowers. Pony-tailed girls with tambourines chatted excitedly as a helicopter swooped back and forth overhead, angling for a better view for their cameras. Men draped like the ancient guard in black-shouldered outfits and red and gold turbans performed intricate maneuvers accompanied by enormous kettledrums. The drummers were garbed in gold helmets and royal blue silk.
    From the valley red, gold, and blue banners exhorting Beijing’s wish to host the Olympics stretched along the wall into the surrounding hills. These banners were held in place by smiling young men in white visors, making passage along the steps a little narrow at times. As they posed with their banners for each other’s cameras, Sarah persuaded one young man to give her his visor as a souvenir.
    Along the climb we were packed in pretty tightly with everyone from dainty Japanese ladies climbing in heels and bright cocktail dresses to robe-clad monks and even a few western families.
    Halfway through the climb, I became a little light-headed and sat in the shade to cool off. Sarah came to my rescue, giving me her bottle of water, and she sprang ahead to the top. I followed and found the slower pace well worth the effort, since the crowds had thinned considerably. The views expanded, and the vision of the Great Wall snaking across the valley into the misty hills is a sight I’ll never forget. At the top was something I didn’t anticipate– graffiti. Fortunately, it’s in Chinese, and the attractive calligraphy seemed to add to the wall’s charm.


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