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All-important China

Andrea Gross | May 3, 2012, 2:58 p.m.

I’m reading the newspaper when I realize that there are almost as many articles about Beijing as there are about Washington, D.C. That’s when it hits me. If one of the main purposes — and pleasures — of travel is education, then I have to go to China. I need to learn more about the country whose actions will affect the way I live and, more importantly, the way my children will live.

A friend recommends China Spree, a company that offers 12-day tours to Beijing and Shanghai that include airfare from San Francisco; all meals, admissions and transportation within China; guide service; and very nice hotels. I do the math. I can visit China for not a lot more than I’d have to pay for an all-inclusive, two-week vacation in California. I take a deep breath and sign on the dotted line.

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Beijing’s streets are a mix of old and new.

In Beijing our guide leads our small group to the must-sees: Tiananmen Square, where Mao proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949; the Forbidden City, which was home to 24 emperors; and of course, the Great Wall, which was designed to protect the country against foreign invaders.

To learn about more current endeavors, we visit a jade factory, a silk factory, tea plantation and herbal medicine museum.

But my favorite moments occur when we mingle with ordinary folks, like the 76-year-old woman who hosts us for lunch. She shows us her home, which is in a hutong, one of Beijing’s fast-disappearing old neighborhoods.

The next day we visit a park where we see seniors doing tai-chi, dancing, fencing and matchmaking. Their children, explains our guide, work such long hours that they don’t have time to search for a spouse. Therefore, the parents must help. They make big signs proclaiming their child’s attributes and network with other parents. If the seniors spot a potential match, they arrange a date for their children. It’s a low-tech eHarmony.

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Shanghai’s Nanjing Road attracts a humongous number of shoppers, especially during weekends and holidays.

My husband and I deliberately chose an itinerary that included two free days for personal exploration. In Beijing we go to the Art District, where world-class galleries occupy Communist-era factory buildings. One heart-stopping exhibition focuses on prostitution; another has a disturbing display of soldiers toting machine guns camouflaged by flowers. There’s no suppression of thoughts here.

In Shanghai, the energy is palpable. We walk along the riverfront, through a shopping thoroughfare and over to a public park that has carnival-style rides. After visiting a market, we go to an acrobatic show. Our days are packed.

During our free day, we explore two contrasting neighborhoods: a working-class area filled with small, slightly grubby shops and the French Concession, which has upscale boutiques and trendy restaurants.

Our guides are remarkably forthcoming. They criticize their government but at the same time make clear that they admire it. They say that a U.S.-style democracy could never work in China because there are too many people.

They speak to us about China’s one-child policy, religion, education, medical care, the lack of a social safety net and, most of all, how hard they have to work in order to survive. “We work much harder than people in America,” says Chang, whose name has been changed for this piece.

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