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Visiting the Celestial Empire — our trip to China

By Chris A Hale

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, July 28 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Schoolhouse of the last emperor in the gardens of the Forbidden City.

Chris Hale

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 and has selected some truly magical places. A few months ago, she decided that for our next trip 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. It had been more than three years since my last trip with Amber, and I was determined to do what I could to make a trip to China both memorable and exciting.

On May 1, we arrived in Beijing and it didn't take long before the three of us were convinced it was well 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, which in America we call lanes, 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. Several times 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. Also, there are many small streets or hutong neighborhoods that are not well marked, so be prepared with a more well known alternate address from which you can walk. With patience, pictures and many, many hand gestures, we managed to get where we needed to go.

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. Kim especially enjoyed mornings reading a book at a covered table in the courtyard with songbirds in pretty cages and Wisteria-covered pergolas shading the roses. We marveled at the peacefulness of the venerable building that languishes in the shadows of the skyscrapers that tower over the tiled pagoda roof of the hotel in all directions and the commotion of the bustling city only a few feet away.

A couple of hours north of Beijing is the less crowded and touristy section of the Great Wall that you can visit known as Mutianyu. At the bottom of a hill we boarded a cable car that took us up the hill to the wall. Honestly, I had never seen anything as impressive anywhere else in the world; at least nothing that was constructed by man. After walking across the top of the wall a little way, Kim and I sat down and waited for Amber to run up the incline to a watchtower more than a mile away. We looked around and marveled at just the one section of the 6,000-kilometer-long structure. It was easy to get swept away by the scenery and to imagine how life might have been for the many soldiers whose duty it was to guard the northern border.

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