Coordinates: 39°54′50″N 116°23′30″E
The cartoon series, which presented a rabbit digging into the earth to cross to the other side and reach China, interrupted my thoughts when I saw that the hours were not passing. We had slept for at least eight hours and still had half of our journey through air to go. We arrived in Beijing after more than nineteen hours of flying. To make this trip there is no other option, there are no shortcuts. Whether you are coming from New York or from Los Angeles, the flight is endless.
We were welcomed upon our arrival at the Beijing airport, with a loud and eloquent nǐ hǎo, by David, our tour guide from Friendly Planet. Unless mandarin is a language you can dominate perfectly, the only reasonable way to travel to China is on a tour, or with an interpreter. Communicating with orientals is quite a challenge, I imagine they must feel the same way when visiting us and trying to communicate in our language.
Gestures and Signs
The first night, or day in Beijing (with the jetlag we could not tell time at that moment) we had dinner without our tour guide, that is, without an interpreter! We went to a nearby restaurant and through gestures and signs we ordered dinner. The menu was our mediator and lifesaver in that first close encounter with the oriental culture. The food? Nothing like Chinese food prepared in the occident. However, unlike the horror stories that frightened us, it was not bad. On the contrary, it was very appealing to the senses. To silence the orchestra of our stomachs, we enjoyed the oriental style white rice (obviously my kids wanted to eat with chopsticks) and different types of meat. The food was quite spicy, so we understood that it was Szechuan oriental cuisine.
Among bright colors and the perfect number
The Forbidden City was the first stop on our tour. There, the great palace where the emperor of China lived, is found. In this historic structure the color yellow stands out because it was used to distinguish royalty. There were small figurines in every corner of the pitched roof. These animal figures represented the power of the people living in the buildings. Only the emperor's building had ten statuettes. The colors, the architecture, the shapes, and the scenario we had before our eyes made us feel like we were in a film. The pictures we had seen in books and movies unfolded before us. We were astonished at the color and symmetry of the designs adorning the buildings.
Origami and Dumplings
The next day we visited a small town called Gaobeidian Village. On this tour we had the privilege of sharing with oriental children and families. In the village, we visited an elementary school where children delighted us with songs and games. One of the little girls was enchanted with my children and gave them the figure of a bird made with the art of paper folding (origami).
After singing and playing with the children at the school we went to the home of a Chinese family. We lived a unique experience with our new oriental new friends. We were invited to help prepare dumplings. We were fascinated. Between dough and stuffing we chatted with the father, his daughter and the grandmother; with our tour guide as an interpreter, of course. They told us how in their society they have to work hard and to do wonders with what they earn, but abundance of food is never missing on their table. That night they made their point clear.
Simplicity of Life
It was a great feast, the dishes presented all the colors, textures and flavors. Soup presides over the oriental menu. Vegetables that we had no idea existed, cut in different ways and seasoned with creative sauces followed the soup. The beef and chicken were also tasty and the traditional white rice, which is always present in the list of oriental delicacies where part of the list. And chopsticks! The dishes were prepared with different spices and very tasty sauces. It was quite an experience on the palate.
As if all that wasn't enough, to conclude the splendid evening, after dinner, we went to the village's community center. We spent an unforgettable evening listening to groups of all ages sing and enjoy the simplicity of their lives.
Tombs and concubines
Another day of excursion. A new story. Another surprise. In the thirteen Ming tombs my children learned the meaning of the word concubines. In these tombs, built at the top of a mountain, the remains of emperors were buried. Each tomb connects to another, a path they call the "sacred path". As the story goes, the emperor was buried with his concubines when he died, although they were still alive. This fact impressed my children, even more than learning the meaning of the word concubine. The new word accompanied us on the rest of the trip, because it brought with it countless questions.
The longest cemetery in the world
When stepping on the Great Wall of China you can feel the chronology of the years, the decades and centuries of perseverance to lift one of the wonders of the world. This ancient, extraordinarily long and majestic monument is buried among stones solid bodies. There were so many workers that died during the almost eternal construction of this monumental fortification that their remains were buried within its walls. So they call the Great Wall the longest cemetery in the world. Another fact that would be hard to forget.
Routine of peace
Having had the privilege of walking by so many places, where millions of people had also travelled and the history of this ancient country has been written, we went to the Temple of Heaven. We arrived very early in the morning. The Sun, displaying no shyness among the bare trees, seduced us so we would capture their display with the lens of the camera. Its perfectly round shape flashed a voluptuous orange that peeked through the branches; which seemed to want to stop its rise. A picture of a postcard!
The courtyards of the temple were a fantasy. People of all ages doing tai chi, others playing different instruments, singing, or playing around... living a simple and magical morning at the same time. An affable old woman invited my children to play with her and they were both delighted. The Temple of Heaven is a complex of several pagodas and buildings that were used by the emperor to carry out different oriental ceremonies, including the anticipation of a good harvest. We at least brought back home a bit of peace from this serene place.
Picturesque and narrow alleys
We left behind the almost heaven and delved into the neighborhood of the Hutongs. Those who suffer from claustrophobia should think twice before touring these ancient neighborhoods in Beijing. Thousands of alleys which form countless passages are so narrow that not even cars can drive through. A picturesque way to travel through these narrow alleys is by a cart pulled by a bicycle. Two people are mounted on the bogie and a man bicycling is who leads "the basket" to your destination. Needless to say that, for my children, this tour was better than a roller coaster. We traveled through the narrow streets of this old neighborhood that inevitably contrasts with the modern buildings of a brand-new Beijing, but still preserves its traditional charm and also is home to thousands of families.
Each day of our trip to the other side of the world we were left breathless with excitement. The monuments, people, feelings, food, colors, forms and the simplicity of their life, but more than anything, the fact that my children, in their adolescence, could be exposed to a culture so different from ours, strengthened in them respect for others, regardless of their culture or beliefs; and everything was accomplished within a box full of surprises...
Zai jian Zhōng guo (Until the next time China!)
Conscious Travel Practices:
1. Get to know and show respect for other cultures.
2. Enjoy nature in a conscious way.
3. Participate in rituals of other beliefs and demonstrate respect.
4. Promote the economy in local excursions.
Places of interest:
Great Wall of China
Temple of Heaven