What happened was, the girls are finishing Grade Seven so we walked the Great Wall of China. This actually makes perfect sense. By “the girls” I mean my daughter and a schoolfriend; they’ve been in Mandarin Bilingual elementary and have learned quite a bit of Chinese. They may be at their maximum proficiency for a while, since their high schools’ Mandarin offerings aren’t that great. So we (I mean the girls’ parents) thought we should expose them to some Real Chinese. Except for none of the adults speak any, so we went shopping for tours and picked Walk the Great Wall of China.
It was a three-legged trip; we flew to Hong Kong and hung out for a couple of days, then took the bullet train to Beijing — 300 or so km/h for nine hours. Then a day in Beijing, six days out of town, five them at various Great Wall locations, and a final stretch back in Beijing, then a direct flight home.
Just the surface? · I’ve mostly recovered from the jetlag hangover and see that I have 500-ish photos worth keeping and several screens-full of raw notes. So, as photog and blogger, I ought to be eager to share. There’s a problem: It’s all surface stuff. Did I get lots of interesting visuals? Did I eat lots of interesting food? Did I get off the beaten track? Yes to all of those.
But, how many Chinese people did I get into serious conversations with? Three. Did those conversations go near any of the difficult subjects of history or government or truth? Nope. Do I understand what life feels like for any of the people I saw and occasionally photographed? No.
So I’ll share pictures because they’re pretty and stories that I think interesting or entertaining or maybe useful to other Westerners planning a visit. But, don’t kid yourself that you’re going to learn anything deep or important about China beyond what it looks like. This wasn’t research, it was tourism.
Notes on getting around ·
Hong Kong is easy to get around in; get an Octopus card at the first opportunity and public transit will take you more or less anywhere at a reasonable price. Taxis are OK but (like everywhere in the world) traffic is terrible.
The long fast train from HK to Beijing was a treat. The train food is trash but the seats are comfy and you’ll see a whole lot of China really fast. The train stations at either end are reasonably efficient and manageable.
The G Adventures tour was excellent. I’m not normally a guided-tour kind of person, and have enough travel experience and language smatterings to get by most places, not including mainland China. Our guide and driver were excellent, the route well-chosen, and the price very reasonable.
Beijing is tough to get around in. The subway system is easy to figure out but the ticket-selling machines are klunky and failure-prone, and the place is so freaking huge that you’re often a long walk from the nearest station. Taxi fares are reasonable, but near any major tourist attraction the drivers will refuse to go on-meter and demand exorbitant prices.
The traffic in Beijing is terrible too. Imagine that.
Sharing plans · I have way too many pictures to blog or Tweet or whatever; come over for dinner if you’re in town and I’ll do a slide show. I’ll write a few blog fragments and share some of the prettier pix, and after all a close look at the surface of China is better than no look at all.