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Visiting the Celestial Empire — our trip to China

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 6:54 p.m. MDT

Schoolhouse of the last emperor in the gardens of the Forbidden City. (Chris Hale) 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.

Kim and Chris Hale visit the Great Wall of China. (Chris Hale) Kim and Chris Hale visit the Great Wall of China. (Chris Hale)

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.

The Great Wall stretched for 6,000 kilometers. (Chris Hale) The Great Wall stretched for 6,000 kilometers. (Chris Hale)

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.

Part of the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City. (Chris Hale) Part of the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City. (Chris Hale)

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.

The Marble Boat at the Summer Palace. (Chris Hale) The Marble Boat at the Summer Palace. (Chris Hale)

Mao Zedong once said that unless you have climbed the Great Wall, you are not a real man. I'm very glad I was able to achieve that level of masculine maturity on my visit to China.

Almost as equally impressive as the wall is the Forbidden City right in the heart of Beijing. From the outside, you can't imagine how expansive it is until you purchase your ticket and enter through the gate. The Forbidden City covers an area of about 178 acres with a total floor space of approximately 1,600,000 square feet. It consists of 90 palaces and courtyards, 980 buildings and 8,704 rooms. The architecture is deeply symbolic and intended to create an auspicious environment for its inhabitants.

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 wandered for an hour through almost the entire complex looking for a tiled wall depicting nine dragons. We finally found it in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. Created in 1773, the screen is more than 96 feet long and 11 feet high and very cool.

A vendor is ready to cook your dinner. (Chris Hale) A vendor is ready to cook your dinner. (Chris Hale)

Regrettably, we didn't have time to visit the distant city of Xi'an and see the Terracotta Warriors, but we did see several of them, as well as some horses, in the National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square. Not quite the same experience as seeing hundreds of them lined up in excavated ditches, but it was still profound and thrilling.

The Llama Temple was one of my favorite stops. The colorful artwork and architecture of the various buildings was really exciting to see. There were prayer wheels and places to burn incense outside and golden Buddhas adorned with silk, flowers, food and gifts from the many kneeling worshippers on the inside. It was encouraging to us to see that their faith was still practiced.

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 actually never floated and is the reason why some refer to it as the land boat. 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; the incredible details on each painting are just riveting.

Our hotel courtyard with a skyscraper behind it. (Chris Hale) Our hotel courtyard with a skyscraper behind it. (Chris Hale)

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. At the end we patted the hind quarters of an enormous Bixi, or dragon-headed turtle, which the Chinese believe brings good luck.

On our last afternoon, we visited the Beijing Zoo just so Amber could see real pandas. 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 art technique to younger students with large water brushes on the pavement.

Amber and Chris Hale stand next to a sentry at the Ming Tombs. (Chris Hale) Amber and Chris Hale stand next to a sentry at the Ming Tombs. (Chris Hale)

Public dancing can be found everywhere in Beijing and on a nightly basis in front of the Catholic church near our hotel. Kim even participated after studying the steps for a few moments and fit right in; at least I can admit I wasn't embarrassed.

China is an amazing place to visit. The food, well … I guess the best way to describe it kindly would be to say it was interesting. If scorpions or silk worms on a skewer are your idea of good food, then China is for you. As for me, I was grateful to return to America and have real Chinese food again. My wife, on the other hand, thought it was great.

Our visit to China was definitely a rewarding one. We enjoyed getting to know the people and their very different way of life. We hope to be able to go again soon to experience more of a fascinating country.

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