China: Climbing, Canals, Critters and Characters


I’m back from China, fresh off a ten-hour nap after 35 hours of traveling from Shanghai to Portland via Beijing, Houston and Denver. A roundabout way to get from A to B, but alas, the Groupon gods would have it no other way.

My lasting impression of China? Fascinating. Go. See it. It wasn’t at the top of my travel list (and in fact I only prioritized it over the bazillion other places on my list because we got the whole thing pretty dirt-cheap) and it may be a while before I go back. That’s not to say I didn’t like it or deem it worthy of my time and money. I just didn’t fall in love with the place like I did Germany, Iceland, Laos, or Thailand. But it’s still worth a trip.

Some of the highlights from our travels:

–          Climbing the Great Wall. We started at Juyongguan Pass, which entails drudging up a couple thousand steep, dilapidated and potentially slippery stone steps. It was a bit crowded starting off, but the crowds naturally thinned out the higher we got. By the top, only three of us had made it of the some 25 in our group. The views were amazing and I felt the same sense of accomplishment that I get from hiking Colorado 14ers.

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The Great Wall of China at Juyongguan Pass…

...complete with signs that would make any professional translator cringe

…complete with signs that would make any professional translator cringe

–          The Grand Canal of Suzhou. Just an hour northwest of Shanghai, this “small town” of about 5.4 million often dubbed the “Venice of the East” was one of the more charming places we visited. We took a boat ride down a winding canal, catching glimpses of steps leading from flat water straight up to the doors of local dwellings. Parts were sectioned off with typical Chinese style bridges stretching across the narrow waterways, with local onlookers just as fascinated with us as we were with them. Every house seemed to have either red lanterns or freshly washed laundry hanging from the windows. Locals squeezed by in shabby man-powered boats.

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A ride down the Grand Canal – the world’s longest man-made waterway and one of the most charming parts of our trip.

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–          The night market in Beijing. I had been told by my good friend and fellow avid traveler Ken that the food here was to be avoided at all cost, which was likely wise advice. Still, a stroll down this area is something that will stay with me for some time to come. Let’s just say that by the end of it, the raw squid on a stick seemed tame. Delicacies available for consumption included worms, snakes, tarantulas, centipedes, seahorse, cat and dog meat (at least according to the vendor, who was not at all amused when I went to take a picture of said meat), scorpion and many other creepy critters that I don’t care to see crossing my path, let alone my plate. We nearly tried a tarantula, until we realized the vendor was trying to scam us by sneaking an extra 60 yuan into the price. Lest our intelligence and wallets be insulted, we declined and spent the next few minutes trying to exchange the uneaten spider for the money we had already paid, all with no common language but with both sides fully understanding what was being said.

Uh... yum?

Uh… yum?

–          The Chinese people. Despite running into our share of unsavory characters to put it diplomatically (see example of vendor above), most of the people we encountered were friendly and warm. Right off the bat, on day one, we arrived at the Summer Palace in Beijing to find an older gentleman with a contraption used to write on the cement sidewalks surrounding the lake in Chinese characters. Upon seeing our intrigue, he wrote a Chinese character followed by the English word “friends” and accompanied this with a smiled in our direction. He then let us practice our written Chinese using said contraption.

One of our new “friends”

Our new friend

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Nearly everywhere we went and much to our amusement, we encountered people wanting pictures with us. At one point we kneeled down in front of the famous Mao-donned entrance to the Forbidden City to get a picture, and found ourselves suddenly swarmed by Chinese tourists snapping photos of us, some 25 westerners they had never met. One guy even jumped in with our group for a photobomb moment. Random people throughout the trip would often tap me on the shoulder to get a picture with me, leaving me to wonder if they had me confused with some celebrity or if they just simply find random strangers fascinating and photo-worthy. Based on the picture we got of several Chinese tourists swarmed around a squirrel with cameras stuck to their faces, I’m guessing it’s the latter.

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Western tourists taking pictures of Chinese tourists taking pictures of a squirrel. Welcome to age of digital photography.

Western tourists taking pictures of Chinese tourists taking pictures of a squirrel. Welcome to age of digital photography.

In the end, it was a bit hard to tell what was the real China and what was put on show for us western tourists. Aside from a day-trip in Thailand to see “James Bond Island” a couple years ago, this was the first time in over twelve years that I had been carted around on a tour bus, with no choices to be made on my part as to where to go and what to see. I will address the pros and cons of this in another post. In any case, it was a fascinating, albeit tip-of-the-iceberg glimpse into a very diverse and complex country.

Categories: AsiaTags: , , , , , , ,

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