I arrived in Beijing two days after the earthquake and the tsunami hit Japan in March 2011. Asia was in a state of alert: anything – at any time — could happen in the continent. I was a bit scared because I had never experienced a natural disaster before, so if it was unsafe to travel there I am pretty sure I would have cancelled everything and stayed at home, but the authorities confirmed no danger at all. A bit apprehensive, but with a curiosity bigger than my fears, I took my Air China flight to Beijing.
It was the second time I flew with Air China and despite the negative mainstream opinion about it, I kind of like flying with them. The food is good, you can watch Chinese movies and practice a little Tai Chi towards the end of the flight. Flying is never fun, but when you have amenities like that you can enjoy it. I arrived in China a day later and could not believe that I was in the other hemisphere. I looked different from the locals, I could not speak nor read their language and my habits were dissimilar from theirs. Yet I cannot describe the experience in words: I simply like it. It’s why I love traveling.
If you don’t speak Mandarin or any of the other Chinese varieties, communication is something you will have to be patient about in China. Although Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, it is hard to find people who speak English. In tourist areas people usually do speak it and the restaurant menus are bilingual, but I found it hard to find a taxi driver or a salesperson that mastered the foreign language.
I didn’t go to China, however, to go shopping. I went there to absorb a little bit of the culture and history. I wanted to see the Great Wall, Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the museums, and the Buddhist and Maoist temples. I wanted to understand Feng Shui, the Chinese dynasties and operas. I wanted to taste their food, drink their tea. I wanted to experience a culture that is so different from mine, although there is a big Chinese community in São Paulo. I wish I could learn more than a few words in Mandarin, but, unfortunately, you cannot learn this language during a week in Beijing.
The Great Wall of China is a living history. The most preserved part was the one that I could visit, with original rocks shaping the top surface of the mountains, creating stairs and paths to towers, in which soldiers stayed in order to alert other towers of possible danger approaching. The Great Wall is breathtaking, as is climbing the stairs – they’re really steep! There is no greater feeling than climbing to the top and feeling the spring wind blowing on my face.
The Forbidden City is another amazing place. It was the Emperor’s and his 3,000 concubines’ house during the Ming dynasty. Although it was his own house, it served as a political center as well. In my opinion, the Supreme Harmony Gallery is the most splendid place in the whole Forbidden City. It was in this place that the Emperor used to receive the most important dignitaries of the whole world, where the decision-making and negotiations were made. The City has several gates, but the entry one is the most special as it is where the famous Mao Zedong’s picture is placed. Facing the gate is Tian’anmen square, the largest public square in the world. Around the square you can see the Chinese Parliament, the National History Museum and Mao’s Memorial. It’s full of tourists (both Chinese and foreign). It was in this square that I felt I was different: other visitors pointed at me, looked close, and I didn’t understand anything! The Mongolian guide, Tony, told me that they are not used to seeing a foreigner, not even on TV. It was a bit awkward, but good, which made me reflect on my Westernized view of the world.
I also had the opportunity to visit the Beijing Art District, the 798 Art Zone, which, in the past, served as an industrial complex and nowadays is a trendy spot in Beijing. It’s full of art galleries, selling everything from traditional paintings and photographs to hand-made contemporary objects. It is a place that combines the old and the new, and dictates the new Beijing fashion in China and in the world. I highly recommend a visit.
I wish I could go to other cities in China, but in one week I could only visit Beijing. Of course China has its problems, like any other country in the world, however, I try to absorb the positive side of every place that I visit. I wish I could go back and visit other cities in China so that I can experience the amazing millennial traditions just a little bit more. Xie Xie, Beijing!