An Eye for China

I’ve been traveling to China for, I’m shocked to admit, nearly 20 years. One of the first pictures I have of me in China was taken from the Bund in Shanghai, with my back to the Huangpu and, across the river, an expanse of rice paddies and run-down one-story buildings. I vaguely remember my friend telling me that the Shanghai government had just announced plans to develop a new economic zone in the area called Pudong. I was barely listening. In the aftermath of Tiananmen, a year and a half earlier, I more interested in politics than economics, and at any rate, on that dreary grey day, in that run-down city, I lacked the imagination to see what Shanghai would become.

I am further shocked to admit that I have been planning tours to China for nearly 16 years. This has enabled me to visit far-flung corners of the country, from Harbin in the far north to the border with Vietnam; from Qingdao on the Yellow Sea to Kashgar and the border with the Kyrgyz Republic. And yet, when people ask me where they should go when they visit China for the first (and quite possibly only) time, I always recommend Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and, if time and money permit, one other place. That’s perhaps a little out of character, because I love to travel off the beaten path myself. However, some of my own most indelible impressions of China come from some of the “must-sees,” but doing them a little differently from most.

I never tire of going to the Great Wall. Even though I’ve seen it probably a dozen times, I still am blown away every time I trace its twisting path over and between the mountains north of Beijing. I of course avoid the Badaling section, preferring Mutianyu or, better yet, Jinshanling or Simatai, and I leave very early in the morning so I have the place mostly to myself.

These days it’s almost impossible to visit the Forbidden City and not share it with thousands of others, many of whom are wearing identical hats and are following a bullhorn. Fortunately, most of those thousands are only interested in the admittedly extremely impressive halls in the center of the City. I love to wander through the sections off to the sides, exploring the smaller rooms and hidden alleys. I’ve even been fortunate enough, through the amazing connections of my friends and partners at Hubei Overseas Travel Corporation, to visit, on occasion, sections not open to the public, where some of the most exquisite gems are hidden.

In Xi’an, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the terra cotta army of the emperor Qin Shi Huang. These days, anyone can take pictures of the soldiers and horses, and for a fee, anyone can go down to the VIP level for a slightly closer look and slightly better angle. What trumps both, though, is actually getting down into the pits and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a 2200-year-old clay warrior. Again through the my friends at HOTC, I’ve had the opportunity to do that twice, and it remains one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in China.

In Shanghai, I love to visit the Shanghai Museum. In a city that is all about the future, the museum is a beautiful reminder of the thousands of years of exquisite artisanship that are otherwise obscured by the glass and steel and traffic and Maglev. And in the basement, closed off to the public, is a beautiful replica of a tea garden, with mood lighting that can be adjusted to simulate different times of day. It’s a peaceful place, in stark contrast to the hubbub above ground.

What I REALLY like about Shanghai, though, is the change. Shanghai is about growth, the future, transformation, possibility. Whenever I can, I go to the Bund and stand where I stood nearly 20 years ago and gaze over at the unimagined reality of what China has become.

Chris Roper
Program Manager

Academic Travel Abroad

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Dispatches from the East: Episode #3

The sun has finally made an appearance on our second full day in Beijing.  Our local guide Debra, led us on a exciting morning excursion to investigate and explore contemporary Beijing.  We began with a visit to the city’s Urban Planning Exhibition Center where we were able to see a great series of architectural models of all the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic venues. 

Olympics fever has overtaken Beijing and our Study Leader, Dr. Elvira Hammond tells us that it has been this way for quite some time.  There is a huge countdown clock in Tiananmen Square, as well as in several other places.  There are “official Olympics stores” throughout Beijing, where you can buy just about anything with the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics logo printed on it.

 The Urban Planning Exhibition Center provided great context for understanding the meticulous planning that has gone into the Olympics, as well as providing an incredible overview of the master plan for the city of Beijing. 

It is tremendously interactive and the architectural models of the city include many parts of greater Beijing, not only the iconic places like the Forbidden City, but also for significant buildings throughout the city, as well as those Olympic venues which will certainly have reached the iconic stage in the weeks building up to 08-08-08, when the Summer Olympic Games begin.

 From the Urban Planning Exhibition Center, we walked just a few short blocks over to Tiananmen Square.  The space, which we were told is the largest public square in the world, was teeming with people on this bright sunny winter day.  Many people were in a swiftly-moving long queue to get into Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, where they were able to see the Chairman’s remains in a crystal casket. Other groups, including ours, stood around the square taking pictures of the building, their companions, children, and colleagues. 

A festive energy seemed to flow all about.  After hearing Debra describe the various buildings surrounding the square, we all wandered off to make the best of our 15 minutes of independent exploration.  A few of us headed to the “front” of the square where we could get the best views of the Forbidden City building across the street, where the Chairman’s photo hangs in it’s place of honor.  We encountered a barricade, which someone explained was there to allow for preparations for the ceremony to be held the next day to welcome the Olympic Flame to China for it’s five month journey throughout the country prior to being placed in the Olympic caldron at the Opening Ceremonies.

 Following our visit to Tiananmen Square we headed off to lunch, and on the way to the restaurant, we were able to get very close to many of the new Olympic venues.  All in the final stages of completion before the games, there appears to be no worry about anything being completed in time, as there was in Athens in 2004.  “The Nest,” which is the nickname that has been given to the new Olympic Stadium is even more awe-inspiring when you’re up close than it is in any of the photos that you might have scene in the press. 

We passed the “Water Cube,” which will be the home of the majority of the swimming and diving events, as well as the Olympic Village where the athletes will live, the hotel being devoted entirely to visiting press, the media center, and the venue which will host one of the favorite sports of any summer games — gymnastics.

 The afternoon found us joining “The Sistas,” for a lively tour of Factory 798 in the Dashanzi neighborhood, which is the home of Beijing’s ever-growing contemporary arts district.  The Sistas, are Megan and K.C. Connolly, two American young women who have lived in Beijing for sometime and who have developed quite a business of helping visitors navigate this amazing part of Beijing and they took us on a great tour of the most important hot beds of avant garde art, which included a wonderful visit to several artist’s studios and galleries.

Larry Guillemette

Director of Business Development