Ahh, China, land of General Tzo’s Chicken, chop suey, beef & broccoli. First stop after a long flight and hungry as, well, you know what. We looked for a great Chinese restaurant to sample how our favorite Chinese dishes are made in, well, China.
Fuggedablutit. Menus are both in Chinese and graphic photos for the outlanders not fluent in Mandarin. We searched the pictures and found nothing that looked at all familiar.
But we were starving and no one behind the counter spoke any English. Dare we take a chance? Heck no? We’ve all heard stories about what the Chinese eat (Actually, don’t believe those stories) and we were not about to take a chance. Second best to the Chinese counter was something familiar. Something we were not afraid to order and let pass our lips…Kentucky Fried Chicken with that goateed face staring back at us. Yup. Good old KFC, our first meal in China.
As the Corona Virus wanes, travel once again is opening up and exotic destinations are a draw. Wearing a mask in China is as common as not wearing one in the U.S. But with some commonsense, you’ll be safe. Just make sure your vaccines are up-to-date.
It literally took a ping pong tournament pushed by President Richard Nixon, to open a mysterious continent to the rest of the world. And since that time American tourists have been flocking to the country.
The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object that can be seen from space and the moon.
Both sound terrific and have been accepted facts for decades. The only problem is that both are false.
Although there are photos from space that seem to show the Great Wall and old school books perpetuate the myth, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei disputed that. In fact, about the only man-made structures that can be seen from space are the Egyptian pyramids…if you squint and look hard enough.
The beginnings of China opening its door to the Western world came about during the 1971 World Table Tennis Tournament in Japan. A 19-year-old Glen Cowan, member of the U.S. team, jumped onto a bus carrying the Chinese players and the dialogue began. Cowan exchanged souvenirs with Zhuang Zedong, China’s best player. The closed country’s chairman, Mao Zedong then invited the Americans to an all-expense paid visit to China. Nixon, the politician that he was, happily took credit for opening the door.
All of that being said, China has become a “must see” destination for Americans-from Tiananmen Square in Beijing to the Great Wall itself, more and more Yankees are making their way across the world to visit this magnificent country.
We landed in Beijing after the long flight, made a bit more comfortable by upgrading to “Cattle Class with extra leg room.”
Our tour guide met us as we exited customs and immigration, a far less tedious process than at American airports.
But beware, China may seem to be a free and open country, but it is very tightly controlled from its press to its government to ordinary people. If you have a computer with you, don’t expect to be able to access Google or some other web services. They are totally blocked in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) lest something other than the Party line peeks through and “corrupts” the mind of the Average Chinese.
Chinese people on the whole are friendly and anxious to welcome you to their country. Some will discuss politics and parrot the Party line. Others are exceptionally open and critical of the Communist government.
One way to see as much as possible of the country on an 18-day tour is through an American company that has ties to travel packages in China. (Disclaimer – This is an objective piece. We paid for this trip on our own and have no obligation to sugar-coat anything.)
We had previously traveled with Uniworld Cruises and found them to be absolutely top notch. We booked, along with another couple, an 18-day land/cruise package that took us from Beijing to Hong Kong. Uniworld provided luxury accommodations in the Shangri La hotel chain through the country and the Ritz Carlton in Beijing.
A word of caution – you’ll need a visa from a Chinese embassy or consulate. While there are companies that will take care of it for you at a hefty fee, if you have the time, read the detailed instructions on the form (available online) and do it yourself. They nit-pick the details, so you must be exact, or you can come back several times before being approved. Also, your passport must be valid for a minimum of six months from your date of arrival.
Tiananmen Square is arguably the heart of Beijing. It’s a huge open area that can hold literally tens of thousands of people and is often used for parades and to impress visiting dignitaries. In June of 1984 nearly one million students began protesting for a more open and free government. The Communists sent in troops and opened fire on the demonstrators, killing an undetermined number.
The most poignant image that came out of this was that of a student staring down a tank as it rolled toward him. He stopped the tank, but according to some Chinese, he simply disappeared without a trace after the demonstration. It is difficult for a Westerner to stand in the Square and not have that picture in mind. Overlooking the Square is a huge portrait of Mao seemingly keeping an eye on all those in attendance.
If there ever was any doubt of how regimented the society is, the Square will eliminate it. Four young Chinese, two in military uniform and two in civilian clothes, came through, marching in lock-step in single file. At the curb they halted as the traffic light turned red. They stood there, arms stiffly at their sides until the light turned green. They then marched off, again in single file. In the middle of the Square was a platform atop which stood a soldier in perpetual attention, arms at his side, staring straight ahead. This observation post was seen at a number of locations throughout China, but primarily in Beijing.
Nearby is the entrance to the “Forbidden City,” once the home of China’s emperors. If anyone has seen the movie, “The Last Emperor,” you will recognize some of the buildings in the Forbidden City. Until the Communists took over and deposed the young emperor, the compound was closed to all by a chosen few.
It was the emperor’s residence, where he was born and where he reigned and where he was until he became little more than the average Chinese citizen under the rule of Mao Tze Tung. Take the time to visit as it is one of the most striking examples of Old China.
While you may not be able to see the Great Wall from space, it is an amazing thing to behold in person. In the middle of the entry square before the first steps is the nearly ubiquitous soldier on a platform watching every move of every person. These young soldiers stand ramrod straight for their entire shift, only their eyes darting around and are stationed at virtually all tourist destinations.
Crowds mill around, taking in every stone and the sight of the Wall on its serpentine way over the encircling mountains and fields. While some visitors made the most of the visit and covered long distances, others opted to go part way up and simply stand and enjoy the historic view. Those who did the long walk came back complaining that their legs felt as though they had turned to rubber.
Forget seeing China’s sites from outer space. The Terra Cotta Army in Xi’an is best seen from close up. To see the thousands of reconstructed soldiers standing in ranks, interspersed by horses and, in some cases wagons, will remain with most visitors long after their return home.
The army was crafted some 2,000 years ago to guard China’s first emperor, Ying Zheng, first ruler of the Qin (pronounced “Chin”) Dynasty. To date some 8,000 have been excavated. More are constantly being worked on.
When they were found by farmers, all had not only been buried under thousands of years of dust and earth, but they had been smashed to bits. The Chinese government, with full respect and reverence, developed special glue and began painstakingly putting each one back together, much like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Anyone walking away who was not awestruck has no soul. The army is today protected from the elements by a giant hangar-like room. Walk to the back and you can see students and archeologists piecing together more soldiers. Nearby is the inevitable souvenir shop. Bring home miniature soldiers for an experience that will be remembered for a life time.
One warning about souvenir purchase in China. Most visitors like to come home with jade. Do not buy any from vendors or small shops. Make all jade purchase in either major stores or government-run stores.
While most think that all jade is green, it also is mined in white. Most prefer the green as it is by far more striking. Our favorite purchases were a green dragon and an infinity ball. The ball is carved with three balls, two inside the main one. A difficult job requiring the hands of a skilled craftsman. This is something akin to the ship in a bottle. The laborious job requires the craftsman to cut the exterior design and then, bit by bit, chip away at what becomes the interior balls.
While this focus has been on a small part of China, there is much more to see and enjoy. Politics aside, China is a fabulous country with a history that goes back for eons. Go. Enjoy.