Not your Grandmother’s China

Hesitantly, I agreed to visit Beijing for a second time. I’d previously seen the sights, walked the Wall, and sampled the fare. Frankly, I wasn’t sure it was worth a return trip. While the enormity of its 10,000-year history was not lost on me, even at age 19, I did not especially enjoy the experience. Beijing was dirty. The toilet situation was awkward at best. The food was hard to stomach. And the historical landmarks I was so eager to see were uncared for and rundown. So why would I pay a large chunk of change to go back?

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Honestly, I went for friendship. My friend, Rebecca, wished to visit me in Japan, and then travel together to see her husband, currently working in China. I figured I could handle a squat toilet and bad food for a few days. A self-inflicted diet, if you will.

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But eight years after my first trip, I was astounded. China – Beijing specifically – was transformed. Most especially, squatting was never required to do my business!

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My first visit was a three-week college tour that included five cities throughout the vast country. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. An unusually lucky woman, I’ve toured Europe, visited 48 of our 50 states, and even made a few trips to the Middle East. But China… it was incomparable. So many people, pushing and shoving their way through the crowded streets. I was claustrophobic, uncomfortable. Even the basic signage – obviously all in Mandarin – was overwhelming. I felt blind and deaf, unable to read or speak with anyone.

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We began in Beijing. It was… smoggy. I vividly recall walking out of the airport and into a cloud of smoke. I actually coughed. And the haze followed us. The entire place was dreary and gray (and snowy). Pedestrian compared to the bustling metropolis of Shanghai and subdued when likened to brilliant Hong Kong, Beijing, despite the Forbidden City and Great Wall, wasn’t… well, it wasn’t great.

Therefore, strolling out of the airport last week I was pleasantly surprised. Greeted by dazzling sunlight and a relatively smog-free atmosphere, we easily caught an air-conditioned cab to our hotel, perfectly situated near Tiananmen Square.

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That evening we went out for Peking Duck, a local delicacy not to be missed. My last duck meal in China was… ok. Nothing to write home about, minus the ceremonial decapitation table side (not to worry, the bird was already dead). A traditional meal dating to Imperial times, the restaurant looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since, and the duck was greasy. I politely nibbled at my food, and stopped for McDonald’s on the walk home, starved.

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Eight years later the Chinese culinary scene is drastically altered. Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant was breathtaking. Ultra modern décor accented with hints of black light, I thought I’d walked into a New York nightclub. Bright pops of white set against steely gray walls made the perfect backdrop for colorful dishes and lethal cocktails. Every dish was delicious, but the duck was the star. Roasted to perfection, the meat was succulent while the crisped skin sparked in your mouth. Thankfully, the server showed us how to eat it. First, you dip a piece of skin into a small bowl of sugar. It may sound gross, but it is delicious. Similar to bacon brittle. Then you combine onion, cucumber, cantaloupe, a thick “special sauce,” and minced garlic in a sesame bun, finished with rich duck. Mouthwatering. The evening was a marvelous start to what was quickly becoming a far better than expected adventure. And the best part: the bill. Two whole ducks, three cocktails a piece, and a cornucopia of side dishes, we escaped this five-star restaurant owing less than $40 apiece.

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I won’t bore my readers with more extravagant meal descriptions. Suffice to say, the food was excellent. We enjoyed a few traditional meals that were fresh and delicious, but also had more varied options: French, Italian, even a trendy Caribbean/Mexican fusion restaurant located within the Hutong, or traditional courtyard residence. (My previous trip also included a visit to one of these homes. One room, sadly dilapidated and covered in dust, it was an eye-opening experience). Again, eight years and a whole new outlook. Now the Hutong is gentrifying. 5-star restaurants and chic bars intermingle with barely more than shacks, Mercedes Benz parked next to hand-drawn rickshaws.

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The news tells us China is growing fast. Really fast. In twenty years, their economy is projected to exceed that of the US. (Though often these numbers are padded by public and private funded over-expansion… but that’s a subject for a different day.) Based on my most recent visit, I must agree. China is growing – financially, culturally, and even socially.

Our first full day, we enjoyed a private tour guide and personal driver. (If you make the trip, I’d highly suggest organizing your own. Very inexpensive and it made the language barrier much easier. Most especially, our guide was a wealth of knowledge.) “Joey” – self-named after the beloved Friends character – expertly conducted us up the Great Wall. We ascended on a cable car, descended via toboggan, and explored the “real” site, choosing the road less traveled and walking all the way to the first sentry station, well-away from the usual tourist path. I don’t think I need to explain what it means to see one of the great wonders of the world, walking on history.

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The entire experience was vastly different from my first climb, where a bus dropped us off at a ratty rest stop with no toilet whatsoever and you simply stumbled upon large bricks of rock. Eight years later, we had the use of western facilities (thank God!), a bus to the cable car, and a lovely (though overpriced) market in which to purchase souvenirs. I resisted buying the tacky “I Climbed the Wall” t-shirt.

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Joey also suggested a wonderful restaurant for lunch that was filled with locals and outstanding traditional cuisine. Far better than the Burger King or Subway located within the market. (Seriously.) Post-lunch, we headed to the Summer Palace, which he corrected, is not a palace at all. But a garden. And also, it seems, an Imperial prison. (The last Empress kept her mutinous nephew, the Emperor, locked up for quite some time). Oh, and it frequently acted as the seat of power when the Empress chose to remove from the Forbidden City for half the year. But yeah. No. Not a palace…

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Joey wasn’t at all what I expected. My first trip, we also had a guide: “Beaudy.” He almost spoke English (clearly not well-enough to pick a decent name) and was a government guide, meaning we had to have him everywhere we went, and he could only say what the government wished. (Oh, and he knew absolutely nothing. “There are nine mythical animals. “The dragon, the turtle, and uh… the others…”) Today, thankfully, China has progressed. Joey, while still guarded, was not employed by the state and more open about the realities of Chinese life. He discussed politics, adding that the party certainly wasn’t perfect, and not everyone was happy with the current political system. He commented on the vast schism between rich and poor, told us about the hefty real estate prices (more than $80,000 per square meter), and spoke openly about China’s main religious belief: money.

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Clearly, Joey represents the younger generation. Constantly connected to his iPhone, he frequently answered texts on WeChat (the government’s answer to Facebook, which is outlawed). He questioned the ability of Communism without fear, and even used the words “brainwashing” and “propaganda,” though only in a very private setting. A breath of fresh air, Joey was a sign to me that yes, China is definitely changing.

Obviously everything hasn’t changed. From the moment we stepped outside, you could hear people spitting – loudly – and in public. You could also see people squatting by the side of the road to relieve themselves. The crowds were still horrendous. Word to the wise: visit the Forbidden City on a weekday. Sadly forced to visit on a Sunday, we were packed in like sardines, reaching the daily limit of 80,000 visitors. It’s simply less pleasant to see such a marvel when people are shoving you with their elbows to get a better view. And lastly, it’s still pretty cheap. Yes folks, China is an excellent bang for your buck if you are willing to get there. Our hotel was a gorgeous, five-star accommodation for less than $100 a night, and cabs cost next to nothing (55 minutes from the airport was less than $15).

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Our final day we visited the Silk Market, known not for silk, but knock-offs. The Chinese take a slightly different view on intellectual property laws. Stealing someone else’s work, copying their labors is a sign of respect. With that logic, the silk market is unbelievably respectful. You should see how they admire Louis Vuitton, Channel, Gucci, and Dior. And, just as it was eight years prior, bargaining is a way of life. NEVER take asking price. I am informed that the rule of thumb is to begin at 10%, never going above 20%. Personally, I love the challenge, the back-and-forth, the debate. But every day, that could become annoying quite quickly.

In truth, it was nice to see that not everything had changed. While my first trip to Beijing wasn’t always comfortable, it was a once-in-a-lifetime (ok, now twice) opportunity to see how another culture, another society lives. I am so pleased that I put my own conveniences aside and gave it another chance. And I am even more grateful to be able to compare the two experiences, to say that I have personally seen China’s growth.

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Resplendent in red and gold, Beijing is the center of political and historical China. While the country has a long way to go, it is noticeably changing – inside and out. I cannot wait to come back eight years from now (after all, I have a ten-year visa) and see what happens next.

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