I slid open our cabin door to the outside. It was dark, and we were coming into Shanghai. The sea below us was an eerie grey color. At first look it was hard to register what I was seeing. The water was heavily polluted and filled with trash; it was simply filthy. The air was thick and heavy, and my lungs tighten in response. I closed the door and realized that what I had heard about the pollution, went far beyond the air.In the morning we gathered our two backpacks—we had already learned the advantages of packing extremely light. I brought filtration masks for us, in anticipation of the air quality. The initial resistance to wearing the masks quickly disappeared and was replaced by a gratefulness for having them. Many locals also dawned masks. In China we joined a SAS field program for five days to see many sights, including an old Bazaar, a Mosque, the Terracotta Warriors, and the Great Wall.
Day 1 – Shanghai & Xi’an
As we traveled to the airport, the kids asked if it was fog they were looking through. It became apparent to them, as we passed a dozen or more enormous smoke stacks from coal plants, that what colored the sky and hid the buildings were smog and smoke.
At the Shanghai airport, on our way to Xi’an, we soon realized that the pollution in the waiting area was the worse yet. It was stagnant air mixed with cigarette smoke, exhaust from the shuttle buses and planes, and carcinogens of all sorts. I worried that the kids’ experience would be overshadowed by their sensitivity and repulsion to the pollution that they would not be able to enjoy the sights. Fortunately for us, the air quality was better in the other cities, where we spent most of our time.
Ancient Xi’an City Wall. We had a quick stop and photo opportunity at this ancient city wall. The wall is one of the oldest and best preserved in all of China and can be dated back to the 2nd century BCE, when Xi’an was the capital of the country. The existing walls were completed in 1370 CE. They are about 14 kilometers in length and are still surrounded by a deep moat to this day.
Great Mosque and Old Bazaar. We were whisked through a bazaar, at a rate that left no time to observe what was being sold, and without the opportunity to try our hand at bargaining with the locals. Perhaps for the best. The Great Mosque was built in 742 CE and is still used today as a place of worship by the Chinese Muslims of Xi’an.
Dim Sum Dinner at De Fa Chang. This dinner was by far a highlight for the kids. We had fourteen different courses of delectable bite-sized dumplings. The flavors of each course varied greatly and yet all managed to wow the senses. We were even treated to a short lesson in putting a dumpling together, however, the delicate swans, fish, and flower shapes of the master artisans were clearly beyond our reach.
Day 2 – Xi’an
Sun Village Orphanage. Our visit to the orphanage was quick and unfortunately without much substance. We watched a film about its origin that detailed that the children were there as their parents had been imprisoned and the children were simply abandoned, left to live on their own, often without food or shelter, as there exists no formal or governmental system to see that they are cared for. We observed very young girls working on their handicrafts and played ping-pong with some of the boys. There was no opportunity to donate or help this cause, however the trip was filled with a multitude of opportunities to purchase goods from the tour operator and their vendors, an unfortunate theme, throughout the trip.
Terracotta Warriors Museum. Touted as one of the world’s greatest archaeological finds, and the eighth wonder of the world, the Terracotta Warriors were discovered quite by chance in 1974 by a group of peasants digging a well outside of Xi’an. We were taken to three separate pits to view hundreds of warriors, that had been reconstructed and resurrected from the earth.
Starbucks. This special, highly unique place, captured the attention of the group, consisting of 37 mostly American tourists. This was an unplanned, last minute stop. The group clearly had never seen or witnessed such a sight and it took over an hour to visit and sample the goods provided here.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The tour guide was rather angry at the lack of time now allotted to visit this historic and cultural site. The Pagoda was originally built in 652 CE during the Tang dynasty. It houses some of the most important sutras and figurines of the Buddha, brought over to China from India by the famous monk Xuanzang – which we only were able to glimpse some of for mere seconds, but the students had their Starbucks.
Tang Dynasty Dinner Show. As we loaded the bus, to travel to this performance, we suddenly realized that it was my birthday. As the kids boarded the bus, they made the announcement to the others, and the bus broke out in song to mark the occasion. I decided that diner and a show, was planned on this day, in my honor. The performance of Chang’an music and dance originated in China’s Tang Dynasty over a thousand years ago. It was a lovely show of costumes and music. (Cameron didn’t like it. – Cameron)
Day 3 – Beijing
We rose early, for our flight to Beijing to see the Great Wall. We were treated to a lovely American Chinese lunch. All our meals were Americanized, which was likely for the best, as they were delicious and when we glanced at the foods of the locals, it was clear that this food would not likely be appreciated by us.
The Great Wall of China. This Wall is the longest man-made structure in the world. This site did not disappoint. The skies were clear and blue, and we all took off our masks to enjoy the fresh air. We shared this moment over a video call with Matt back in Woodinville, while he lay in bed ready for sleep. We reveled in the beauty of the structure. To descend the hill that the Wall was perched on, we sped down on a luge – a nice treat for all of us.
Roast Duck Dinner. This was truly delicious. We had a variety of dishes here, but the highlight was clearly the roast duck. It was juicy and tender and expertly carved in front of us. And at the end of the carving processes they gave the carcasses to other restaurant goers to take home. I envied the locals, who would be making duck stew the next day.
Day 4 – Beijing
Temple of Heaven. On our walk to this temple we were lead through a park, where we observed the local retired community. They apparently gather here daily to play board games and socialize with friends. It was bustling with activity, and the games were clearly taken seriously. Among the spectators, there were the retiree’s birds fluttering in their small cages. Now I want one. (Cameron speaking on mom’s behalf)
Tiananmen Square. This is one of the world’s largest public squares . The square was filled with tourists and locals alike, but clearly could hold thousands more. I can only imagine how packed it could be during special occasions.
The Forbidden City. It was completed in 1420 CE, and was home to twenty-four emperors, the last of which left Beijing in 1924. The entire imperial complex is reputed to have 9999 rooms, which at its peak housed up to 10,000 people, including the imperial family, 3000 eunuchs, as well as maids and concubines.
Tea Ceremony. We went to a small tea house, where we were suppose to take part in a tea ceremony. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a short tea tasting event, and then an opportunity to buy some rather overpriced tea.
Rickshaw & Dinner at Local Resident’s home. We enjoyed a fun and speedy ride through the “hutong” (a narrow network of lanes created by closely built quadrangular homes) on a bicycle powered rickshaw to the home of a local resident. The quadrangular homes were once the primary architectural feature of China’s capital city, hutongs now make up only a small fraction of Beijing, having been replaced by high-rise buildings in recent years. After this ride, we were treated to a tasty dinner cooked for us, by several of the men in the community.
Brownies at the top of Beijing.
Our guide suggested we visit the tallest bar, located not to far from our hotel. So after returning from dinner, we made the short trek to the bar, and ascended to the 51st floor. Here we treated ourselves to some yummy and beautifully presented brownies and ice cream in honor of my birthday.
Day 5 – Hong Kong
Stanley Market Repulse Bay. Hong Kong was markedly different that the other parts of China we visited. We were reminded of the one country, two systems mantra that surrounds this part of China. The heavy influence of the British was very noticeable in the shops, restaurants and because of the side of the road cars drive on. We were given time to explore Stanley, a popular market town on the sunny south side of Hong Kong Island. Next we boarded a sampan for a close-up view of waterborne life and Hong Kong’s junk-dwelling “floating community”.
Victoria Peak. We rode the bus to the top of the peak, and came down by tram. The tram is pulled by steel cables and climbs or descends 373 meters (about 1,200 feet). It’s so steep that the buildings we passed looked like they were leaning. We chose to sit, but I think standing would have been interesting to experience as well.
Day 6 – Hong Kong
Central District. Our last day in China was spent on our own, without the tour group. We decided to explore the Central District. Our day consisted of searching out and viewing the extensive street art, giving the longest outdoor elevator system a try, tasting many tasty delicacies, and going to a very authentic Tea House for lunch. The Tea House proved to be a fabulous experience, and a highlight of this trip. The Tea House primarily served dim sum and was packed with locals, and we had to engage the help of some locals to squeeze ourselves into a table, and get enough chairs for us to sit at.