Saying Farewell to China

Reagan, Management, Rockford MII woke up early and looked around at what has been my home for the past few days. When I saw my suitcase in the corner, all packed up and ready to go, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness as I realized that today is the day. Today we will check out of our last hotel on this trip, head to Beijing’s airport, and say good-bye to China. While I am excited to see my family and friends again, I’m not quite ready to say good-bye to China and the people who just over two weeks ago were strangers, but now seem more like family. Unfortunately, leaving was inevitable, and there were still a few things I needed to get done before it was time to head to the airport. So, I rolled out of bed and got ready for breakfast. At breakfast, I ate the same thing I’ve eaten every morning during this trip, croissants, the only thing on the buffet that is similar to what we have back at home. The food is one thing I will not miss about China, and one thing I look forward to about returning home. After breakfast, we checked out of our hotels and a group of us headed out to do some last-minute shopping before we left for the airport. Today, out on the streets of Beijing, it was hot and fairly sunny. It was one of the few sunny days that we’ve seen since we came to China. Not always being able to see the sun in China really makes you appreciate the few days when you can.

Once at the shopping mall, we decided to get an early lunch. We wanted something familiar that would remind us of home. We decided on Pizza Hut! Pizza Hut is a little different in China than it is in the United States. Here, it’s a little more fancy and more of a sit-down restaurant than it is in the States, but it tastes just as good. After we finished eating, we quickly lost the boys, who preferred not to go shopping. Carmen and I, the only two girls that came on this little shopping trip, were OK with that. We shop better on our own anyway. Walking through the mall, two American girls, towering each at over 5 feet 9 inches, we stuck out like sore thumbs. However, we’ve become very used to this in the past two-plus weeks, and we hardly even noticed people staring anymore. Back on the streets of Beijing, we headed in the direction of our hotel. As we were walking, we were caught up in our conversation, until suddenly we both realized something. Almost as if thinking the exact same thought, we realized that we were walking down the streets of Beijing, without a hint of alarm, or insecurities about our surroundings. If it weren’t for the Chinese characters instead of English, or the lack of diversity in people that is often seen in the United States, we might have mistaken Beijing for a big city back home. I didn’t feel threatened here, or alienated in any way. I felt completely independent, and I could easily see myself living here without any problem. It’s a great feeling to know that in just over two weeks, I was able to adapt to a completely different culture than my own. With this feeling of triumph, we continued our journey back to the hotel.

Reagan at the airport

Once everyone was accounted for and our luggage was loaded onto the bus, we all looked out the windows as we drove away from what had been our home for the past few days. It took us an hour to get to the airport and we spent that time talking to one another and enjoying the scenery of Beijing for just a little while longer. Once we arrived at the airport, we checked our luggage, said good-bye to our amazing travel guide Lily, and headed through security. Once on the plane, the exhaustion of travel across China in 17 days finally catches up with me. Luckily I have a 12-hour flight to try and catch up on some sleep. But, before I fall asleep, I can’t stop thinking about what an amazing trip this has been. I have experienced and learned things that I will take with me in life that will last much longer than this trip. The friendships and memories I made are priceless, and this trip was worth every penny (or Yuan if you may).

I was shanghaied by Old Shanghai in Shanghai

John, MBA Finance, Charlotte NCMost of my experience traveling has been domestic, and I wanted to use China as a tool to expand my perspective. I also wanted to use this blog as a medium to bring the sights and sounds of my experience to my friends back in the U.S. I chose to write about my day at “Old Shanghai,” which I thought to be a good representation of many Chinese cultural contributions.

The group exited the bus onto a crowded avenue filled with hundreds of street-level merchants. Each shop peddled its own unique items or themes including a wide range of quality. A typical storefront hosted a variety of trinkets or souvenirs, with an aggressive salesperson standing out front gesturing wildly to attract any attention or eye contact from potential customers. Certain locals perused the streets attempting to sell imposter watches, handbags, wallets, and the like. They held catalogues and invited any and everyone to an escorted tour of their inventory –typically located down a back alley or up a dimly lit staircase or elevator. An interesting point with these characters is they each know how to say hello or some introductory phrase in multiple languages. Echoes of “Nee how,” “Oh-lah,” and “Bon Jure” sound across the square-shaped open-air market. The dynamic hawkers yelled and pointed, giving off certain strength and energy that absorbed into the crowd. The atmosphere was busy and exciting. The crowd moved in slow mobs from store to store, talking loudly and bumping into traffic from all directions. Looking down on the courtyard from above, I was reminded of a Koi fishpond at feeding time, as people step over and around one another to get to their destination. Smells changed by the step depending on the wind’s direction and the nearby bends. Seasoned meat could be seen hanging in windows and entryways of butcher stands. Incense burned from certain points along the walk, and a bakery added a hint of sweetness to the air’s complex aroma. Colloquial, foreign, and familiar accents were heard at high volumes and cadence. The ancient storyteller’s stand sounded loudly with gongs, flutes, and laughter as the old man told a tale, and paying customers looked through ornate viewers at the shadow puppet show.

John in Shanghai

I followed a labyrinth of stands to the center of the market and “Old Shanghai” was revealed. The layout of the area was set as a square. Multiple buildings were arranged so that a courtyard was formed and staircases and elevators were positioned in each corner. I climbed a very old set of hidden stone stairs, and the busy noise slowly faded behind me. At the top of the staircase, a tea hostess wearing a bright red and gold dress invited me to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The overlook outside the teahouse included a small garden and a water feature. Atop the roof of each three-story building, angles of the traditional curved stone and wood were visible in ornate fashion. The feng-shui atmosphere changed to a swelling calmness. I thought of the sights, sounds, and secrets these roofs may have seen over there centuries of watching the market below. I lifted my gaze to the sky and noticed the modern skyscrapers looming over us in the background. The monsoon season air was hazy, and the gray blanket cast shadows and screened the towers, creating a separate oasis or bubble just for Old Shanghai.

Each day we walked the streets of these huge and amazing cities with literally millions of people, and yet tucked away in sporadic spaces were these examples of pure antiquity. This has truly been an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone.

The Summer Palace

Mike, Marketing, West Chester PAStepping off the bus into the hot 85-degree weather after a 45-minute bus ride with AC can really make you appreciate the times that we are living in. The group had just arrived at the Summer Palace after first seeing the Great Wall of China, which was a great experience. The walk from the bus to the entrance of the Summer Palace was not too far— maybe five minutes max. While on our walk, we saw about two or three guitar players playing songs for some extra cash or maybe as their income. One thing you will always seen in China, no matter where you go, is a street vendor —if you can even call them that. They have pretty much anything you could possible need at any point, at any location. After dealing with the street vendors, we began our tour of the Summer Palace.

Mike at The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is in Beijing, China and was a summer retreat where the emperors and empresses could escape the summertime heat of Beijing. The Summer Palace has a long history, which dates back about 800 years. The palace was destroyed in 1860 by French forces and then rebuilt in 1888 by Empress Dowager Cixi and renamed the Palace Garden of Nurtured Harmony. The palace was again rebuilt in 1903 and has stayed pretty much the same since, besides some minor construction work and upkeep. In 1924 after the last Qing Emperor Puyi was driven out of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace became a public park.

When I entered the palace, I saw the statue of two lions on either side of the entrance. One represents the male and the other represents the female. People are able to tell the difference between them because the male lion has his paw on a globe and the female lion has a baby under her paw. Once we entered into the palace, we could see a huge lake that had around 50 little paddleboats people were riding around in. This looked pretty fun, but we kept moving.

The group walked around for a bit and looked around the different buildings and gardens. I started to notice that my sandals were sliding, and the ground looked like it had just rained. I looked ahead and saw a man holding a long stick that looked like paintbrush that he was dipping in water and then writing Chinese characters on the ground. The characters stayed for 20 or so minutes before they disappeared. I was really was intrigued by this man and watched him for a little while he drew these characters on the ground with water.

Mike at The Summer Palace 2

After seeing a couple more buildings, I felt like I had seen them before somewhere. I figured out that the architecture looked almost identical to the buildings at the Forbidden City. I did a little research and figured out that they were actually designed after the Forbidden City.

After about an hour or so, the group met up at the south entrance and went to a duck dinner, which was amazing.

Reflecting back, I really enjoyed my time at the Summer Palace because seeing this style of Chinese architecture was a great experience. The lake, extravagant buildings, and the gardens were amazing. I really want to thank Dr. Chen and everyone else who made this trip possible. This has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am so glad that I was apart of it.

The Great Wall: Past, Present, and Future

Ryan, MAIS, Morganton NC

Our day’s primary event was trekking along the Great Wall of China. Roughly 40 minutes by bus from the Capital Hotel in Beijing brings you to the most popular section of the Great Wall where Richard Nixon visited during his landmark 1972 visit to normalize relations. This is also where he guilelessly observed, “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”

Since the wall is 5,500 miles long and visible from outer space, we obviously saw only a meager fraction of its astounding entirety. Nevertheless, from our micro vantage point, it was simply vast.

The wall slithered endlessly atop jagged mountaintops of such declivity that the greater majority of our steps were on either stairs or slopes. The extreme pitch and razor-like sharpness of the craggy landscape alone seemed a formidable enough barrier to deter any would-be Mongol invaders. Slowly ascending the thousands upon thousands of steps into the clouds, I believe we all had a sense of awe. That is to say, awe is what we felt before pain was all we felt. A few of us finally made it to the highest point accessible to the public. Most of us made it admirably far, and we all had a good workout. I am not exaggerating when I say that from this height a car appears as small as an ant, and a human is like the head of a needle. Perhaps one of the motivations for the grueling hike was the increasing absence of crowds the higher we climbed. Crowds being an inherent feature of the Chinese landscape I believe we are unanimously tired of.

Ryan at the Great Wall of China

I must admit to having been here before in 2007, as an undergraduate student at Appalachian State. Fortunately for me, one of the girls in our group later became my wife, and it was with her that I explored the Great Wall last time. It was an odd sensation walking along the same steps and admiring the same winding fortifications she and I saw together. As I climbed, I couldn’t help but think of how many things have changed in the last four years. After considering this, I couldn’t help but think how measly a four-year span seems when compared to the 2,300 year-old structure I was walking upon. Maybe 2,300 years is too large a sum to imagine with only our relatively short lives to compare it to. Even so, perceiving the wall’s age not in years but in changes to the world around it makes it seem older still. It is this abiding vision of a predictable constant in a world of change that has come to represent China to the western world. The Great Wall is one of the many images we hold of China. There are many others: the Terra-Cotta Warriors, Tiananmen Square, ancient tombs, palaces, and statues. However, China’s ancient history (magnificent as it may be) is not China today.

It is sometimes easy to forget that – far from being mere ruins – these monuments to the past are restored, maintained, and promoted by people. These people are living, breathing, hoping, and striving for a better life in the present. From such a distant place as the United States, and with the often-distorting filter of popular media, it is easy to see China as a static land of past glory with pockets of economic progress. On this trip, we have seen differently. The country is nothing if not dynamic and is virtually on fire with energy and anticipation. It is promoted by the Chinese not as a longing for the past, but as a reminder to the world that the Chinese have a shared history, and they move with a singular purpose. The wall is a testament to the power of collective action in the past, which may yet manifest itself as China’s most important source of competitive advantage in the years to come. The country moves steadily, hopefully, inexorably, and with crushing momentum towards a shared vision for the future.

In each city we have visited thus far, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, and now Beijing, we have given our poor tour guides a palpable lesson in the true meaning of “herding cats.” As I walked along the base of the mountain after returning from the top, I looked up at the wall and thought about all these things: my past visit here, China’s history, the global economy, and what career I might pursue. As I meandered about, whimsically pondering and only vaguely curious as to the whereabouts of my group, a Chinese tour group walked by. They were tightly knit, moving in one direction, certainly enjoying the imposing figure of the Great Wall winding through the mountains, but always with a keen awareness of the location of their guide’s upheld banner.

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