Traveling to China was quite an amazing, if not slightly surreal, experience for me. While I’ve done my fair bit of traveling solo in the past 10 years, it has always been to places that are somewhat within my comfort zone. I could look forward to exploring new yet familiar foods, recognizable languages and signage, known cultural customs, and currency that was easy to calculate. Taking a step outside the box – or maybe a bit of a leap – by booking a last minute inspection trip to China by myself pushed me in ways I’d never expected, and I’m so glad I took the chance!
My introduction to this unique and bustling country was Beijing. While my connecting flights from Boston were long, I was very pleasantly surprised that the journey wasn’t quite as rough as I’d expected. Upon arrival in the busy capital, I met my bright eyed and smiling guide, Joan, who would become a highlight of my trip. She introduced me to Shifu Wang, our driver for the next few days. ‘Shifu’ means ‘master’ in Chinese – not surprisingly, this word has been adopted for those who drive for a living as they are highly skilled at navigating the packed roads of nearly 80 million vehicles!
My first morning was focused on China’s amazing ancient history. As we walked along we saw sprawling Tiananmen Square, the largest plaza in the world, with its formidable government buildings and giant portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. There was a lot of activity going on to prepare for the upcoming National Day. Next we ambled through the Forbidden City to see the former Emperors’ home and political center dating back to the 15th century. Here, Joan taught me a great deal about Chinese history and introduced me to the ‘Dragon Lady’, aka Empress Dowager Cixi who unofficially controlled the Qing Dynasty for nearly 50 years through both her young son and nephew.
After the history lesson, we moved into the gardens of the Temple of Heaven, which was a breath of fresh air. The day was beautiful and we had sunny blue skies (they do exist in China, albeit rarely!), and it was quite hot, but we were shaded from the heat under the lush green trees. Walking through, we saw large groups of people dotted throughout the park in big sing-alongs with anywhere from 50 to 300 people, dance lessons (ballroom dancing to club/house music), and musical instrument and voice lessons.
Walking through, we saw large groups of people dotted throughout the park in big sing-alongs with anywhere from 50 to 300 people, dance lessons, and musical instrument and voice lessons.
At first I thought the dancers were performers peddling for money, but Joan advised that no, they do it purely for their personal enjoyment. As we were leaving, she seemed a bit wistful and said every time she hears the singing in the park she feels touched and proud of her home country.
Check out this video of the singing in action!
On our way out, we stopped for a quick tea ceremony that I really enjoyed, and we got to taste five different teas – ginseng oolong (a mix of green and black that is naturally lightly sweet), pu’er black tea, lychee black tea, jasmine tea and fruit tea made from dried fruit. While we were tasting, the shop girl explained how they all have specific medicinal properties from promoting kidney health to reducing risks of cancer and improving alertness. I decided to splurge on myself and get 400 yuan worth ($65) of the oolong and jasmine varieties.
Speaking of food and drink, the meals in China are always in abundance and very delicious. One thing I was surprised to learn is that cilantro is very commonly used in traditional Chinese cooking. I still remember a great dish of chopped lamb, onion, garlic and cilantro from my first full day in Beijing. I am tempted try and recreate it at home!
Stay tuned as my China adventure continues! Next up is the Great Wall and two fantastic performance venues: a theater in the Olympic Village and the National Centre for the Performing Arts!