We are now in Chicago! Back in a free country, I can blog as long and frequently as I want. The last bit of China before I get into the next step of the journey…
We experienced a rough start to China. In the first week we were all sick, tired, and travel-weary. The enormity of China did not help, nor its difficulty in getting around and communicating. Traveling was just harder. It was like being in a massive hall, unprepared, small, and weak, faced with thousands of people milling around, shouting chaotically and you had no idea what was going on and were completely lost but you couldn’t stop because everyone was pushing and you didn’t even know why you were there! (I know that was a run-on sentence, but that is China in a nutshell.) It is all so enormously large – we were tiny fish in a massive ocean.
Finally recharged and ready, we tackled Beijing. And frankly, we didn’t like it one bit. Our first taste was the air. Sitting in the cab we wondered – was it fog? It has to be fog right? That massive gray soup hovering over the buildings and covering every thing in that ugly, monotonous tone of gray can’t all be smog? Or is it the windows? We were also arriving on a breezy day in pollen season, so as we got out of the cab the little ones remarked, “It looks like it’s snowing!” Puffballs of dandelion seeds (how the dandelions actually live and survive is beyond me) slowly sauntered through the air, pushed by an imaginary breeze. The air was an entire different density, thinker with soot and pollution. It was extremely strange.
You have to imagine being one of 1.3 billion, (billion!), people. And the feeling that comes with this is, no one really cares. The people are aggressive, everyone is out for themselves and there is no real feeling of generosity to each other. I think we felt this most of all in Beijing where the government keeps an iron fist on all things influencing the people’s lives. Aggressiveness in the people doesn’t only make the feelings apprehensive, but also causes major traffic problems. No one is willing to let anyone go first, ever. Our hotel was located in an old hutong district, the old style of houses and streets. They aren’t very wide, and the main road in the hutong, laden with boutiques, satay stalls, and bubble tea shops, was very clearly a pedestrian-dominated zone. Yet, some people think they can just drive through and make hundreds of people move aside – the trouble appears when they meet another car who happens to be turning around and stops perpendicular to them, then another drives from behind and suddenly no one can move anywhere and you have 6 drivers honking and shouting at each other to make it work… I never thought I’d see a real-life version of the plastic game “traffic jam” (where you shove cars of varying length back and forth to try and get a specific one off the board), but this was an exact replica. I believe it took us an agonizing 1 and ½ hours to make it to the train station. We spent more than half that time waiting for the people ahead of us to sort themselves out.
Beijing was tough. To make everyone out there happy – we saw the Forbidden City, or whatever you could see of it beneath the hordes of tourists. I didn’t even see the Hall of Supreme Harmony because people elbowed me in the ribs, stepped on me, and squished me to the extent that I was scared I wouldn’t be able to breathe. So much for harmony. But we saw it, as we did the Great Wall of China. There is a story behind this too (order a private car at 7:30 am, it comes when all tours come (which is 8 – 8:15 am), and when we say “No jade factory, no silk factory, no foot massage, no shopping!” our guide disembarks, making it obvious that the purpose of herself is only to make you spend more money. Then it turns out we have to pay for tolls etc.) However, it was a pleasant experience. We climbed hundreds of steps leading up to the wall itself, making our calves burn as we watched people hurtle down the steep incline via a toboggan. Once we reached the wall we strolled along, stopping for Snicker breaks and picture-taking once the fog started to lift. It was nothing life-changing, but definitely cool to be on such a known and coveted landmark in China.
Shanghai was so different; truly like night and day compared to Beijing. We arrived in Shanghai pretty positive we would hate it. When you name the large cities in China you always list Beijing and Shanghai next to each other as if they were similar. However, we ended up liking Shanghai enough to say, “I could do 1-2 years short-term here!” The entire city layout was very much like Chicago; there was an architecturally interesting and modern skyline cut through by a river lined with old colonial buildings, great museums, commercial shopping streets, financial districts, and many public parks. Shanghai is a very futuristic city; everything screams modern! Steel, glass, shininess, and video screens on the sides of buildings (something yet to catch on in America) bear down upon you, contrasting with the blue sky (blue?), and the river. They actively work on green spaces (apparently it helps with the pollution), keeping everything clean, orderly, and running efficiently and modern. However, they also add little touches to the steel and glass landscape, like planting colorful flowers in 3-D designs along the highway or around the fountains. The people are more pleasant in general as well (we did not get into any screaming matches with tuk tuk drivers as we did in Beijing).
We counted down the days and suddenly we found ourselves touching down in O’Hare… More to come about our homecoming…