Over the course of the last 12 years, I've had some unforgettable experiences around the world with my 20-year-old daughter, Amber. It's been my policy to let her choose our destination, and she has never disappointed with her truly magical selections. A few months ago, she decided she wanted to go to China.
It was with some trepidation and fear of the unknown that I agreed and started preparing an excursion to Beijing because she wanted to see the Great Wall. After acquiring the tourist visas for my wife, Kim, Amber and myself, we were able to plan the expedition in earnest and I began to really look forward to visiting such an exotic place.
On May 1, we arrived in Beijing, and it didn't take long before the three of us were convinced it was worth any anxiety we may have felt. That is not to say, however, that we didn't have difficulties.
Abandoning Western thought was essential for our survival in the busy streets of Beijing. Visitors should keep in mind that the lines on the roads are merely guidelines for the Chinese drivers. We also found the crosswalks didn't guarantee safe passage across the street because pedestrians don't have the right of way. We were almost brushed by city buses, vehicles of all kinds, and once even a police car.
Another difficulty for us was the quality of the air. I remember the news leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 about the smog being a major concern to the athletes. Apparently, nothing has changed in four years. Getting satisfying breaths of oxygen was similar to gasping for air in high altitudes, and many of the Chinese wear face masks for this reason.
One last word of caution. Although taxis are cheap and plentiful, getting where you want to go is another story. Many of the street signs in Beijing have been in English characters since the Olympics, but taxi drivers don't read them. Make sure to have your destination written down in Chinese characters to facilitate moving about the city.
We had reservations at what had to be one of the most charming hotels I've ever stayed in. Behind Wangfujing Street (the Rodeo Drive of Beijing) is the nearly hidden oasis known as the Jingyuan Garden Hotel. More than two centuries old, it was once a large one-story residence with two huge, well-manicured courtyards in the middle. The house itself is now divided up into individual rooms for tourists and other visitors to stay.
Although European-style chain hotels are not in short supply, we wanted a more traditional experience, and the Jingyuan provided exactly that.
A couple of hours north of Beijing is the less crowded and touristy section of the Great Wall known as Mutianyu. At the bottom of a hill, we boarded a cable car that took us up the hill to the wall. I had never seen anything as impressive anywhere else in the world; at least nothing that was constructed by man.
Mao Zedong once said that unless you have climbed the Great Wall, you are not a real man.
Almost as impressive as the wall is the Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. The Forbidden City covers an area of about 178 acres with a total floor space of about 1,600,000 square feet. It consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms.
Home of 24 imperial emperors between the Ming and Qing dynasties, the once-imperial palace is now a thought-provoking museum of surviving treasures, thrones, gardens and incredible tiled art.
We also saw the scenic Summer Palace with its beautiful man-made Kunming Lake. In the northwest corner of the water sits the Marble Boat, which never sailed. It was constructed by order of an emperor's wife at great expense with money that was intended for the imperial navy. The long, covered corridor around the lake is painted with thousands of pastoral scenes representing the four seasons.
A stroll down the sacred way toward the mausoleums of the Ming Tombs was also rewarding. We walked between giant pairs of marble sentries, elephants, lions, dragons and mythological creatures guarding the path.
On our last afternoon, we visited the Beijing Zoo. The pandas were well taken care of, but, by American standards, the rest of the zoo was a little depressing. Most of the other animals were in paddocks that were too small for their species. No trees, toys, and in some cases very little water was available.
Our last stop before returning home was the enormous Bei Hai Park just north of the Forbidden City. The Chinese are a very communal people, and it was so much fun to watch them dance and sing in full costume, do Tai Chi and play poker. We were thoroughly entertained to watch older masters of Chinese calligraphy practice and teach their techniques to younger students with large water brushes on the pavement.