By Susan Condon Love
Special to The Plain Dealer
It was a dream trip — the type of wishful thinking you really don’t expect to fulfill, but your mind wanders through its wonders anyway. That was my take on someday visiting China, the ancient land of emperors, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and — what I view as the ultimate in travel experiences — climbing the Great Wall of China.
It felt unattainable for many reasons: its distance, the cost, the red tape (no pun intended) of a travel visa, and an intimidating language barrier.
Then, out of the blue last December, I was handed the opportunity to travel to Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing as one of three chaperones for 17 teenagers from St. Joseph Academy, where I work as communications director.
China for first-timers
- The journey to China is largely the same regardless of your itinerary: a really, really, really, really long plane trip. Our group, which consisted of 17 St. Joseph Academy students and three chaperones, flew American Airlines, via Chicago, on a 13-hour flight to Beijing. China is 12 hours ahead of Cleveland, so when we arrived, it was midnight on Friday. We gained that “lost” time on the trip home.
No matter how excited you may be, the bottom line is that it is grueling. I took a picture of myself at “Hour 12” and emailed it to my husband when we arrived. Months later, he’s still a little scared. I may be dreaming too big, but if I ever am looking at such a long flight again, I’m going to investigate first-class. They had really comfortable seats that resembled miniature La-Z-Boy chairs. I had never traveled out of the country, much less on a journey this epic, so for a fraction of a second as I boarded the plane, I thought all the seats would be like that. I quickly discovered those were not for me. Sigh.
Obviously, wear comfortable clothes. Walk to the bathroom frequently to stretch your legs and get circulation going. Squish your body into a comfortable position and get some sleep, if possible.
Our flight included little TVs built into the seats in front of us. One of the options, included with TV episodes and about a dozen movies, was “Flight Path.” I loved that .¤.¤. it showed exactly where we were at any given moment. However, I could have used a little information at times, especially the outside air temperature as we flew above the Arctic Circle. But that’s just me.
By the way, on the way back, my seat was the only one on the packed plane with a malfunctioning TV. I almost cried.
Cost: Explorica is a student-travel company, with tours not open to the general public. Prices for tours to China with a similar itinerary to mine vary greatly, from $1,100 to more than $2,000, depending on travel dates and whether flights to and from the United States are included. Usually, it makes sense to find a tour that includes airfare, which runs about $1,200-$1,700 round-trip from Cleveland to Beijing.
You’ll also need to budget $140 for a visa (for visa information: www.china-embassy.org/eng), plus tips. Tipping is not common in China, except on group tours, where the tipping of guides and drivers is expected, and can add several hundred dollars to a trip.
Money: Figure out how much spending money you will need and get the money exchanged into Chinese yuan (pronounced UN) before you leave the United States. China is pretty much a cash-and-go economy. For a small fee, I exchanged $500 for 3,185 yuan at KeyBank before I left. Allow several weeks for that exchange, as banks do not just have bunches of yuan lying around. My traveling companions took significantly less, and I ended up lending out some emergency funds. At any rate, I could have used ATMs with the fee only being a standard “non-KeyBank” charge. I had some leftover yuan when we arrived home, which I exchanged for a small fee back into dollars in the Chicago airport. Some travelers also brought some of the “preloaded” credit cards, which essentially worked as debit cards. (Our hotels and most meals already had been paid for.)
Most important suggestion: I printed out and carried a currency-converter pocket guide from the Internet. It was a lifesaver when it came to figuring out exactly how much money I was spending on a particular item.
Private stuff: As mentioned in the main story, Chinese bathrooms are a culture shock. First and foremost, they don’t routinely provide toilet paper. Pack plenty of small tissue packs. And remember that the toilets are like porcelain urinals laid out flush with the floor. Work those leg and thigh muscles and get them into shape before you travel. Seriously, though, this falls into the “not handicapped-accessible” problem mentioned in the main article. There are some accessible restrooms with “real” toilets, but they are few and far between. The hotels we stayed in had Western-style bathrooms and toilet paper, but in reality you spend very little time in your hotel room.
Food and water: Every restaurant we visited was arranged by our tour company, Explorica. Ingrid, our tour guide, told us our food had essentially been “Americanized” and looked and tasted remarkably like something you’d find in AsiaTown in downtown Cleveland. The food was the same 12 to 14 dishes on a giant Lazy Susan for lunch and dinner. For more than a week. And breakfast was generally a modified version of lunch and dinner. There was no real variety, and two months later, I still am avoiding Chinese food.
As with much foreign travel, avoid tap water. I used bottled water, available everywhere, to brush my teeth. I tried the “coffee” once (think motor oil with a little cream added). We had tea at each meal, and I so started to enjoy the teas that I spent $62 on four different packs to bring home. Anybody in the market to buy tea?
Two of the students suffered a stomach-flulike problem, but in both cases it was cured within 24 hours, thanks in part to the handy-dandy Imodium I carried in my purse. ÂÂ Make sure you bring: Plenty of Band-Aids, Imodium, Pepto-Bismol, ibuprofen and, in my case, Tylenol. I seemed to get quite a few headaches while there, I think because of allergies.
Believe it or not, I hesitated. Would my family feel left out? Could I handle a gang of 17- and 18-year-olds when, truth be told, I’m barely speaking the same language as my own two teenagers?
OK, I hesitated about 20 seconds. Turn down a trip to China? Not gonna happen. As fast as you can say xie xie, I was packing my bags.
The eight-day (nine days? I was so confused by the International Date Line) trip took place in early April, and it did, indeed, turn out to be an adventure filled with incredible sights, sounds, smells and cultural wonders. For all who might be harboring the dream of one day visiting the land of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, let me offer some encouragement. Such a trip is possible with some clever packing, sturdy thighs, good walking shoes and, sometimes, a sense of humor.
A long history and some mystery
Let’s review some history before we get to the good travel stuff: Closed to the world for centuries, first by wars and geography, then a giant wall, and finally a Communist regime, China opened itself to tourism in 1974, probably when its leaders saw pictures of Bermuda-shorts wearing tourists swarming the Tower of London and realized there was a huge profit to made from its history — and some mystery.
China is now the third-most visited country in the world, with 56 million visitors in 2010 alone. It’s easy to understand its popularity, with visitors experiencing a culture that’s been around longer than recorded history. Chinese archaeological finds include a fossilized skull found in the Shanxi Province in 1963 that dates to 600,000 B.C., suggesting China as a cradle of the human race.
It’s difficult to encapsulate a “China experience” because the country is so vast and diverse. To put it into some perspective: Ohio is 44,828 square miles; the land area of China encompasses more than 3.6 million square miles. Some 1.3 billion people live in the country, according to 2011 estimates. The largest city is surprisingly not Beijing (with 12.2 million people), but rather Shanghai (16.6 million residents). (Judging by the view from our tour-bus window, there are probably at least that many dogs in both cities.)
My little SJA family — we bonded quickly in the airport waiting room and the ensuing 13-hour flight — came prepared. We started our adventure in Beijing, followed by two days in Shanghai and two in Nanjing. All the cities offered a fascinating and provocatively different view of the country.
Our first observation on Day 1 in Beijing as our bus lumbered through the scariest car, bicycle and pedestrian traffic I’ve ever seen (it even terrified the teenagers, and we know how hard they are to scare): It seems everyone in Beijing lives in stark concrete apartments. OK, most are downright ugly. Adding to that visual assault is the sight of laundry draped over every security bar, every windowsill, every available outdoor spot. I have never seen so many unmentionables not belonging to my own family.
Beijing and Olympic Village
We met our guide — our tour was booked through a company called Explorica — at the Beijing airport. Her name was Weng Ying, but she asked us to call her Ingrid (not sure why). I loved her before I even met her after reading her introduction on our tour group’s website: “I am good at team work and work as a guide in Beijing tour escort in China for almost 10 years,” she wrote. “Since 2005, I worked as tour escort for Explorica groups in China. Staying with those boys and girls, I’m very delectable and confident. And I believe that success is based on the cumulating of persevering.”
She was, indeed, delectable. Ingrid provided nonstop history lessons during our trip, and eased us through all language and cultural barriers. She also handled the emergencies that cropped up with inevitable frequency (two colds, three flulike episodes and a twisted knee from climbing the Great Wall). Having a native at your side 24/7 is super-helpful when it comes to restaurants, transportation, shopping, hotel questions and emergencies.
Another advantage for our group: Sixteen of the 17 students had studied Mandarin Chinese for minimally two and, in some cases, three years. In addition, one of the chaperones, world languages teacher Xuan Liu, was born in Nanjing.
On that first day in Beijing, once we got over the traffic scares and laundry, our group was enchanted by a visit to the Olympic Village. Beijing was home to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and I still remember the events held at the so-called “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, a seeming tangle of steel that transformed a utilitarian stadium into a work of art.
After that, it was off to the Summer Palace, our second stop and a true must-see. The 700-plus-acre royal park was a seasonal retreat for the emperors. It includes a half-mile hallway painted with scenes from China’s history, some astoundingly gorgeous gardens, and a 118-foot carved marble boat decked out with stained-glass windows so that the empress could enjoy her morning tea while looking out at the man-made lake.
Despite having had very little sleep the previous day, the students enjoyed a private tai chi lesson in a plaza near the lake before we all boarded a boat ride to take us for a close-up view of the palace and the painted outdoor “hallway.”
It was at this point that the three chaperones started being acutely aware that all eyes were constantly focused on the SJA girls. And by all eyes, I mean all . . . male and female, young and old. Every few minutes, people were tapping on their shoulders, gesturing to be included in photographs. When I asked why all the attention (it didn’t seem salacious, just intensely curious), Ingrid simply said, “They don’t see many foreigners.” So if you are traveling to China, expect stares and picture-taking, especially if you are young.
Conquering the Great Wall
The next day, we traveled to the first of two Ming Dynasty tombs (we also visited one in Nanjing later). This tomb was built by the Yongle Emperor, who also constructed the Forbidden City. It was an enormous complex of pavilions, gardens, hallways and tombs designed to provide everything an emperor or empress (or favored concubine!) would need in the afterlife.
It was on this day that my most anticipated tourist destination was planned . . . a visit to the Great Wall of China. Stretching from North Korea to the Gobi Desert, the wall is 13,170 miles long, running along old imperial borders. It was built mainly by millions of slaves, repairing and lengthening existing defensive walls, some dating back to the fifth century B.C. Stone watchtowers along the wall were used to send smoke signals warning of an imminent attack.
We visited a portion just outside of Beijing, about a 45-minute bus trip from our hotel. Find out the specifics of your Great Wall visit while planning your China trip. Some parts are relatively flat; ours was extremely vertical. While the wall was beautiful and impressive, our visit involved some brutal climbing on steep, uneven stone steps. Handrails helped, but it was hard even for the 17-year-olds. I consider myself to be in good shape, but about halfway up, I knew I had to stop and rest. Actually, fierce pride had gotten me that far. I WAS NOT GOING TO SHOW WEAKNESS. When Paula and Xuan, the other two chaperones, looked back in concern as they forged ahead, I smiled broadly.
“That heavy breathing you hear? It’s the guy behind me,” I whispered, once I got closer. I whispered because I could barely breathe.
Quick aside: Chinese sites are NOT handicapped-accessible. It was a fact that I was vaguely aware of as we approached the Great Wall. But when a student twisted her knee climbing down the wall’s precipitous and uneven steps, it really struck home. Maneuvering a wheelchair over a period of two days at a half-dozen tourist spots was a true challenge. If you have mobility problems, research your trip carefully and discuss these issues with a travel agent before booking.
The time in Beijing was capped with visits to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which are side-by-side. Covering the area of 90 football fields, Tiananmen Square can hold more than 300,000 people and has been the site of public proclamations such as Mao Zedong announcing the founding of Communist China in 1949, and the pro-democracy demonstrations turned violent seen around the world in 1989.
I expected to be more impressed with Tiananmen Square than I actually was. It’s a gigantic plaza with government buildings. But . . . walk across the street from Tiananmen Square and you enter ancient China, the Forbidden City. That was more my style and also got the students excited.
Getting out to countryside
They were very grateful, by the way, that it was a sunny day for this part of the tour. Before leaving Cleveland, I made them purchase bright purple rain ponchos with the warning that if it was stormy out, they HAD to wear the purple ponchos so I could pick them out in a sea of umbrellas. I was not going to explain to their parents that we lost them in Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City, I warned.
Like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City lives up to expectations — but is a lot less strenuous. The 9,000-room palace complex — once protected by a 170-foot-wide moat — housed China’s emperors from 1421 until 1923. When you first enter the complex, you will be struck by how stark it is . . . no trees, no shade, no grass. That was on purpose, according to Ingrid. No trees were allowed because intruders might hide in their branches. The farther you walk into the complex, the more lush the courtyards and the buildings become, until you reach an oasis of trees, plants, flowers and gorgeously appointed living quarters.
After spending several hours walking the length of the Forbidden City, we found ourselves on the opposite side from where we had entered at Tiananmen Square, in a park called Jingshan Mountain. Climbing (again), we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and modern Beijing. Very cool.
From Beijing, we traveled by plane to Shanghai, a city that seemed more traditionally Chinese in many ways. It was just as crowded as Beijing — with the accompanying horrifying traffic and underwear hanging from window ledges. But it was less touristy, and the residents eyed our group with even more fascination, often following us as we walked through the streets shopping or getting to another tourist destination.
In Shanghai, I would strongly recommend visits to the 16th-century Yuyuan Garden, the Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai City Walk and — a must-see — the Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
The Pearl Tower is 1,536 feet high and is located near the Yangtze River. Its famous features include two pearllike bulbous appendages. We took double-decker elevators (which hold up to 50 people per trip) to the top “pearl,” which had both a rotating restaurant and a sightseeing deck with a see-through floor on its exterior perimeter. I am not chicken and don’t have a fear of heights, but it took immense courage for me to walk out on the clear floor and look down approximately one-fourth of a mile to the ground below. The students did jumping jacks as they looked down, which forced me to screech (yes, screech) “Stop it!” at a volume that probably killed any birds flying by.
Nanjing was our final city — we traveled to the city by bullet train from Shanghai — and by then, I have to admit we were tired and approached the inevitable climb up ancient steps of a Ming Tomb and Zijin Shan Mountain with a tad less enthusiasm. But a two-hour bus trip to a fishing village called Wuzhen brightened our outlook (though the humidity wilted us a bit). Seeing the Chinese countryside, with its rolling hills and small houses, was awesome and quite different from the massive stone apartment complexes and government buildings we had seen so far.
It was at this point that we all uniformly hit a brick wall — or should I say a sticky rice wall — when it came to food. Yes, we were in China. Yes, the Chinese food was wonderful. But, being in a tour group, we weren’t given many options to delve deeply into the cuisine. By the end of the trip, we would all have given lots and lots of money to have had some variety. Heck, I would have settled for burnt toast and jam.
Ingrid took pity on us twice in the last few days and took us to McDonald’s. We were grateful.
Another important before-you-go detail involves answering the call of Mother Nature. As we learned in our information session before the trip, the Chinese historically do not use toilet paper. I solved the problem by bringing lots and lots of Kleenex packets. Which brings us to another quirk: If you use toilet paper, you are not allowed to flush it. There are wastepaper baskets in the stalls for that disposal. Be thankful, by the way, that you are in a private stall. According to Ingrid, it’s only been recently that doors have been installed in public restrooms.
In addition, Chinese bathrooms really don’t have what we know as toilets. They have what look like urinals laid flat on the floor. To put it delicately, you have to, um, hover over the hole and do your business. It takes a great amount of leg strength and dexterity. I never did quite figure out where to put my hands for balance. Let’s just say that I used up an entire bottle of hand sanitizer on this trip.
Our last day was spent in Nanjing shopping and visiting a Confucious temple. We were all, frankly, ready to get back home. The trip back was an ordeal that involved a three-hour train ride back to Shanghai, a 90-minute bus ride to the airport, a three-hour wait to board the plane, a 13-hour flight back to Chicago and then a five-hour layover before flying to Cleveland.
Despite the exhaustion, I was smiling like a fool as I watched the students meet up with their parents in a nearly empty Hopkins airport. I would miss them all. Being a chaperone was not as scary as I thought. We had a few hairy moments . . . did they think we were kidding when we said “stick together” in the Forbidden City?
And one student in particular was hounded by a black cloud . . . she lost her boarding pass in Cleveland before we even got to the gate, twisted her knee on the Great Wall, got lost in the Forbidden City, got a bad cold that morphed into a one-day flu and then capped it by losing her boarding pass to Cleveland when we had our layover in Chicago.
I love you dearly, kid. And if we travel together again, I’m going to glue your boarding passes to your forehead.
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