After visiting the beautiful mountains in Southern China, we headed for the big cities. On the way to Shanghai, we were once again saved by a kind, young Chinese person. We had a quick connection between a bus and a train to China. As we walked off the bus, we heard another, “do you need help?” Our new friend, Deer, escorted us to the train station, offered to pay for the taxi fare, and even walked into the station with us to make sure we got on the train! Another kind and helpful soul in China, during a stressful moment in transit. With Deer’s help, we boarded the high-speed train and scooted to Shanghai at 304 km/hour.
In Shanghai, we strolled around the river for views of the skyscrapers and the colonial buildings. Shanghai has some great museums with Chinese art and bronze work, and interesting colonial vestiges like as the French Concession, an area with beautiful tree-lined streets and Western boutiques. We ate some delicious dumplings, but overall we were underwhelmed by Shanghai.
Next, we took an overnight train to Xi’an, the home of the famous terracotta warriors. In contrast to international Shanghai, Xi’an itself is more of an authentic Chinese city. Xi’an was the former capital of the Chinese empire under the influential Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Trang Dynasties. The old city walls around Xi’an, dating from the 15th-16th century, are still intact. But the main draw is of course the terracotta warriors, which are truly incredible. In 246 BCE, Emperor Qin, at the age of 13, ordered the terracotta warriors made over the course of 40 years. After the warriors were complete, he closed the doors of the tomb and buried the artists alive. History forgot the warriors for about 2,200 years, until a farmer accidentally discovered the treasures in 1974 while digging a well. There are hundreds of tombs at his burial site, but only four have been excavated. When the warriors were unearthed in the 1970s, they originally were covered in paint, but the paint disappeared after a few minutes of exposure to air. Because China still lacks the technology to unearth the treasures without damaging their integrity, they have put the excavations on hold until better technology is available.
After Xi’an, we were so excited to meet up with Jenn, a friend from home, in Beijing! Jenn generously treated us to a gorgeous hotel, which was a very nice break from the budget hotels and hostels where we had been staying. It was an even bigger treat to hang out with a friend from home, the first familiar face we’ve seen in over 3 months! We toured all of the famous sites in Beijing, including the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and of course, the Great Wall.
The historical buildings were beautiful, but got repetitive, as the buildings all have generally the same architecture. The Great Wall was pretty amazing, although we only got to see one section, including beautifully restored wall and unrestored wall.
We shared some great meals with Jenn in Beijing. We loved the small but famous Peking Duck restaurant. We also found an apparently popular hot pot restaurant which was an experience on its own: the waiting room had a snack bar, masque painting, and a nail salon, and performers sang and danced while we dipped meat and vegetables into the boiling broth. A bizarre and fun cultural experience!
A feel of tight authoritarian control permeated Beijing, more so than other areas of China we visited. We crossed metal detectors and bag detectors several times per day – at least three metal detectors between the subway and the Forbidden City alone. Several police vans and cameras were conspicuous in Tiananmen Square, as well as in other public areas.
Another obvious and constant restriction was the limitations on the internet. Can’t visit Facebook. Oh well, probably for the best. No videos on Youtube. Not the end of the world. No Twitter. No New York Times. No NPR. Pretty annoying. NO GOOGLE? That was the last straw. How many times a day do you use Google? We realized that for us, the answer is several times per day. The feeling of being constricted in personal actions several times per day became unnerving, although we heard that there are easy ways to bypass the restrictions with a VPN. Our guidebook estimates that up to 10% of all websites are blocked by the Chinese government at any time.
Overall, the time in China was eye-opening and fascinating, if uncomfortable at times.